After nearly two years of Social Security field offices being closed for all but “dire needs,” the Social Security Administration indicated Thursday that there is progress toward re-opening. Acting SSA Commissioner Kilolo Kijakazi announced in a press release that the agency and its three main labor unions have reached agreement on a re-opening plan. The news site Government Executive reported that the target re-opening date is March, 30, “although that date can be postponed if there is another spike in COVID-19 cases.”
“I’m happy with this agreement because it’s going to save lives, and that’s not an exaggeration… We’ve seen how pervasive the Omicron and Delta variants have been in this country, particularly in recent weeks, and pushing out the reentry date to the end of March gives everybody the opportunity to wait out the wave, which will hopefully subside, and plan accordingly.” – Rich Couture, President of AFGE Council 215
The re-opening plan includes an agreement with the Association of Administrative Law Judges (AALJ) to restore in-person Social Security disability hearings, which have been mostly virtual since the beginning of the pandemic. As Federal News Network reports, the agreement sets up a “hybrid model of in-person and virtual hearings… as a promising model for the future of work.”
AALJ President Som Ramrup praised the agreement as a win for disability claimants.
“AALJ (judges are) really focused on providing due process to the claimants that appear before us. Part of that process is the method of the hearing, and to the extent that certain individuals and claimants are uncomfortable with video or telephone, we’re going to give them the opportunity to do it in-person.” AALJ President Som Ramrup, 1/20/22
The National Committee to Preserve Social Security and Medicare has advocated for the resumption of in-person hearings and the re-opening of field offices, so long as it could be done safely for seniors and other beneficiaries. “It’s a good thing that SSA has begun the arduous task of reopening its network of field offices to Americans who depend on the in-person services they offer,” says NCPSSM Senior Policy Analyst Webster Phillips.
SSA field offices have been largely closed since March, 2020, forcing most seniors and people with disabilities to obtain customer service virtually – via the internet, telephone, and video conferencing. This has been a burden for beneficiaries who lack internet access or adequate technical skills to navigate virtual services.
“Applying for disability benefits in particular can be a very cumbersome process, especially virtually,” says NCPSSM Senior Policy Analyst Maria Freese, along with applying for a Social Security number, change of name, and other services. “These things require a lot of documentation. During the pandemic, people have had to mail-in original documents, and SSA might keep them for a really long time because of service backlogs. You could get stuck for months without your driver’s license or other personal documents, waiting for SSA to return them.”
Acting SSA Commissioner Kilolo Kijakazi
With the details of field office re-openings still pending, SSA Commissioner Kajakazi urges claimants and beneficiaries to continue using the agency’s virtual resources.
“For now, you should continue to reach us online at www.socialsecurity.gov or by calling our National 800 Number or your local office. We will let you know when we are able to restore additional services,” Kajakazi says.