Pandemic struggles still afflict Social Security, a last lifeline for many
The Washington Post October 7, 2022
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Six months after reopening its field offices to the public, the Social Security Administration is struggling to restore basic customer services and is assisting millions fewer of the poor, elderly and disabled people who sought its help before the coronavirus pandemic, federal data shows.
Even as prolonged office closures caused applications for disability benefits to plunge, the sluggish response now of the agency meant to assist the country’s most at-risk citizens has led to delays in processing claims for those who manage to file them, and exhausting waits outside government offices around the country for those trying to. Nearly 20% of field offices have had 40 or more customers in line on multiple days when the doors opened, according to data Social Security recently provided to Congress.
The long queues have raised tempers and safety concerns. One person fainted in line outside the office in Laredo, Tex. Others in Florida slept outside overnight to secure a spot for the next morning. Social Security’s remedy is to push customers to get help by phone or online, but fast service using those options, for many, is proving just as elusive.
From April, when the 1,230 local offices began to reopen, through mid-August, the number of people helped by Social Security staff members had dropped by 46% from the 43 million visitors served annually before the coronavirus struck, according to data Social Security officials shared with national disability advocates. Visits have edged up in recent weeks but remain well below pre-pandemic levels, according to internal agency data and congressional offices.
Those seeking disability benefits are far more dependent on in-person visits than retirees and others needing service from Social Security, as they often lack phones or access to the internet and must turn over original birth certificates, driver’s licenses and other documents. The extreme measures required from them have deepened questions about the capacity of a major federal department that serves as the last lifeline for many Americans.
Acknowledging “delays in service and long waits for disability decisions,” Social Security officials took the unusual step last month of pleading with Congress for an extra $800 million as lawmakers negotiated a temporary budget for the new fiscal year. Congress last week approved about $90 million in the temporary spending package that expires Dec. 16.
Social Security officials have blamed the stumbles on a staffing crisis and inadequate budgets. But there are many causes, according to lawmakers, current and former Social Security officials and advocates for the disabled: the power of the agency’s labor unions, a hesitance to make temporary pandemic workarounds permanent and an absence of permanent leadership.
“They have always been slow,” said Jeff Larsen, a Houston-based attorney with Lone Star Legal Aid who specializes in the disability system. “But it’s much slower now. There’s more friction in the system.”
At 6 a.m. one Thursday this summer, a line already was waiting outside the doors of a tan brick building off Interstate 69 in Houston that houses the local Social Security office, 12 miles northeast of a downtown skyline built by oil and gas riches. The merciless sun bore down on women shielding themselves with umbrellas. Sweating men in shorts and baseball caps held their vital documents in plastic bags. The only place to sit was a pipe railing that ran the length of the front wall.
Freddie Myers, 80, had come by bus and leaned on his cane as he took his place in the queue, desperate for Social Security to restore a monthly $440 disability check someone in his rooming house had stolen.
Teresa Bernetic, 65 and disabled after a fall, had come in hope of finding out why Social Security had not processed an appeal of her application for benefits, turned down in 2020 and then lost in the chaos of unopened mail and handoffs from claims representatives during the pandemic. “Every time we got someone on the phone, it was a different answer,” said her husband, Tom.
At 7:55 a.m., a security guard came out and placed a sign in front of the door with a message in English and Spanish. Today’s estimated wait time would be two hours, it said. It was already 96 degrees.
The line swelled with need accumulated over the 2½ years since Social Security shuttered the building on Aldine Mail Route Road and its entire network of field offices at the start of the pandemic in 2020, sending employees home to telework.
About 15 million Americans received disability benefits before the pandemic, through the federal government’s two disability programs — one for disabled people with work histories or a separate program known as Supplemental Security Income for poor, aging or disabled people who have not been able to work. The maximum SSI benefit for individuals is $10,092 a year, about three-quarters of the federal poverty level.
Since the field offices began to reopen in April, their staffs have helped millions of Americans with retirement decisions, enrolled them in Medicare, distributed Social Security cards to new immigrants and processed replacement cards.
Yet the current falloff in visitors to field offices is only partially explained by a shift to the internet and phone service that the agency has encouraged.
Both the decline in claims since the pandemic and the lines of needy Americans reflect that some Social Security offices are now operating at a fraction of their former strength. The April reopenings were only lightly publicized because Social Security leaders feared large crowds, according to congressional staffers, former officials and advocates informed of the reasoning. Of the 27,000 employees serving the public, 45% continue to work from home on a given weekday. Service is limited partially or fully to appointments, a challenge for people with mental illnesses and other conditions.
From April through August, a period that featured record heat across the nation, more than 40 people waited outside of field offices on at least 90 of 102 days in offices in Houston, El Paso, the Dallas-Fort Worth area, Pasadena and Austin in Texas; Las Vegas and Henderson in Nevada; the Twin Cities; Gwinnett, Ga.; and Orlando and four other cities in Florida, according to data Social Security provided to the House Ways and Means Committee.
Social Security spokesman Mark Hinkle wrote in an email that the agency has “not yet determined the ideal telework levels” for its staff during an evaluation period that ended Sept. 30. But acting commissioner Kilolo Kijakazi told employees in a recent email that their telework schedules would continue through “at least” March 31 of next year.
The alternatives pushed by the agency have provided little relief. During the first week in September, 21% of disabled claimants waited 29 to 45 days for a phone appointment and another 24% more than 45 days, according to internal data obtained by The Washington Post. Phone service, after hitting bottom earlier this year when the agency rolled out a new system to modernize its aging communications, is still troubled by extensive waits on hold that often end up in dropped calls. From April to July, wait times for all claimants to speak with an agent, the only statistic available, averaged 33 minutes, up from 20 minutes in fiscal year 2019, the data shows. And field office staff members answered just 66% of calls from the start of the fiscal year through August, down from 76% in fiscal 2019.
Social Security has stopped publishing local field office phone numbers on its website, and most phone calls from the public are routed to toll-free numbers instead of local offices, where staff members have access to more information about individual claims. Hinkle wrote in his email that making the local number public was a pandemic-era policy that stopped “because employees are back to serving people in person in the office,” adding that telephone service has stabilized.
As for online services, more than 4 million people overall have used the website for services this fiscal year, up from 3.5 million before the pandemic, the agency said — but a far lower number than were previously helped in person. The 23-page application form for Supplemental Security Income cannot even be filled out online.
“Disabled people are older people,” said Gerard Lynch, another Houston attorney who represents Social Security disability claimants. “To tell them to do everything online? They can’t do anything online. It’s absurd.”
While the offices were closed, the number of SSI awards fell 27% in 2021 on top of dropping 18% in 2020, agency data shows, with awards to workers who became disabled falling 15% last year atop an 11% drop in 2020. A modest number have filed new disability applications since the offices reopened, according to internal agency data and outside research.
But state and local staffs who determine whether someone applying for benefits for the first time is eligible have fallen precipitously behind, with a backlog exceeding 1 million and a wait of as long as eight months for a verdict, double the time before the pandemic. Even when someone is approved it can take months for Social Security’s main payment center to begin issuing checks, disability lawyers, advocates and union officials say.
The turmoil is prompting pointed questions from members of Congress, whose staffs are fielding calls from angry constituents.
In July, Senate Finance Committee Chairman Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) wrote to Kijakazi insisting that she launch a national campaign to spur applications from low-income families with hundreds of thousands of disabled children who are eligible for benefits. Hinkle wrote that Social Security officials have expanded their social media presence to increase awareness and “conduct extensive outreach for people who face barriers accessing our services.”
In August, House Ways and Means leaders warned her in a rare bipartisan letter that COVID-19 restrictions in field offices were putting visitors’ health at risk.
“[I]n some locations people have been standing outside in the heat for hours at a time, without the guarantee of getting their needs met,” wrote Chairman Richard E. Neal (D-Mass.) and the committee’s top Republican, Rep. Kevin Brady (Texas).
Kijakazi, through a spokesman, declined to be interviewed. Hinkle wrote in his email that the agency was “using various strategies to reduce in-person wait times, particularly in our busiest offices.” These strategies include recruiting retirees to assist offices, assigning work to less busy locations and “triaging” customers to make phone appointments, he wrote. Telework also has been suspended for some employees to increase in-person service, he wrote, offering no specifics. Angela Digeronimo, regional vice president for Local 220 of the American Federation of Government Employees, called suspended telework a “very, very infrequent occurrence.”
Hinkle wrote that local offices are adding outdoor canopies and fans “where possible,” reconfiguring waiting areas to allow more people inside offices, and providing access to bathrooms and water fountains in response to lawmakers’ concerns.
Following a December report in The Post on the effects of the long office closures, Social Security leaders scrambled to negotiate terms with their unions for a return to the office.
Yet as Kijakazi made mending labor relations a priority following hostile relations under her predecessor, Trump administration appointee Andrew Saul, unions clawed back the right to two days of telework a week for field office staffers and four days of work from home for employees answering phones.
“We recognize we are a front-facing agency,” said Digeronimo, the official with the AFGE local, which represents 43,000 Social Security employees, “but do we all need to be in the office five days a week? Not really.”
The field offices are also confronting staff departures and struggling to attract and keep new hires. The agency lost close to 4,000 employees during the pandemic, Hinkle wrote, a 7% drop, about three-quarters of them from local field offices, teleservice phone centers and processing centers. New hires are coming, but Hinkle stressed that years of declining budgets and staff are affecting service. In his Sept. 8 letter asking Congress for more funding, Jeff Nesbit, the agency’s deputy director for communications, cited “disastrous” repercussions without it.
One in 8 new hires quit during the public health crisis, officials said, a particularly hard blow because it takes entry-level claims representatives up to three years to become proficient in the complex disability benefits system. Pay for the positions starts at $31,000.
“They’re not rushing in the door for these jobs anymore,” said Rich Couture, another AFGE official.
Advocates say open and fully staffed field offices are necessary given the document-heavy, labor-intensive process of seeing a disability claim through the system.
“Fully reopening and staffing field offices may involve challenges, but it is immediately and urgently necessary,” said David Camp, a Social Security disability attorney in St. Louis who is president of the National Organization of Social Security Claimants’ Representatives. “A failure to do so is a question of leadership.”
Kijakazi, named acting commissioner by President Biden 15 months ago, was plucked from a role as Social Security’s deputy commissioner for retirement and disability policy into one managing an organization of 56,000 employees. Biden has not named a deputy commissioner or nominated a permanent leader. On Sept. 27, 15 Senate Democrats and Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) urged Biden in a letter to nominate officials to both positions, citing poor morale among the workforce and a need for “accountable leadership” that would “reassure the public of SSA’s commitment to supporting the vulnerable populations that rely on its programs.”
Advocates and agency staffers say the pandemic underscored outdated ways of doing business that need to change, from cumbersome computer programming language that dates to the 1960s to advocates’ inability to show the agency they are representing disabled claimants with the use of electronic signatures.
But it was communication problems that were on most everyone’s mind in Houston, where many people had showed up at the Aldine Mail Route Road office after no one had called them back, or they had waited on interminable holds on the phone.
By midmorning, a security guard was letting five people inside at a time through a door with a sign that read, “Please consider visiting us online at socialsecurity.gov.” Inside were 14 chairs and a capacity limit of 35 to allow for social distancing.
Waiting outside were homeless people, men who had just gotten out of prison, women who spoke only Spanish, people in wheelchairs or using walkers and canes, people needing documentation of their benefits to get subsidized housing, retired teachers with questions they did not have financial advisers to answer. There were people whose disability applications had withered during the pandemic and a few filling out new ones as they stood in line. Some said they only knew the five Houston offices were back open after they saw local news reports about extensive waits.
By 3 p.m., it was 99 degrees.
Vanessa Ford, 61, was waiting in the heat to make sure the staff inside had an up-to-date telephone number to call for a phone appointment she had scheduled for the end of the month. Her husband had died, and she was trying to increase her monthly disability benefit. “The one they have is an old number,” she said. “I’m just so nervous they’re going to call the wrong one.”
Deborah Botany, 59, sat on the pipe railing as she waited to contest Social Security’s claim that said she had been overpaid by $2,000 in disability payments after two back surgeries. “I’ve been trying to talk to them, talk to them, talk to them again,” she said in exasperation.
Inside, half of the customer service windows were shuttered. “K173 to window 25!” came the call at 2:25 p.m. on loudspeakers set up outside. That was Tatianna Babineaux, a mother of five holding her newborn boy. She had worked through the pandemic as a medical assistant and was now separated from her husband. She had put her birth certificate and other vital documents in the office’s drop box months ago, when the office was still closed, to change her Social Security card back to her maiden name so she could apply for subsidized housing. Babineaux had received neither a new card nor her documents by mail, she said. The claims representative she saw insisted they had been sent earlier, and Babineaux was furious.
“I’m like, ‘Do you think I would be up here with a 10-day-old baby if you had sent me this information?’” she said after emerging from the office with no answers. “Do these people even want to answer to the public?”
The Houston offices, including the Aldine facility, plan to hire new employees, according to Hinkle. He said the office has been recently reconfigured to let more people inside.
“We are continuing to consider changes to our policies and processes,” he wrote in his email. “Improving customer service and employee morale go hand in hand and remain the priority.”