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Reopening US Social Security Offices Brings Opportunities – And Some Challenges

Reuters

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The Social Security Administration has announced plans to reopen its extensive national network of field offices to the public in January after a 20-month COVID-19 shutdown. The reopening gives the agency the necessary opportunity to improve public services, but also poses some thorny challenges.

The pandemic forced the agency to shut down its network of more than 1,200 field offices last March, which provide assistance with pension and Medicare claims. The offices also assist in applying for Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI) and Supplemental Security Income (SSI), the benefit program for low-income, disabled, or elderly people. In 2019, the offices had 43 million visitors, but since the start of the pandemic, almost all public services have been available only online, by phone and by mail.

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Earlier this month, the agency announced tentative plans for employees to return to their office posts on January 3, 2022, with managers starting work in December. The agency will also continue to allow telecommuting to varying degrees for different jobs.

Social Security describes the phased return as an “evaluation period,” and Mark Hinkle, press officer, said via email that some aspects of the shift have yet to be determined in negotiations with unions representing the temporary workforce – including the reopening date. The agency will also “phase in” its plans to allow walk-in services at the offices starting in January, he said. Currently in-office personal service is available by appointment only and for limited, critical issues only.

Processing of Social Security retirement benefits and Medicare claims has not been affected during the office’s shutdown, agency data shows. But in 2020, there was a sharp decline in benefits for SSI (-18%) and disability insurance (–10%).

“The most serious problems are related to the fall in prices for the most vulnerable people,” said David Weaver, a former associate commissioner at the Office of Research, Demonstration and Employment Support of Social Security. “They are people who may be less able to get information from the Internet, or have easy access to information on how to contact the agency. And people seeking SSI and disabilities may have severe mental disabilities or be homeless.”

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If benefits for SSI and SSDI were to remain at pre-pandemic levels, Weaver’s calculations estimate that 5.5 million more people would receive benefits under these two programs. (https://bit.ly/3CcX49v)

BUDGET, LEADERSHIP CHALLENGES

Re-opening the network of field offices presents an opportunity to address the inequalities, but also some tough challenges as the office works to keep workers and the public safe as the pandemic continues.

The American Federation of Government Employees, which represents 43,000 employees working in a wide variety of agency positions, is generally in favor of reopening. But it is trying to negotiate details of the reopening plan with the agency regarding COVID-19 safety.

“We are concerned that the plan is vague and full of loopholes,” said Rich Couture, chairman of the AFGE council that represents hearings and appeals offices and spokesperson for a committee made up of six AFGE negotiating councils. “It doesn’t specify what the plan will be for occupancy, or how we’ll make sure waiting rooms aren’t overloaded.”

Social Security notes that it follows the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and government-wide guidelines for occupation and physical distancing. “Our offices will use signage, seating arrangements, floor markings and Plexiglas barriers to assist with distance and occupancy requirements,” Hinkle said. The agency also monitors the November 22 deadline for all federal workers to be vaccinated, and collects vaccination information from employees.

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The vaccine mandate is another issue for some AFGE members, Couture noted. “We have some who are very vocally against, some who are vocally supportive and others who are silent,” he said. “Our position was to encourage people to get vaccinated, based on the science, but we want to negotiate all aspects of the mandate and we’ve asked for more flexibility.”

Social Security is also awaiting a decision by the US Congress to meet the funding needs to serve the public. Congress cut the agency’s budget by 13% in inflation-adjusted terms from 2010 to 2021 — a period when the number of Social Security beneficiaries grew by 22%. The Biden administration has requested a 10% increase for the coming fiscal year — slightly less than the agency says it needs to avoid growing backlogs of disability claims, longer wait times for other benefit claimants and also on the toll-free number. .

Another problem is the lack of a confirmed leader for the Social Security Administration. Andrew Saul, the commissioner appointed by former President Donald Trump, was forced out by the Biden administration in July after a tenure that was marked by contentious relations with workers at the agency. Since then, the agency has been headed by an acting commissioner, Kilolo Kijakazi, a Biden appointee who has served as deputy commissioner for pension and disability policy.

The Biden administration has yet to appoint a permanent commissioner, who must be confirmed by the US Senate.

“It’s important that the Biden administration nominate a commissioner and the Senate confirm the candidate,” Weaver said. “That will provide SSA with stable leadership in a challenging operational and budget environment.”

If you need to do business with Social Security during this transition, the agency recommends that you use the website https://www.ssa.gov whenever possible or call the national toll-free number 1-800-772-1213 (1-800 -772-1213) as a starting point for getting help.

(Writing by Mark Miller in Chicago Editing by Matthew Lewis)

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