Effective March 17, 2020, the Social Security Administration closed all of its offices to the Public.
Like many businesses in the United States and around the world, effective March 17th, the Social Security Administration (SSA) closed to the public its 1230 field offices around the country and its 165 sites where Administrative Law Judges’ hearings are held. They were then faced with the daunting task of getting roughly 60,000 employees set up to work from home. This included not only field office and payment center employees, but also Disability Determination Services (State employees who make the medical decision for Social Security disability applicants at the initial and reconsideration levels), and the hearing office employees.
The good news is that roughly 12,000 SSA employees had experience with working remotely. In a rather ironic twist of fate, Commissioner Andrew Saul rescinded telework for all SSA employees beginning in November 2019 and all were back in their offices effective March 1st, 2020. A mere two weeks later the Administration was faced with setting up all employees with the ability to work from home. From our perspective it appears that the transition has gone relatively well and SSA is still processing claims and is even showing signs of increased productivity. The 800 number is experiencing significant wait times, but the local field offices have opened more phone lines to their staff allowing for quicker and better services than under normal circumstances. Field office employees have increased their response rate to claimants to 95% compared to 70% when they worked in the office, and their backlog of pending cases has been reduced by 11%. Under normal conditions, field office employees are interviewing claimants all day handling walk in traffic and scheduled appointments, leaving little time to process the work, but now that their days have only scheduled telephone appointments they have more time to process claims and respond to telephone calls.
SSA is still taking applications telephonically and through online filing. Disability Determination Services, (DDS), was slower to get all of their employees functional from home, but now we estimate upwards of 95% of DDS offices are open and are making medical determinations at the initial and reconsideration levels. However, there are a few workloads that SSA has currently suspended, the following was taken from https://www.ssa.gov/coronavirus/
- We will not start or complete any current medical continuing disability reviews.
- If you have a medical continuing disability review pending, please do not request medical information from your doctors at this time. We will follow up with you for any medical evidence once the COVID-19 pandemic subsides.
- If you are waiting for a hearing on your continuing disability review decision and you continue to receive benefit payments, we will schedule your hearing once our offices reopen to the public. Note: If you are waiting for a hearing on your continuing disability review decision but you are not currently receiving benefits, we will proceed with your hearing.
- We will not conduct any non-disability hearings.
- Where possible, we are suspending our processing and collection of overpayments.
- We are not conducting organization or individual representative payee accountings.
- We will not be able to process a third-party request for information, except from appointed representatives and representative payees.
- We will not process any Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests.
The hearing level is where we have seen the biggest change for claimants and representatives. Hearings have always been predominantly done in person, but given that many Administrative Law judges are over age 65 and all hearings involve a disabled individual, this group is comprised of the most at-risk segment of the population and therefore it is imperative to allow hearings to be done telephonically. The transition with this group took the longest, and we saw roughly 50% of our hearings initially postponed, but it has significantly improved as the judges have become more facile with the telephonic process. All claimants still have the option to opt out of the telephone hearing and wait for an in-person hearing, but this will likely cause a significant delay. At this point SSA is saying telephonic hearings will continue through August 2020, but our opinion is that it is likely telephonic hearings will last much longer than this date. One positive trend we have noticed is an increase in the number of on the record hearing awards. On the record decisions are when the attorney submits a brief presenting the case to the judge seeking a fully favorable decision without the need for a hearing. If the on the record brief is not awarded the telephonic hearing continues as scheduled.
The one area of great concern for SSA is going to become evident next year when the trustees report is issued regarding the solvency of the Social Security program. Social Security is a pay as you go system, where the employees that are working today are paying for those that are receiving today. 88% of Social Security is funded by FICA payroll taxes and with currently 33 million people out of work and therefore not paying into Social Security the trust funds are being significantly impacted. It has been estimated that if payroll tax revenue is decreased by just 12% from March 2020 through the end of the year this would be a loss of 100 billion dollars to the trust fund. On April 22nd, 2020, the Trustees report stated that the combined trust funds would be solvent until 2035 at which time only 79% of scheduled benefits could be paid. When this was published the impact of the current economy and the likelihood of an increase in disability applications had not been factored into this outcome. We can expect next year that the 2035 date is likely to move up significantly forcing politicians to address what is commonly referred to as the third rail of politics. A task no politician has ever wanted to touch.
In summary, the good news is SSA is still processing and paying claims. In addition, we have seen improvement in responsiveness and productivity at the field office level. While we do expect there to be some impact to our decision volumes based on the ramp up period to get all levels of SSA effectively working from home, overall, the transition and ongoing operations are working well. The current environment is still very fluid, and we expect the situation to continue to evolve and change, but as of right now SSA is continuing to operate effectively.