Social Security Administration (SSA) offices have been generally closed to in-person services since March 2020 because of the COVID-19 pandemic, with no walk-in service at all and an extremely limited number of field office appointments available based on dire need. Hearings have been held either by telephone or via Teams. After some indication of a January-based reopening of offices to the public that was retracted in December, it looks like SSA is finally moving towards “reentry.”
On January 20, 2022, Acting Commissioner Kilolo Kijakazi announced the agency has reached agreement with its three labor unions on a reentry plan. The following day, the Acting Commissioner provided a few more specifics. According to a January 21st announcement, SSA is planning reentry and implementation of telework schedules for most employees on March 30, 2022. Local offices will restore increased walk-in service in early April, although the public will still be encouraged to conduct most business on-line and schedule appointments. Limited in-person hearings with management judges will begin in March with plans to expand in the spring and early summer.
A report in the Federal New Network offers more details. According to the report, the agency’s reentry plan, released at the beginning of November 2021 as a “pre-decisional” document, was complicated by the spread of the omicron variant of COVID-19. But the American Federation of Government Employees (AFGE) has now reached an agreement with SSA. Under a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU), 45,000 employees would begin returning to the office on March 30, 2022. This date is subject to changes in pandemic conditions. According to Rich Couture, chief negotiator for the AFGE, the MOU is the first step to be followed by a series of reentry meetings. Continued telework options remain a critical part of the negotiations. The policies remain unclear and allowable telework days may vary by component.
Meanwhile, the Association of Administrative Law Judges announced on January 17, 2022, that it had reached a memorandum of understanding (MOU) with SSA dated January 14, 2022, providing for the return of all ALJs to the Office of Hearings and Appeals (OHO) worksites by June 3, 2022, with the ability to continue working remotely up to four days per week. ALJs can return on a voluntary basis by May 4, 2022. The exact dates are contingent on the provision of notice as well as with negotiations with other unions. As with the field offices, it is hard to discern exactly what level of access claimants can expect. SSA had previously announced that management level ALJs would begin in-person hearings in a limited number of cases.
In addition, the National Treasury Employees Union, which represents employees in OHO, has also negotiated an agreement that increases telework opportunities, extends scheduling flexibility, and ensures safety. It is not yet clear, however, when that reentry process will begin.
In conjunction with the resumption of in-person hearings, the agency also announced a new screening procedure to be completed within 24 hours of a scheduled hearing time. Claimants are to complete a COVID-19 screening questionnaire online or by phone. The screening process was set forth on December 3, 2021, via an “Emergency Request” for approval from Office of Management and Budget (OMB), 86 Fed. Reg. 68717. Advocates raised a variety of concerns via public comments, but NOSSCR reported that by the time it had filed its comments on December 10, 2021, OMB had already given its clearance to the package submitted by SSA. Other commentors so far include Empire Justice Center, Community Legal Services of Philadelphia, Disability Law Center in Boston, and Legal Aid Society of Columbus.
Many of the comments do not necessarily urge changes to the survey but instead caution against overreliance without follow-up to ensure that a person is not screened out unnecessarily. SSA is also urged to provide claimants recourse and alternative methods of screening if they have difficulty or barriers completing the survey within the 24-hour timeframe.
Claimants and their advocates have been outraged at the lack of adequate access to its services, particularly for those with little or no income, with a disproportionate impact on Black and brown communities and claimants for Supplemental Security Income (SSI). Calls for the agency to increase access and address the service failures have been growing. On January 5, 2022, Republican member of Congress John Katko called on SSA for a timeline for reopening and for a plan to safely expand access. He was joined by Democrat Kathleen Rice, also from Central New York. On December 8, 2021, a group of 15 Senate Republicans sent a letter to SSA urging its reopening and noting its negative impact on rural claimants. That letter had cited an OIG report from July 2021 finding a troubling backlog of unopened paper mail. The OIG report was summarized in the October 2021 edition of this newsletter.
The U.S. Senate had previously held a hearing in April 2021 and discussed some of the service failures and harm to beneficiaries. Media outlets are also continuing to cover the negative impact of closures, particularly at the field office level where it remains extremely difficult to reach the office for an appointment necessary to conduct in-person transactions.
Stay tuned as details for reentry plans develop.