After more than two years of being largely shuttered to the public with minimal and very restricted in-person appointments, Social Security Administration (SSA) offices finally reopened to the public on a walk-in basis on April 7, 2022. In our last newsletter, we had reported that SSA had, after some delay with its prior schedule for reopening, finally reached agreements with the unions regarding terms for reopening for in-person service for early April. The resumption of in-person operations could be described as a “soft opening” without extensive publicizing of the specific date. The date of the actual opening was announced by SSA the prior business day, on April 4, 2022.
SSA is still strongly encouraging the public to conduct as much business as possible online or by telephone rather than at the local field offices. The agency is warning the public that wait times without an appointment can be long. It notes that it is most busy in the morning, and at the beginning of the week and the beginning of the month.
Given the pent-up demand for services, there has been concern about the ability of SSA to manage the flow of in-person visitors. The offices reopened for a full range of services and the normal hours and SSA has hired retired staff to return on a temporary basis to provide assistance in triaging the crowds at the field offices. NOSSCR and others are gathering feedback on how the reopening is unfolding.
For the hearing offices, SSA’s reopening has led to an expansion of in-person hearings. Until this month, in-person hearings were only scheduled and held with management-level administrative law judges (ALJs). Hearings are now being scheduled with line ALJs. SSA will be continuing its practice of asking claimants to complete a screening process prior to coming to the hearing office but the agency has stated that it will not turn away individuals who have not completed the form in advance.
Advocates should be aware and remind clients of masking and social distance requirements. There may be restrictions on how early one can arrive in advance of a hearing. Arrangements to see exhibit files must be made in advance, and the agency may no longer make available conference room to confer with clients or to review files. Only claimants and representatives may enter the hearing rooms and others will be restricted.
SSA has also issued a Chief Judge Bulletin extending some of the policy changes made with respect to handling dismissals during COVID. See page 8 for more information about those developments.
Complicating the reopening was that it occurred on the heels of a precipitous and chaotic deterioration in telephone service. Telephone access has been a long-standing challenge at SSA, but in February, advocates and claimants reported a dramatic exacerbation in technical problems reaching SSA by telephone at all levels as new telephone vendor and system updates took place. SSA’s website acknowledges the problem. SSA has reported that outdated phone systems had been in place for more than a decade and that the equipment is now failing. In addition, SSA had to institute workarounds to operate remotely during the pandemic.
As described in our last newsletter, SSA is in the process of transitioning to a modernized telecommunications platform that will unify the three legacy telephone systems (1-800 number, field offices, and headquarters). The 1-800 number is the first to be updated, in FY 2023. While there can be some improvement during less busy times, such as in the summer, the current schedule for upgrading the technology suggests that system can be expected to remain unreliable for many months in the future.
To further compound the difficulty contacting the local field offices in particular, SSA reversed its COVID-era policy of publicizing many local field office phone numbers and replaced them with the 1-800 number on the Office Locator page of its website. The change was effective with the April 7th reopening. According to SSA, the current online phone listings are consistent with OBRA 1990 (the law requires SSA to post local field office numbers under some but not all circumstances). The agency has said the policy is necessary to best serve the public because of the diminished capacity to handle phone calls now that field offices are open for walk-in traffic.
Although the switch prompted outrage from advocates, SSA is continuing its practice. The numbers are still listed in the “SSA Field Offices” dataset available here. Advocates are encouraged to maintain their own lists of local contact information, as was necessary to do pre-COVID.
The Regional Communications Directors remain an important for recourse for problems accessing the local field offices. In New York, Regional Communications Director Everett Lo and his staff can be reached at NY.RPA@ssa.gov. Individual Public Affairs Specialist for specific regions are as follows:
Advocates are also encouraged to register for and utilize secure email partnerships with SSA to communicate with SSA by email. Jenna Karr at Empire Justice is available to aid DAP organizations with that process.