SSA Releases Rules for Disaster Relief but No Reopening Plan

Michelle Michelle July 31, 2021

Social Security Administration (SSA) operations remain almost entirely remote currently but plans for reopening remain pending.  The White House directed all agencies to submit their return-to-work plans to the Office of Management and Budget by July 19, 2021. On July 21, 2021, Acting Commissioner Kololo Kijikazi announced that SSA had been granted additional time to formulate its plan.  In the meantime, the agency added new procedures for field office (FO) appointments and instructions for an expanded consideration of COVID-related financial assistance that is to be counted as disaster relief and excluded when counting income and resource rules for Supplemental Security Income (SSI).


COVID-Related Disaster Relief Expanded


On July 23, 2021, SSA issued long-awaited instructions to its staff on how to process COVID-related financial assistance in SSI claims.  The new policy significantly expands the category of what had been considered disaster relief that is to be excluded when counting income and resources.  See EM-21050:  Special Processing Instructions for Applying Supplemental Security Income (SSI) Income and Resource Exclusions to Pandemic-related Disaster Assistance and EM-20014 REV 3:  Effect of COVID-19-Related Financial Assistance on SSI Income and Resources.


After advocates criticized the agency’s marking as sensitive and unavailable several recent emergency messages (EMs), SSA released some of them as publicly available at Emergency Messages.  Among them were EM-20014 SEN REV 2 (effective 04/19/2021), SSA’s primary EM focusing on SSI income and resources during the pandemic.  A prior version of EM-20014 SEN REV (effective 07/10/2020) is also available.


Under these initial revisions to EM-20014, SSA considered financial assistance beyond just Economic Impact Payments (also known as “stimulus” payments under the CARES Act).  The EM discusses relief such as the different types of unemployment benefits that are considered disaster related.  The processing of these types of payments was put on hold while SSA was “deliberating how best to adhere to [its] policies and, at the same time, recognize the financial hardships of the public we serve.  This revision provides information on the hold of unemployment compensation cases and certain aspects of [EIPs].”


Advocates had reported several complicated issues related to how SSA identified benefits considered disaster relief.  COVID-related benefits cannot always be distinguished or disentangled from, for instance, “ordinary” state unemployment benefits. At a Senate Finance Committee hearing held on April 29, 2021, on SSA field office operations during COVID, Senator Bob Menendez told SSA’s Deputy Commissioner for Operations Grace Kim that Congress did not intend for unemployment or EIPs to result in SSI terminations. Ms. Kim told the committee that the agency was studying the issue.


The latest revisions issued this month lifted the hold and provided specific guidance in how to process many types financial assistance, with a chart of categories that meet the criteria for disaster relief and others that do not.  Among the types of assistance determined to meet the criteria for disaster assistance are both “regular” unemployment benefits and expanded or supplemental forms of unemployment such as Federal Pandemic Unemployment Compensation (FPUC) benefits and Lost Wage Assistance that are received during the pandemic period.  In New York State, the pandemic period is defined as beginning in March 2020 and ongoing.


One of the examples of pandemic-related assistance that does not meet the criteria for disaster relief is the expanded child tax credits (CTC) that are scheduled to issue beginning this month.  SSA’s rules provide elsewhere that CTCs are considered tax refunds, and as such are to be excluded from income for SSI purposes, see POMS SI 00830.060, and excluded for 12 months from counting towards the SSI resource limit. See POMS SI 01130.676.


Advocates should continue to look out for any improper overpayments or suspensions based on EIP or unemployment benefits.  You can contact Michelle Spadafore at NYLAG (mspadafore@nylag.org) with such cases.



Field Office Access


Although field offices (FOs) remain closed for most business, SSA introduced a new procedure for some appointments.  On Friday, May 27, 2021, SSA issued Emergency Message (EM) EM-21041 providing for in-person “express interviews (EXIs)” for many situations where a person needs a new or replacement Social Security card and “for purposes of gathering evidence needed for processing claims and other workloads, as well as for individuals who meet certain limited, critical situations.”


Notably, EXIs are available for people who “are unable or unwilling to mail original evidence documents.”  There are ongoing reports of FO staff requesting original documents.  Please advise clients they should not relinquish any original documents such as drivers licenses or green cards.


SSA’s Regional Public Affairs Office remains available to troubleshoot issues with the field offices that involve dire need or critical cases.  You can reach the office by phone at (212) 264-2500, or email at ny.rpa@ssa.gov. Do not include a client’s Social Security Number if reaching out by email.



Outreach to Vulnerable Populations


SSA has launched an expansive outreach campaign aimed at reaching vulnerable populations, including veterans, those who are homeless, or who need assistance upon release from prison. The impetus came from the troublesome drop in SSI claims, a development that is considered to be related to the agency’s COVID-related FO closures.  SSA’s campaign is largely focused on recruiting third party assistance to aid with applications for individuals who are the hardest to reach.  It has provided training to organizations participating in the outreach. One notable measure included in this initiative is the creation of new field office positions to serve as liaisons and point persons helping facilitate those priority claims.


Unfortunately, and as most advocates are all too aware, initial applications are time intensive. SSA’s initiative is not providing any funding to provide the staffing necessary to meet this need.  For advocates or others who may be helping an individual with their claim, SSA has created a repository of information on a new webpage entitled “Information for People Helping Others.”