How the Pandemic Has Impacted Social Security Disability Decisions

Do you remember where you were when the first domino of the pandemic toppled? Maybe you first realized how serious things were when you couldn’t find toilet paper to buy, your kid’s school went remote, or your spouse lost their job. There is no denying the fact that COVID-19 tore an enormous, irreparable hole in our everyday lives. 

Closed Due to Covid-19 Sign in a Social Security OfficeFor people who are living with a disability and trying to get clear answers from the United States government about the status of their SSDI (Social Security Disability Insurance) applications, the situation is particularly difficult. There have been delays, there is talk that the program might face funding difficulties in the future, and some experts are even concerned about the solvency of the entire Social Security system. Let’s take a closer look at the pandemic’s impact on SSDI and the steps you can take if you are struggling to receive payments—or even to be heard.

The Perfect Storm Created by the Pandemic

As you’re no doubt already aware, governmental agencies move at a glacial pace even in the best of times. That’s thanks to miles of red tape, mountains of paperwork that must be filled out in triplicate, and the fact that SSDI office employees are often overwhelmed.

And, of course, the pandemic made everything worse. For starters, it shut down the country so suddenly that it left everyone’s heads spinning. Without any time to develop or implement a coordinated plan, a lot of governmental agencies and civilian companies alike were forced to fly by the seat of their pants. 

Moreover, there wasn’t any sort of modern precedent to help guide or even orient the nation. Given how quickly the coronavirus spread across the globe, everyone was in the same uncertain boat. It was impossible to predict when life might get back to normal—although it became apparent almost immediately that we’d all have to grapple with a “new normal.”

How the Social Security Administration’s Operations Have Been Affected

Social Security field offices and hearing offices closed down on March 17, 2020, meaning that face-to-face services were suddenly discontinued, save a very few critical exceptions. All the agency’s protocol and procedures were moved to a remote model, with recipients of SSDI and other benefits required to contact local offices either by telephone or online. With these methods overwhelmed by demand, a bottleneck developed almost immediately.  

Not only that, but all sectors saw worker absenteeism rise. In some cases, this was because the employees themselves contracted COVID-19; in others, they were caring for family members with the virus. Additionally, social distancing requirements and the diversion of medical personnel to front-line duties meant that SSDI-related medical exams have also been delayed or postponed. 

The result of this perfect storm? Delays. Uncertainty. Poor communication. And a fairly drastic plunge in the number of SSDI awards made to disabled Americans: benefits were awarded to 25% fewer recipients in the fiscal year 2021 than in the fiscal year 2019.

The Current Status of SSDI Awards

The Social Security Administration (SSA) is still accepting and processing applications for benefits, as well as for reconsideration appeals. New applications can be made over the telephone or online. Applicants should know, however, that they will almost certainly face delays at every step. 

Just like in-person hearings, Continuing Disability Reviews (CDRs) were also suspended at the beginning of the pandemic. Because of both the ongoing public health crisis and the backlog that’s built up over two years of suspended operations, the SSA has discontinued full reviews. In some cases, they are sending benefits recipients a Disability Update Report questionnaire to be filled out instead.  

Any disabled American whose SSDI status is still in process is instructed to be patient and wait until they are contacted. It’s possible to check the status online, as well.

An End Is in Sight

There is good news on the horizon. The SSA has announced that some 1,200 field offices will reopen on March 30, 2022. The offices had originally been scheduled to open to the public at the end of January 2022, but the labor unions representing workers and the agency itself could not come to an agreement over the specifics of the plan.

Of course, it will take some time before SSA employees can work through the existing backlog and return to business as usual. Additionally, the reopening is also subject to pandemic conditions. Should the nation experience additional waves of COVID-19 infections, expect to see the government agency’s productivity—and SSDI application, review, and approval processes—grind to a standstill once again.

If you’re having issues with your application for SSDI, we’re here to help. Give us a call or contact us online to discuss your case and learn more about how we can help you with the appeals process during this difficult time.

Are You Looking for a Social Security Disability Attorney in Boston, MA?

If you are looking to apply for social security disability, you need to speak with an experienced social security disability lawyer as soon as possible. Please contact us online or call our Natick Office directly at 508.283.5500 to schedule your free consultation.

 

John L. Keefe
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Founding Attorney, Massachusetts Social Security Disability Lawyer
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