Since March 17, 2020, all Social Security Administration offices have been closed to the public and oftentimes to staff members, due to COVID-19 concerns. This means you could not go into your local offices to get forms, seek assistance, file a claim or appeal, or take any other action in regard to a disability claim. It also meant that often these offices were not staffed so there were issues with ingoing and outgoing mail, getting phone calls answered or returned, and even being able to access Social Security’s system to get information on claims. This created a huge inconvenience for many people, especially those individuals seeking disability benefits.
It wasn’t only at the local office and examiner levels that this suspension of in-person operations caused issues. This wreaked havoc with the Office of Hearings Operations and the administrative law judge (ALJ) hearings as well. Initially, the solution was to conduct ALJ hearings in-person at the region’s Office of Hearings Operations (for instance Wheeling, West Virginia’s OHO is located in Morgantown, West Virginia), or at one of the region’s satellite offices via Social Security conducting a video conference. However, since these are both Social Security offices, neither turned out to be viable options for hearings. This resulted in the postponement of hearings and eventually lead to Social Security conducting hearings via phone conference or personal video conference (using Microsoft Teams). Although this allowed for the continuation of hearings over the last two years, it has made it more difficult and uncomfortable for many social security disability claimants. However, in my opinion, the video conferences have not impacted the quality of the hearings.
The main problem throughout the past two years is that there has never been any certainty in this situation regarding the re-opening of the social security offices. No certainty for disability claimants, for Social Security staff, for administrative law judges, for disability attorneys, or anyone else involved in handling social security disability claims. Sure, there has been some back and forth about re-opening, but ultimately the decision was made to remain closed . . . until now. Finally, there may be light at the end of the tunnel to end this madness and return to in-person or more “normal” operations in the summer of 2022.
THE RETURN TO “NORMAL” SOCIAL SECURITY OPERATIONS
As of January 2022, the Social Security Administration and the unions representing its employees have reach a tentative agreement to return to in-person, “normal” operations. While this is not a one size fits all, the agreement indicates that the transition to in-person operations will begin by May 2022. Absent of changing circumstances, medical exceptions, or other problems, the return to in-person “normal” operations should be complete in June 2022.
While everything is not set in stone, what is clear is that the return to in-person operations is not going to happen all at once for all locations. Thus, there will be no grand re-opening celebration where the ribbon (metaphorically) gets cut on every Social Security office in every state all at the same time. In fact, it does not appear that the Social Security Administration will re-open in every state the exact same way. Nor does it appear that every entity within the Social Security Administration will re-open in the same way or at the same time. Meaning, your local offices may be open but the regional disability determination (where the examiners are located) might not be open. Certain services may re-open in-person, but other services might remain remote or by appointment only.
An example of what might take place in the Ohio Valley: the East Liverpool, OH local office may be closed while the Wheeling, WV and Marietta, OH offices are re-opening. The regional hearings office in Morgantown, WV might re-open while the hearings offices in Charleston, WV, Dover, OH, or Pittsburgh, PA may remain closed. Alternatively, you may be able to walk in and do an application or hand deliver some documents in Wheeling, WV but may still have to call ahead to get access to the East Liverpool, OH local office. The Morgantown, WV hearings office might be open for the purposes of administrative law judge hearings but not be open for you to walk in a get a copy of your Social Security disability record/file. We just don’t know all these details yet.
Thus, it would still be prudent to call the local, regional, hearings, or other Social Security office you are intending to visit and see if they are in fact open, and what services they are open for, so you do not waste your time traveling to those locations.
THE NEW “NORMAL” FOR SOCIAL SECURITY
Although this situation is far from ideal, this is a good sign. Some offices, activities, and other actions are currently re-opening in a number of locations. The May 2022 re-opening of administrative law judge hearings is the first, formal, publicized step the Social Security Administration has taken to show that it intends to transition back to pre-covid, “normal” functioning. While the flexibility of online, remote, and phone-based actions has been a successful in keeping the social security disability claims processes moving, not all social security disability claimants were comfortable and pleased by this arrangement. These services will remain options in the future, but only options and only if you feel comfortable using these options. Otherwise, it will be business as usual and you will return to having the option to engage directly, in-person with Social Security to prove your social security disability claim.
GKT DISABILITY LAWYERS CAN HELP
If you are thinking about applying for social security benefits, are just not sure where to start, or you have questions about the process, our social security attorneys are here to help you. Whether you are seeking Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI), VA Disability, Supplemental Security Income (SSI), or any other disability benefit, our social security lawyers have the knowledge and experience to win you the benefits you deserve. We have helped recover millions of dollars for our clients. We are licensed in Ohio, West Virginia, and Pennsylvania. We offer a free consultation and there’s no fee until we win you your benefits. Contact us 24 hours a day by phone or text at (304) 845-9750 or complete our no obligation online form or Live Chat on our website.