Politics

2 Years After Closing Offices, Social Security Schedules Tentative Reopening

WASHINGTON — Byron Jones just wanted a printout with his Social Security number on it so he could apply for an apartment.

But when Jones showed up to the Social Security office in Northeast D.C. with a receipt saying he’d filled out an online application for a replacement card, a man at the door turned him away, explaining the office is closed except for appointments.

Jones, a 45-year-old hospital worker, didn’t know what else to do. If he has to wait until the replacement card arrives in the mail, he said, he’ll miss his chance this week to fill out a rental application for the apartment he wants.

“No one answers the phone,” he said. “It hangs up on me and then when I get down to the Social Security place, they say I’m not allowed to come in.”

The Social Security Administration shuttered its 1,230 field offices at the outset of the coronavirus pandemic in March 2020, saying the closure “protects the population we serve — older Americans and people with underlying medical conditions” as well as the agency’s employees.

This month, the agency announced it had reached a reopening agreement with the three unions that represent most of its workforce, though it didn’t specify when. The earliest possible date is the end of March.

“Dependent on the course of the pandemic, we will continue with our reentry for most employees on March 30,” Social Security spokesperson Mark Hinkle said in an email, adding that the agency needs time to make sure it can properly notify employees and put safety measures in place consistent with union agreements.

“We anticipate that field offices will restore increased in-person service to the public, without an appointment, in early April,” Hinkle said. “As we expand in-person availability, we strongly encourage the public to continue to go online, call us for help, and schedule appointments in advance. Customers who walk in without appointments may encounter delays.”

The number of applications for disability insurance fell from 2 million before the pandemic to 1.8 million in 2020, while benefit awards tumbled 10% that year and 11% in 2021.

The agreement between the Social Security Administration and the American Federation of Government Employees, which represents 45,000 Social Security workers, calls for a phased reopening to begin at the end of March so long as ongoing talks between the agency and the union continue smoothly.

“If pandemic conditions allow for reopening on March 30, we want to be able to reopen our installations on that date,” Rich Couture, chief negotiator for the union on the reentry plans, said in an interview. Couture is president of the AFGE’s Council 215, which represents employees in the Social Security office overseeing disability benefits hearings.

March 30 would be more than two years after the original shutdown, not to mention much later than public schools and many other basic government services resumed operations following their initial shutdowns.

Republicans have called for an immediate reopening and criticized the Social Security Administration’s limited in-person services, which require appointments that aren’t easy to arrange.

“This is a challenge for many individuals, especially seniors in rural areas, who do not have reliable telephone or internet access,” a group of Senate Republicans said in a December letter to Social Security’s acting commissioner, Kilolo Kijakazi. “Of additional concern is the impact the closed field offices have on individuals who qualify for benefits but are discouraged from applying for them.”

The office closures have had a real impact on people’s lives. The number of applications for disability insurance, for instance, fell from 2 million before the pandemic to 1.8 million in 2020, while benefit awards tumbled 10% that year and 11% in 2021.

“Claims have been decreasing for many years, but that drop got much steeper during the pandemic,” said Stacy Cloyd, director of policy for the National Organization of Social Security Claimants’ Representatives.

Cloyd did not fault the agency for closing its offices in response to the coronavirus pandemic, which has claimed the lives of more than 860,000 Americans, with a disproportionate impact on the elderly and people with health issues.

“Having the field offices operate the way they’ve always been operating was understandably not an option,” Cloyd said.

“If pandemic conditions allow for reopening on March 30, we want to be able to reopen our installations on that date.”

– Rich Couture, president of the AFGE’s Council 215

The Social Security Administration initially sought to reopen earlier this month, but the AFGE balked at the agency’s plan, partly because it would not have required office visitors to wear masks, which will be required under the new agreements.

The union also won teleworking privileges for more of its members, something that had been a major point of contention between the union and the agency prior to the pandemic.

“We’re happy with the fact that we’re able to secure provisions in this agreement that will allow us to maximize telework participation across the board, where we wouldn’t normally have been able to under our current contracts,” Couture said.

While Republicans have criticized the agency, Democrats have tried to walk a finer line among the stakeholders involved, namely their constituents who need better service and the agency employees who want to stay as safe as possible.

“If you’re somebody who’s in need of the benefits of Social Security, it doesn’t matter what the other side is because your concern is your disability, your pension or your dependent or spousal coverage that you’re counting on,” Rep. John Larson (D-Conn.) told HuffPost. “It’s also equally valid to say, well, wait a minute, we’re in the midst of a pandemic, and there are guidelines, rules and safety and health precautions all that have to be followed, as well.”

Jones, for his part, was just one of five people HuffPost observed knocking on the Northeast D.C. field office door Monday and being turned away — all within half an hour.

In May 2021, the Social Security Administration announced people who need replacement cards can arrange special “express interviews,” but only if they’re unable to order a new card online, as Jones had already done. Jones said he had planned to apply for an apartment this week and the card won’t arrive on time, and all he needed was some other document proving he had a Social Security number.

The field office worker who turned Jones away gave him a number to call. He dialed it right away and got a busy signal.


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