The Social Security Administration operates a vast network of more than 1,200 offices that help thousands of Americans every day with applications for retirement, disability and Medicare benefits.
Starting Tuesday, Social Security’s field office network closed to the public in most situations until further notice because of the coronavirus public health crisis, administration officials said. Offices that hear disability insurance appeals also are closed.
Service such as helping with benefit claims, checking the status of an application or appeal or requesting a replacement Social Security card will continue to be available via the agency’s toll-free line, 800-772-1213, and its website. Payments to more than 69 million Social Security beneficiaries are not affected.
Field offices will offer in-person assistance only on a very short list of crucial services. These include reinstatement of benefits in dire circumstances; assistance to people with severe disabilities, blindness or terminal illnesses; and people in dire need of eligibility decisions for Supplemental Security Income or Medicaid eligibility related to work status. Those seeking these services must call in advance.
The decision to close offices came after several days of withering criticism from the unions that represent Social Security employees. The unions argued that keeping the offices open was a threat to the public’s health and that of the agency’s work force of 61,000.
Years of budget cuts have led to long wait times in Social Security field offices, many of which see several hundred people daily. Visitors often experience long waits in rooms filled with dozens of people — most often, seniors and disabled people, who are among those most at risk from the virus.
Cleaning of the offices is minimal, said Richard Couture, spokesman for the American Federation of Government Employees councils, which represent Social Security employees. The offices have computer keyboards in self-help kiosks, which are infrequently sanitized, he said, that the agency has encouraged people to use for faster service.
“The offices are petri dishes,” Couture said. “People are sitting there for a long time, magnifying and multiplying the risk of infection for everyone there, and to people on the outside.”
The Social Security Administration could not be immediately reached for comment on sanitation in its field offices.
Current Social Security leadership has been skeptical of remote work arrangements.
In November, it terminated a work-from-home pilot program that allowed 12,500 employees to work remotely one day per week. As the coronavirus crisis has unfolded, a small number of offices were closed in areas experiencing a high number of infections, and a limited amount of remote work was permitted. Employees at some Social Security sites, including back office operations, were still reporting for work Tuesday.
But the agency had not announced plans to shutter its field office network until midafternoon Monday, when it held a conference call with union leadership.
How to Get Social Security Help
— If you need to visit a local Social Security office for in-person services, call the office to request an appointment. You can find the closest office using an office locator tool on the Social Security website, where the agency is also providing updates and information on services.
— If you already have an office appointment or disability appeal scheduled, Social Security will contact you by phone to reschedule or to handle the matter by phone. The agency cautions that this call may come from a private phone number, not a government phone. That’s because not all employees have government-issued phones that can be used for business from remote locations, Couture said.
Social Security generally only contacts people who have recently applied for benefits, or to update the records of those who are receiving benefits, a spokeswoman says. The agency also calls people who have requested a callback, including those with scheduled appointments. The agency will never call to tell you that your Social Security number has been suspended or to demand payments or ask for credit card information.
The number of Social Security identity theft phone scams has been rising, with robocalls and live callers posing as government employees. The agency generally reaches out by mail and will call only if you’ve just recently applied for benefits or have requested a callback.
Social Security fields 75 million calls annually, and long wait times are typical. Getting through can be difficult — in 2018, 15% of callers heard a busy signal, according to the National Council of Social Security Management Associations, an organization of field office and telecommunications service center managers.
— Social Security is asking callers to the toll-free line to “please be patient” and cautions that phone representatives will be focusing on urgent requests, such as missed benefit payments, address and direct-deposit changes, and scheduling phone appointments.
— The agency is urging the public to conduct business whenever possible online, and many people do just that: More than half of retirement and disability benefit claims are filed online. You will need to set up an account on the site, which allows you to apply for benefits, check the status of applications and appeals, request replacement Social Security cards and download your current statement of benefits. The website also has a section with frequently asked questions.
— If you need to enroll in Medicare, free counseling is available from the national network of State Health Insurance Assistance Programs, known as SHIP. Availability of services “will vary by state and potentially even county,” according to Alicia Jones, who runs SHIP in Nebraska and is chairwoman of a national committee of SHIP managers. She suggests calling your local SHIP office to check on availability. Find your state SHIP here.
The nonprofit Medicare Rights Center runs a free national Medicare help line, which can be reached at 800-333-4114.
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