‘I can not get any support from these guys’: closed social security offices pose a difficulty for many
‘I can not get any support from these guys’: closed social security offices pose a difficulty for many

‘I can not get any support from these guys’: closed social security offices pose a difficulty for many

One recent weekday morning, Will Smith had gone to the small Social Security Administration field office on Fifth Avenue in downtown McKeesport to get his Social Security card.

He was greeted with a locked door and a sign telling him to use the agency’s website or call a hotline.

“We will resume personal service at this office when circumstances change,” the sign read.

“There’s no one there. You can not get in touch with them on the phone. They hang up with you,” Smith said, standing in front of the brick building with red, white and blue tiles forming an American flag next to the door.

“I need my social security card so I can get this job tomorrow and I can’t get any support from these guys right here.”

He was hoping to start a job at a warehouse, he said, and needed the ID card.

“I’ve been doing this for about two weeks now to get in here, and I just can ‘t get in touch with these guys for not getting anything done.”

Two years into the pandemic, the country’s more than 1,200 social security offices remain closed for walk-in service. There are only limited visits by appointment in certain circumstances.

The agency recently announced a preliminary reopening plan with a target date for return on March 30, though it appears to be conditioned by further labor negotiations and declining coronavirus.

Lawyers and attorneys who help people apply for Social Security disability programs say that while they understand the need for security measures, the long-term closures have been a difficulty for people who depend on the agency and need personal service.

In 2019, before the pandemic, more than 43 million people received services from a social security office.

“When people try to interact with social security, it’s usually because something big and often because something hard is happening in their lives,” said Stacy Cloyd, director of policy and administrative advocacy at the National Organization of Social Security Claimants Representatives. The organization consists of lawyers and non-lawyers representing persons in social security disability claims.

“And then social security is only part of what people deal with. They can have to do with financial problems, medical problems, a lot of other things going on, a death in the family. And that’s why it’s really important to get help. from Social Security to make some of these problems less frightening. And when it is not possible to solve a problem with social security, it can lead to really big disasters in people’s lives. “

During the brief time a reporter stood outside McKeesport’s field office last week, several people, including Smith, came by in hopes of receiving services, unaware that the offices were not open for walk-ins.

“For many people, having online and telephone services was fine [during the pandemic], ”Said Kristen Dama, MDI’s Executive Attorney at Community Legal Services of Philadelphia. (SSI is Supplemental Security Income, a program for people with disabilities that is part of Social Security.)

“But SSI applications and prices have dropped between 30 and 40 percent, depending on the area… And I think what that means is that there are some people who just are not able to connect to Social Security without having that walk-in service. “

The problems are particularly acute for people applying for disability programs that are part of Social Security and are separate from the more commonly known pension benefits.

Using these programs is both time-consuming and complex, Dama said.

“It’s really, really complicated, even for lawyers,” she said.

“Before the pandemic, people really relied on offices as their first point of contact to try to find out what was going on with their cases because the letters they received either did not arrive or when they arrived they were very confusing. And so would many people go in and say, ‘I do not understand what happened. Can you help me’ or ‘I was rejected or I was cut off, it makes no sense.’ And that kind of service … is really, really necessary for anyone who interacts with the social security system. “

Kate Giammarise

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90.5 WESA

Social Security Administration field office in McKeesport, PA.

The ongoing office closures have also angered Congress.

Senate Republicans, including Pennsylvania Senator Pat Toomeycalled on the Social Security Administration in a letter in December to reopen its offices to the public, citing difficulties the agency has had in tracking down and returning important documents sent to it by plaintiffs, and the mandate that federal workers should be vaccinated.

Senate Bob Casey and Senate Democrats sent a letter last month asks how the agency planned to improve its customer service. Their letter cited a report that “found that nearly half of the 151 million calls to field offices and the national 800 number went unanswered, including 16.4 million callers who gave up while waiting in line. Many of these service problems have persisted long before the pandemic, but COVID-19 has exacerbated and exacerbated these gaps in service for all, especially for those whose only source of income is social security, supplementary security income (SSI) or both. “

Casey and other Democrats too sent a letter to the social services calls on the Agency to work with its trade unions to reopen safely.

Angela Digeronimo, a trade unionist in the American Federation of Government Employees Council 220, which represents employees in field offices, said the union supports the reopening of offices, but it must be done safely.

“We know we need to open field offices, but we also know it needs to be a safe process, because if we do not do this safely, not only are our employees at risk, their families are at risk, but most importantly it’s all the public that we deal with. We serve the most vulnerable in the population. We serve the elderly and disabled. So that we can go back to business as usual and just get them to come into the office and have to wait for hours – “Because there’s another underlying problem here – we’re critically understaffed. And so, opening up, opening our doors will not solve all the problems, and allowing just to go in without agreements will create more problems than it will solve.”


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