People waiting at the Social Security offices face long lines at high temperatures

People queue at a Social Security Office in Pasadena, California.

Mario Anzuoni | Reuters

People who have long waits for service at the Social Security Administration’s field offices have faced another complication this summer: intense heat.

That prompted House Ways and Means Committee leaders to send a letter to the Social Security Administration on Tuesday asking them to take action to meet the security needs of those seeking personal assistance.

“While most SSA field offices can assist visitors, in some locations people have been out in the heat for hours on end with no guarantee that their needs will be met,” wrote representatives Richard Neal, D-Mass., and Kevin. Brady, R-Texas, in a letter addressed to Kilolo Kijakazi, acting commissioner of the Social Security Administration.

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Neal chairs the House Ways and Means Committee, while Brady is the committee’s Republican leader.

The letter went on to describe uncomfortable situations that people seeking help have found themselves in, citing media reports including elderly or disabled individuals waiting more than six hours in temperatures close to 100 degrees. The circumstances caused one person to pass out in Texas, lawmakers noted, while other people in Florida slept outside the night before to secure their spot in line for the next morning. In some cases, people had to come back for several days to get their needs met.

“We strongly urge SSA to take additional steps to meet the security needs of individuals seeking field office services,” wrote Neal and Brady.

Long waiting times for service in person, by phone and mail

Chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee Rep. Kevin Brady, R-Texas, left, holds up a “Simple, Fair ‘Postcard’ Tax Filing” card next to ranking member Rep. Richard Neal, D-Mass., at a markup hearing in Washington, DC, on Nov. 6, 2017.

Andrew Harrer | Bloomberg | Getty Images

The field office is awaiting the federal agency’s formal reopening in April, after being largely closed to in-person visits in response to the Covid-19 pandemic that began in 2020.

Help seekers also complained of long wait times when calling the agency’s 800 phone number. Meanwhile, the Inspector General’s Social Security Administration has also called on the agency to address inefficiencies in mail processing, which has led to backlogs in processing certain applications.

Complaints about the long wait come as no surprise to Richard Fiesta, executive director of the Alliance for Retired Americans, an advocacy organization, who said he heard similar stories to those in the letter.

The delays can be attributed to a confluence of events going back years, he said. That includes the closure of Social Security field offices, which have now fallen to about 1,200 from well over 1,600. The aging of the baby boom population has dramatically increased the number of people reaching retirement age. The Covid-19 pandemic has further complicated the challenges facing the Social Security administration.

“It’s been a very poisonous soup of trying to get public service from Social Security,” Fiesta said.

The 2023 budget is requesting an additional $1.8 billion over last year’s request, which specifically aims to improve Social Security’s field, telephone and state services for the disabled.

“That’s positive,” said Fiesta. “We hope Congress enacts it.”

‘Plan ahead and do as much research as possible’

Getting fast and reliable service from a program funded by employees’ paychecks should be a given, Fiesta said.

For now, there are steps people seeking help can take to try and minimize their wait times.

“Plan ahead and do as much research as you can about the questions you’ll have,” Fiesta said.

It’s been a very poisonous soup of trying to get public service from Social Security.

Richard Fiesta

Executive Director of the Alliance for Retired Americans

Before visiting Social Security offices, people should still contact them online or by phone, Kijakazi insisted earlier this year as offices reopened.

“To avoid queuing, I recommend that people who can use our online services at call us ahead of time and schedule appointments rather than walk in without an appointment” Kijakazi said in a statement. “Phone appointments can save you a trip to a busy office.”

Also note that if you show up at a Social Security office without an appointment, you may experience delays or longer wait times.

It can also help to time your visits or calls to hours or days when Social Security offices typically see less traffic. According to Kijakazi, offices are usually busiest early in the morning, early in the week and early in the month.

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