The Social Security Administration plans to resume some personal hearings on disability claims this spring after holding remote hearings for nearly two years.
The SSA and the Association of Administrative Court Judges reached an agreement this week to resume personal hearings on disability claims as soon as May 4, while continuing to hold virtual video and telephone hearings.
Administrative court judges have held hundreds of thousands of hearings virtually since the start of the pandemic, pointing to a hybrid model of personal and virtual hearings under the note as a promising model for future work.
AALJ President Som Ramrup, an administrative law judge in New York City and an SSA employee for more than 20 years, said the MOU prioritizes both flexibility in the workplace and safety.
“The AALJ Corps is really focused on providing a fair trial for the plaintiffs who appear before us. Part of that process is the consultation method, and to the extent that certain individuals and plaintiffs are uncomfortable with video or telephone, we will give them opportunity to make it personal, ”Ramrup said in an interview.
The memo allows judges to voluntarily schedule personal hearings as soon as May 4, while the earliest return to the date of office for all other judges is June 3.
The memo notes that the exact date of re-entry may change, based in part on SSA’s negotiations with other unions.
The memo mandates masks, social distancing, plexiglass barriers and HEPA air filtration cleaners in each hearing room. It also allows judges to retain control over the conduct of the hearing room and may adjourn the hearing if, for example, a plaintiff or representative does not comply with the mask requirement.
The memo also allows for “split days,” meaning judges can either work all day on-site or return home after the hearings are over to complete their work day.
Judges can continue to telework on all days without personal hearings and will only be required to work on site on days when they are scheduled to hold personal hearings.
The SSA has also agreed not to mix personal hearings with online or telephone hearings without the prior approval of the judge, giving the agency an incentive to ensure that judges have full documents of personal hearings.
Ramrup said plaintiffs can still request a virtual hearing, recognizing that they may have an underlying medical condition that puts them at higher risk of contracting COVID-19, or may otherwise feel uncomfortable with traveling or appearing in person before a judge.
While the closure of other agencies and the transition to mandatory teleworking have exacerbated the backlog of other agencies, administrative court judges have seen the number of pending cases go from 575,000 at the beginning of the 2020 financial year to a current pending case volume of around 352,000.
SSA, meanwhile, received about 430,000 new cases in the same period.
“We switched to a penny for first telephone hearings and then added video hearings. We did so virtually smoothly, and this is reflected in the fact that the pending number of hearings has continued to decline during the pandemic,” Ramrup said.
Ramrup said the MOU indicates a “more favorable atmosphere” between judges and SSA management and could be the first step in a long-term rethinking of workplace flexibility.
“It really is an opportunity for us to recreate the consultation process and talk about the bigger issues. It does not have to be the status quo. Just like in the private sector, where they have rethought the workplace, we can do the same in the public sector. I think , It is an opportunity to do so, and to the extent that we are successful in this short-term period that this MOU covers, I think it will be reflected in our term negotiation, which is taking place, ”said Ramrup.
Kilolo Kijakazi, a Biden nominee, is currently serving as SSA’s acting commissioner, after replaced Andrew Saul in July last year.