In March 2020, the administration closed its offices as a preventive measure to stop the spread of COVID-19. Since then, the agency doubled down its online and phone services to support most requests. However, the offices haven’t been able to efficiently cover demand.
“We are working diligently to address these challenges, but the abrupt changes to the way we do our work has caused bottlenecks in certain workloads and service deterioration beyond our control,” Saul wrote.
That impact on services is surfacing in San Jose.
Amy, a San Jose resident who asked not to share her last name for privacy reasons, has a 15-year-old son with autism who received supplemental security income (SSI) for years.
But in January, they stopped receiving SSI without notice.
Amy filed an online appeal and called the national phone line multiple times, only to be told someone from her local office would call her. The call never came.
“It is now June 2021 and my son has still not received his benefit or any information on why they would just cut him off. Especially in the midst of this pandemic,” Amy told San José Spotlight. “The website says that they have been helping only ‘dire’ needs. I believe this is dire. I have been waiting for offices to reopen but it seems that the administration likes to work remotely.”
Christine Fitzgerald, community advocate at the Silicon Valley Independent Living Center and a member of the disabled community, said the Social Security Administration must improve its communication procedures to make sure vulnerable communities receive the attention they need.
“When the pandemic happened, it was as if everyone went into their house, shut the door and said ‘we’re okay,'” Fitzgerald said. “For many companies, there was no serious planning ahead of time, like in the case of social security. One of the biggest things that (the administration) is missing is the idea that it’s very important the contact (between the administration and residents) is made and maintained.”
Though social security offices are closed to the general public, the administration is providing in-person appointments for people in “critical situations,” regional Social Security Administration spokesperson Patricia Raymond told San José Spotlight. This includes homeless people, individuals applying for their first social security number and those who need to apply for or reinstate their benefits. In order to access an in-person appointment, residents must first go through online or phone services.
Limiting in-person services can stop low-income, elderly and disabled residents from applying for social security benefits. A 2019 study showed that closing social security offices has a direct impact on the number of disability applications and allowances, disproportionately discouraging low-education and low-income applicants.
“There are folks who can’t understand computers,” Fitzgerald said. “They need someone in the office, physically, to help them.”
While the Social Security Administration is expected to present a back-to-the-office plan by July 19, it’s unclear when offices will reopen at full capacity.
The reentry plan will have to address health concerns raised by a recent audit. The audit noted that the administration’s contact tracing capabilities are limited because they don’t keep records of the personal information of everyone who enters the offices, only a number count.
Additionally, there is no way to make sure that visitors who later test positive for COVID-19 will notify their field office to warn other visitors and employees.
“Social Security is currently developing plans regarding the safe reentry of employees to the physical workplace, as well as post-reentry personnel policies and work environment,” Raymond said.