Yes, it is true! After nearly two years of being closed to the public, the Social Security Administration has announced that our Nation’s Social Security offices are reopening. The hope is that by March 30 the over 1,200 local Social Security offices will be reopened to the public for appointments and walk-in business. The exact details of how a reopening will work is still up in the air. That is because the Social Security Administration is negotiating those details with three labor unions which represent many of the workers in the local Social Security offices.
The reason that it is not 100% certain that the offices will reopen on March 30 is mostly because no one knows how the pandemic will play out in the months to come. If levels of transmission, COVID related deaths and hospitalizations are high, it is likely that the reopening will be delayed.
What will a reopening look like? We anticipate that the reopening will be phased in rather than happen all at one time. As of this time, the final details are still being worked out, however, what we do know is that visitors are likely to be required to wear masks to protect other visitors and the Social Security staff. The Social Security staff will be given more telework privileges, meaning that Social Security staff will be allowed to work from home (just like they are doing now).
The hearing offices are also reopening for in-person hearings and live video hearings. This reopening is expected to begin in May. In May, judges can volunteer to hold in-person hearing starting May 4. Beginning June 3, all ALJs will be required to hold in-person hearings. Those coming to a hearing office, will be required to fill-out a screening questionnaire and wear masks. Expect to see a lot of distancing protocol, a lot of Plexiglass between the ALJ and others, and other safety measures.
Likely, there will be a lot of bumps in the road as the offices begin to reopen. But this is a good start!
It is important to view this reopening against the backdrop of how the Social Security offices were functioning during in pandemic. On March 17, 2020, the Social Security Administration closed all of its offices (both local and hearing offices) to the public. The reason for the closure was to protect the health of its employees as well as the health of the public, many of whom were elderly. Closing the offices to the public did not mean that the offices were shuttered, and all business stopped. Most of the data and records for the Social Security Administration is on computers. This allowed for the data and records to be accessed from anywhere as long as an employee could login into the system by computer. So, during the past two years, Social Security employees have largely been working from home, answering calls from the public and doing it the work that they normally did. The hearing offices began holding hearings by phone and then offering hearings by Microsoft Teams video. These methods had its problems: difficulty in timely mailing outbound letters and scanning incoming mail into the system. While the assessment of disability cases continued, it was, for a time, painfully slow with scheduling appointments for physical and mental examinations. Phone hearings and video hearings have technical issues. As vaccinations became available, things started picking up speed. In the past month it has been very difficult to reach the local offices by phone. It turns out that the recent problem with answering the phones had more to do with early retirement of Social Security employees than the offices being closed due to the pandemic.
All of us want to return to “normal.” We are hoping that this will happen soon.