The Social Security Administration (SSA) is preparing staff to return to field offices and resume normal, pre-pandemic operations as early as Jan. 3, 2022.
Because of the COVID-19 pandemic, most services have been offered remotely since March 17, 2020. Generally, in-person appointments at Social Security field offices have been limited to critical situations, such as for people who are without food, medicine or shelter and need to apply for benefits or reinstate them.
Starting back to the office
“The Social Security Administration recently announced the next steps in navigating the safe return of employees to our new normal operations,” SSA spokesperson Nicole Tiggemann told AARP. “Acting Commissioner [Kilolo] Kijakazi, along with senior leadership, will begin reentry on December 1, 2021.” Other workers could return as soon as Jan. 3, depending on negotiations with unions and the creation of rules for telework, social distancing and other pandemic-related issues.
Like many businesses and organizations, Social Security has turned to options like online, telephone and video services to conduct its operations during the pandemic. Nevertheless, people in rural areas and those without access to transportation or technology have struggled for help with Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI), and Supplemental Security Income (SSI).
“We know that those options do not work for everyone,” Tiggemann says. “To improve service, especially for people who have had difficulty reaching us during the pandemic, Social Security will begin implementing the reentry process agency-wide as soon as possible, including taking steps to increase in-person accessibility.”
AARP applauds a return to normalcy at SSA. “Obviously, from our point of view, we'd like to see those offices open and staffed as soon as possible,” says Joel Eskovitz, director of Social Security and Savings at the AARP Public Policy Institute. “It’s been a year and a half, and there are just some services that can’t be done remotely.”
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The reopening is contingent on field office employees agreeing to new health and safety standards at those offices. Union workers said that SSA’s plans didn’t seem to be fully formulated.
“This morning, offices all over the country were having their back-to-work meeting with the staff,” said Ralph de Juliis, president of the National Council of SSA Field Operations Locals. “They basically read a recorded message that said, 'We don't have any answers to any questions. We don't know what we're going to do about members of the public coming in. We don't have a schedule for what people will be doing when they're here in the office.' ”
De Juliis also noted that some operations were more efficient when done remotely. “Employees love telework,” he says. “They have been more productive. If you call to file a claim, in most cases we can get you an appointment in two to three days, as opposed to pre-pandemic, when we said we have to take your name and phone number because our appointment calendar is full out for the next 60 days.” And, he said, some employees have been in the field offices during the pandemic, attending to matters that had to be done in person, such as giving checks to homeless beneficiaries.
SSA acknowledges that all questions haven’t been answered. “The agency is engaging with our employee unions around reentry and safety protocols,” Tiggemann says.“The outcome of these negotiations will drive important reentry details, including when we will transition from our remote pandemic operations. This is the starting point. January 3 is a proposal, and any final date will be contingent upon the resolution of any applicable labor obligations.”
John Waggoner covers all things financial for AARP, from budgeting and taxes to retirement planning and Social Security. Previously he was a reporter for Kiplinger's Personal Finance and USA Today and has written books on investing and the 2008 financial crisis. Waggoner's USA Today investing column ran in dozens of newspapers for 25 years.