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Politics & Government

Social Security offices open their doors for in-person visits, two years after closing for the pandemic

Social Security Cost of Living AP
Jenny Kane
/
AP
This Tuesday, Oct. 12, 2021, file photo shows a Social Security card in Tigard, Ore. The nation's Social Security field offices were largely closed for more than two years.

After more than two years of being largely closed to the public because of the coronavirus pandemic, the nation’s more than 1,200 Social Security Administration field offices reopened today.

Still, Social Security officials encourage people with phone and internet access to use those methods of contact if possible.

“Customers who walk in without appointments may encounter delays and longer waits at our offices,” the agency said in a written statement earlier this week.

Start your morning with today's news on Pittsburgh and Pennsylvania.

In-person visitors will be required to wear masks, in addition to other safety precautions.

Many advocates have said they anticipate the lengthy closures, combined with the agency’s staffing challenges and continued technical problems with phone systems, could lead to long lines for service, though none were visible at several Pittsburgh-area offices Thursday morning.

Advocates and attorneys have said they are sensitive to the safety concerns of reopening, but that the closed offices had posed a hardship for some people, particularly those applying for the disability benefits that are part of the Social Security program.

“It was incredibly difficult for our clients, many of whom rely on the local offices to get help with their applications, to do updates on their applications, to deal with overpayment issues, everything. So, it [created] a huge hurdle for our clients,” said Jennifer Modell, an attorney specializing in Social Security cases at Neighborhood Legal Services in Pittsburgh.

A drop in benefits during the pandemic was likely due to the prolonged office closures, experts said.

A number of members of Congress signed onto letters last year calling on the agency to reopen to in-person services, or least improve its customer service over the phone. In 2019, more than 40 million Americans got in-person assistance at a field office.

The agency said five offices in Pennsylvania will remain closed to walk-ins and will provide service by appointment only – in Erie, Indiana, Johnstown, Pottsville, and the Philadelphia Social Security Card Center.

The Social Security Administration has been squeezed in recent years by inadequate federal funding, said Kathleen Romig, an expert on the agency at the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities.

“SSA is going into this reopening both underfunded and as a result, understaffed, because most of the administrative money goes toward hiring staff,” Romig said.

Its roughly $13 billion annual administrative budget is down by 14% since 2010, taking inflation into account, she said; staffing has fallen by roughly the same amount – 13% or about 8,600 employees. During the same time, there are more than 11 million additional Social Security beneficiaries to serve.

The agency is so understaffed right now, it has asked retirees to come back to assist temporarily with the reopening.

“Funding leads to staffing, and so that to the extent that SSA’s funding is cut, then it's staffing is cut almost always by equally the same amount,” Romig said. “The understaffing is the root of so many of SSA's problems right now. They simply don't have enough people to pick up the phone, to take appointments, to process applications and all the important work of the agency. There just aren't enough people to do it. Their workloads are increasing, and their staffing is declining. And so it's inevitably going to be a problem.”

Nearly 70 million Americans receive Social Security benefits.

Pennsylvania Senator Bob Casey, along with two other Senate Democrats, sent a letter to the White House last month asking for a “Beneficiary Advocate” position to be created in the Social Security Administration to help ensure quality customer service.

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