The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Social Security left at-risk Americans behind in pandemic, report finds

The U.S. Social Security Administration office is seen in Mount Prospect, Ill., Oct. 12. (Nam Y. Huh/AP)

The abrupt halt to almost all in-person operations at the Social Security Administration during the coronavirus pandemic was debilitating for the most vulnerable Americans, a new report has found — undermining President Biden’s pledge to ensure equitable government services.

With its 1,230 field offices closed for two years, millions of disabled and poor elderly people could not get help applying for Social Security benefits, and for many of them, there was no online option, the Government Accountability Office found in a report released Thursday.

Spanish speakers, a growing share of Social Security beneficiaries, hit dead ends on the agency’s website. Overloaded phones crashed. The lack of access caused disability claims to plummet, and claimants who did apply confront still-lingering delays in getting their cases reviewed.

Pandemic struggles still afflict Social Security, a last lifeline for many

“SSA took steps to address a range of challenges with providing services remotely,” the 68-page report found, “but gaps remain in delivering services online and assessing lessons learned.”

The agency’s continued struggles seven months after reopening its field offices to the public prompted auditors to conclude that it “may continue to face challenges delivering services to those populations most in need of them” and to question whether the agency can “fulfill its mission to ensure that its services are equitable and accessible.”

The auditors found that Social Security is unable to track the racial and ethnic backgrounds of those it serves, hampering its ability to understand its at-risk population. Almost two years after the president released an executive order mandating that federal agencies “ensure their missions advance racial equity and support for underserved communities,” the agency has not settled on a strategy to collect this data, the report found.

Nor have officials determined which pandemic changes should be permanent and what they learned from the crisis, auditors concluded. And there is no plan to manage an expected surge in disability claims from those who have contracted long covid or are beginning to apply after finding the process too daunting during the public health crisis.

The report recommends that Social Security address these shortcomings — and offer applications for benefits under its antipoverty programs known as Supplemental Security Income both online and in Spanish.

The conclusions reached by GAO, the research arm of Congress, echo reporting by The Washington Post, which has found that Social Security, a last lifeline for millions of Americans, is still struggling to restore basic customer services and assisting millions fewer of the poor, elderly and disabled people who sought its help before the pandemic.

Two top House Democrats who requested the assessment of the agency’s pandemic response wrote in response that the pandemic “presented unprecedented challenges, and this report shows the Social Security Administration was not immune from them.”

The lawmakers — Ways and Means Social Security subcommittee chairman Rep. John B. Larson (D-Conn.) and Rep. Danny K. Davis (D-Ill.), who leads the subcommittee on worker and family support — concluded that the agency, weakened by years of budget cuts and confronting thousands of staff departures in recent years, “must be more adequately funded” to restore customer service and improve its outreach.

Social Security chief of staff Scott Frey said in a response included in the report that the agency agreed with the findings.

The pandemic prompted dramatic shifts in how Social Security serves the public. As field offices closed, drop boxes were eventually offered for sensitive documents required for new Social Security cards or disability claims. In-person appointments were allowed for limited, “dire need” cases. By mid-2021, faxes were allowed and customers could send alternatives to sensitive documents that were getting lost in the mail. The offices where administrative law judges hear appeals of disability claims that have been denied shifted to telephone hearings and eventually online video proceedings.

But the field office staffs were not equipped at first to easily telework with older laptops that crashed multiple times a day, the report found. Some offices lacked wireless routers, signal boosters and network cables. Staff in rural areas confronted slow internet speeds, low bandwidth and system freezes at home.

“These challenges slowed SSA’s delivery of services to customers, according to multiple groups of staff we interviewed,” the report said. The agency also provided “no guidance” on how to handle the influx of mail at the start of the pandemic, the report found. It often took weeks for the staff to receive and process paperwork, including faxes.

Phone service exploded by 70 percent. But with the increase came long wait times and busy rates and “system instability” caused when a new phone system was rolled out starting in 2021, peaking at an average wait of 36 minutes.

Millions of people filing for retirement benefits went online. But those applying for benefits under Social Security’s two disability programs — the antipoverty program and another for those with work histories — plunged 18 percent and 12 percent, respectively compared to the volume of claims before the pandemic.

“The overall decline … demonstrated that fewer individuals with a disability or very low incomes were accessing benefits,” auditors found.

The decline was precipitous among disabled children and those who do not speak English. Social Security provides a range of Spanish-language resources, but disability applications are not one of them. The agency’s Spanish-language website directs customers to a page where it informs them, in Spanish, that certain online services and information are only available in English.

To promote its benefits to poor elderly people, the disabled, the homeless, those with limited English proficiency, those in rural areas, and those without legal representation, the agency mailed hundreds of thousands of notices to individuals and community groups. It also recruited field office staff for a new role as liaison to vulnerable populations, training community groups to help low-income people apply for benefits. The outreach efforts resulted in 3,131 claims from March 2021 to May 2022, the report said.

But the effort was not robust, auditors found: Many community groups did not have bandwidth to take on the role and attrition was high among many of the Social Security staff assigned to help.

The report found that without a plan to address an anticipated surge in demand for its services as more at-risk people return to the system, “SSA is poorly positioned to make well-informed decisions about its critical functions.”

Those include how many employees will work from home and how the agency will handle disability claims backlogs, among other issues.