The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Social Security offices have been closed for most of the pandemic. That effort to protect public health has wounded some of the neediest Americans.

Mariann Clouse, with her husband, William, and their toddler son Vincent, has a terminal illness called Juvenile Huntington’s disease and has waited seven months to hear whether the Social Security Administration will award her monthly disability benefits. (William DeShazer for The Washington Post)

NASHVILLE — The first cars bearing the needy pulled into the parking lot as the lights went on in the squat brick Social Security office, three miles north of the luxury condos and boutique hotels rising in booming Music City.

It was 9 a.m., and a flier taped to the glass double doors announced business hours until 4 p.m., Monday through Friday. An American flag fluttered at the curb.

But the office did not open for business, except for a lucky few who gained special entry, for what was then the 605th day since it had been sealed shut to protect its employees and customers from the coronavirus.

It was closed to a man named Kevin, 41, who has seizures from a gunshot wound to his head and now clutched a letter that asked him for documents to help him qualify for disability benefits. “I can’t get into Social Security!” he said, declining to give his last name as he stood outside. “They got it locked up!”

It was closed to Jennifer Hustedt, 52, a Walmart clerk hoping to drop off her son’s birth certificate to qualify him to receive his late father’s disability check.

“Just to update his info, they told me I had to physically come in person,” she said.

It was closed to Dwight Chambers, 65, who came with a letter he wrote disputing the amount in taxes the government was taking out of the $1,200 a month he receives in disability, so he could help support his granddaughters.

“I really need a face-to-face [meeting] because my case is complicated,” Chambers said, shaking his head. A young woman pulled on the locked front doors. “Excuse me, babe!” he yelled to warn her. “You will not get into that building!”

Even as courthouses, motor vehicle and veterans’ benefits offices, and most other parts of the government that directly serve the public have reopened 21 months into the coronavirus crisis, the Social Security Administration remains mostly closed to in-person service, its workers at home, denying vital assistance to most of the poor, elderly and people with disabilities who have long relied on their local office to navigate one of the government’s most complex benefits systems. The unintended consequence: The federal government’s lengthy effort to protect the health of its workers and the public has instead wounded many of those in greatest need of its services.

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For middle-class or wealthy people applying for retirement benefits online, the sudden shift to remote work posed little disruption. But for those without computers or needing specialized help available only in person, the workarounds the agency put in place have only made a convoluted process worse.

With 1,230 field offices normally visited by 43 million people a year largely shut, applying for disability or getting a Social Security card to secure a new job or other services requires finding a way to get online, waiting on hold on the phone for lengthy periods or relying on spotty mail service. Often, statistics show, Americans in need are simply giving up.

Applications and benefit awards under the antipoverty disability program called Supplemental Security Income have plummeted to the lowest level in 22 years, down 29 percent from July 2020 to April 2021 compared with the same period a year earlier, according to internal agency data and outside research.

Another group — people with disabilities who at one point were able to work but who now have turned to the federal disability system — saw a 17 percent drop in awards, according to an analysis of agency data by David Weaver, a former associate commissioner in the agency’s Office of Research, Demonstration and Employment Support.

The number applying for SSI benefits for children and adults with disabilities and the elderly plummeted 51 percent, 32 percent and 55 percent, respectively, just one month after field offices closed, internal agency data shows, a decline that continued through August 2020, the most recent month for which numbers were available. The drop-off was most pronounced for those with limited English proficiency and the elderly.

Thousands already in the system have had benefits suspended after Social Security claimed they had been overpaid — but with offices closed, the agency provided no easy way they could contest the claim. This month the agency acknowledged it had wrongly disqualified as many as 144,000 applicants by erroneously counting pandemic benefits as income. Those denied were asked to call a toll-free number. The maximum SSI benefit is $9,528 a year, three-quarters of the federal poverty level.

The system that determines disability when benefits are denied — normally 2 of every 3 cases — also is jammed. State offices that handle medical reviews for Social Security to determine if someone is eligible for benefits have dramatically slowed the pace of that work.

The Nashville office was closed to the public from March 2020 until October of this year, when managers previously limited to opening mail, collecting faxes and assigning inquiries to someone working at home began conducting a smattering of 15-minute in-person meetings, often with foreign nationals needing Social Security cards to work or for other limited issues. Those without food or shelter also qualify for appointments — but few get them, either because they don’t ask or the staff falls short, advocates say.

“It’s window-dressing, ministerial actions, not the 80 percent of issues poor people need help with,” said Jonathan Stein, of counsel to Philadelphia-based Community Legal Services.

For everyone else who needs to drop off forms or documents such as birth certificates to verify their eligibility for benefits, the only option is to leave them in a wooden box, which is placed inside the front doors to accept paperwork just one hour a day, from 3 to 4 p.m. Guards watching the box point anyone asking questions to a sign with an 800 number taped to the glass.

Most other agency business these days is done by phone. But while phone service has improved from before the pandemic, the Social Security inspector general reported this month that just 51 percent of calls from the public were answered in fiscal 2020.

After months of criticism from disability advocates and Republicans in Congress who contend that the Biden administration is kowtowing to its unions in allowing the closures — and delaying reopenings across the government — the agency released tentative plans last month to begin returning its staff of 60,000 to their offices in January. But employees in some offices would be given wide berth to continue working from home permanently up to five days a week, with two days allowed for the field office staff.

Social Security notified its staff Wednesday, however, that it no longer has a reentry date.

Nicole Tiggemann, a Social Security spokeswoman, acknowledged the decline in disability applications during the pandemic.

“We agree it is particularly important to ensure people who face barriers can access our services, and our proposed reentry plan helps address this problem,” she wrote in a statement.

But she noted that “the pandemic has not ended and we have a duty to protect both our employees and also the public. . . . We respect our unions and want them to help us with the best plan to safely return to our new normal.”

Advocates said the agency’s response is inadequate, given the needs that have amassed during the pandemic.

“Social Security is disappearing from public view,” Weaver said, pointing to the number of people who receive benefits: “It’s going to eventually reach a point where, do you want a problem with the unions or do you want a problem with 70 million people?”

In a letter this month, 15 Senate Republicans told acting commissioner Kilolo Kijakazi that her delay in reopening field offices is hurting taxpayers in rural areas in particular. The lawmakers cited a mountain of unopened mail identified by the inspector general in July.

They also sounded an alarm that the agency “lacks comprehensive policies and procedures” to track and return original documents it required be sent through the mail through most of the pandemic, until it set up drop boxes. Among field offices, 1 in 5 lack a drop box and still require documents to be mailed.

Tiggemann said the agency is “revisiting” the drop boxes’ limited hours.

The American Federation of Government Employees local representing 27,000 Social Security employees says its members have been more productive at home — although neither the union nor the agency has produced evidence of that. Union officials, who have pushed to delay office reopenings until March, are still bargaining with management over limiting service permanently, for the first time, to pre-scheduled appointments four days a week.

“It’s not like we’re hostile to the public,” said Ralph de Juliis, the union president. “But they’re not going to be waiting in a lobby that’s chock-a-block full of people.”

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By noon, the parking lot in Nashville was filling quickly.

Bobby Smith, wearing a gray sweatshirt, his keys hanging from the belt loop of his jeans, needed a statement verifying his income from disability so he could continue to qualify for Section 8 public housing.

“This is going to cause me to lose my apartment if I don’t get this paperwork by December!” Smith, 71, called out to no one in particular. He had already been threatened with eviction if he didn’t get the document, he said, as he stood in the parking lot and dialed the 800 number. “Everything else is open and I’m getting elevator music.” Eventually he gave up and walked away to wait for the bus home.

Emily Clark, 42 and deaf, needed the same form to apply for food stamps and Section 8 housing.

“I’m hearing-impaired, please help me!” she begged the guard. He brought her a whiteboard, on which she wrote her Social Security number and what she needed. The guard brought it to a manager, who printed out the statement for her. It would be the day’s only victory.

Before the pandemic, 15 million mostly poor, mostly Black and Hispanic Americans, including children, received disability benefits. (No current comparative numbers were available.) The programs are heavily scrutinized for fraud; applicants are required to produce a dizzying array of official documents, from work and medical history to rent and family arrangements. The application form is 23 pages long.

One missing document can result in a denied claim.

Lawyers and advocates are able to help only a minority of claimants. In Nashville, Ann-Douglas Tycer, a 76-year-old grandmother of five in three-inch heels and nylons, works the phones with Southern manners that belie 30 years of battles for her clients.

They struggle with degenerative back injuries from years of manual labor, mental health issues and chronic illness. Many have long suffered from patchy health care. Tycer helps them through the initial application, but she’s more essential once they have been turned down and are trying again. It can take years to win a case on appeal, and that’s when Tycer is paid — at most a few thousand dollars from her client’s retroactive benefits.

Her biggest worry right now is Mariann Clouse, 21 and diagnosed with Juvenile Huntington’s, a degenerative neurological disease that runs in families and will eventually kill her.

Tycer filed an application for disability benefits in May, hoping that Clouse would qualify for a rare compassionate allowance. She lives in a small apartment, subsidized by a Section 8 voucher, with her husband, William, and their toddler son, born three months before her diagnosis. She suffers from tremors and cognitive lapses and has trouble speaking.

Huntington’s is on a list of conditions that Social Security flags for quick decisions, according to its website. After seven months, Tycer has heard nothing.

She was informed this fall that the case had been transferred to an office of teleworking employees based in Jamaica, N.Y., where she has left multiple unreturned voice mails seeking a bar code to file Clouse’s updated medical records.

“It’s a long time for somebody so sick,” Tycer said. “Cases can just sit in a computer. Even cases like this.”

Now, in desperation, she was dialing the Nashville office, where she filed the case. The call went to voice mail. After 21 minutes of waiting on her third try, a human being picked up.

“This is Ann Tycer. I’m trying to get a status check on my client’s case.” The claims representative confirmed what the attorney already knew, that Clouse’s application was pending in New York. There was no further information.

“I don’t have a problem with the individuals in the field office,” Tycer said. “But I feel like they’re using the pandemic as an excuse to not get back into the office. It must be very comfortable for them not being at their desks.”

William Clouse has not been able to work as a landscaper while he cares for his wife and their son. Social Security called him once last spring. “They just said it was a long process, and be prepared to wait a little while,” he recalled.

“Honestly, I don’t see why they would shut down as bad as they did,” he said. “These are more important offices than McDonald’s and Burger King. And they’re open.”

After this report was published online, Social Security called Tycer to ask for additional medical information about Clouse, a sign that her application was getting attention, Tycer said.

Two hours west in Jackson, an old cotton city where almost 1 in 4 people live in poverty, Beth Bates, a legal services attorney, reviewed 4,000 pages of medical records she needed to know cold for an upcoming appeal for a client with degenerative disk disease, breathing problems and borderline intellectual function who had twice been turned down for benefits. The third effort had stalled because the state could not find a psychiatrist to conduct the required exam, she said.

More than 31,000 similar medical reviews of applications and initial appeals were awaiting a decision in August, the most recent month for which data is available, from Tennessee Disability Determination Services. That represented a 28 percent jump from before the pandemic, according to an analysis of federal data by Stacy Cloyd of the National Organization of Social Security Claimants’ Representatives. State officials blamed the setbacks on slow mail delivery, power and Internet challenges after a tornado in March 2020, a bombing in Nashville in December 2020, and a new case processing system causing delays nationwide.

A judge in Memphis offered Bates and her client a phone hearing, held this month. Bates worried that the judge would miss important information about her client’s condition without seeing her in person. They’re awaiting a written decision; Bates was notified after this report published that the case had moved one step closer to a judgment.

In October, Bates, now 62, celebrated 34 years representing people with disabilities for West Tennessee Legal Services, headquartered in a dated one-story building on Jackson’s dying main street and serving 17 rural counties.

Even with all of her knowledge of arcane disability law, the pandemic still confounds her: There’s the client with multiple health problems who won an appeal of Social Security’s claim that he was overpaid, but whose $1,281 monthly check continued to be garnished $75 for more than a year because of a mistake by the payment center in Birmingham, Ala. The error was finally corrected, but the man has yet to receive a refund for the money he lost.

“It’s pending,” Bates said dryly.

By afternoon in Nashville, the lunchtime surge ebbing, the security guard circled the field office on his hourly perimeter check. A landscaper came to water the patch of grass between the building and the parking lot, maintaining the appearance that the government was fully open for business.

Huey Larkins, who keeps a torn, 30-year-old photo of himself as a bodybuilder in his glove compartment, maneuvered his car into a parking space. He hoisted his walker out of the trunk and headed for the front doors. He was about to turn 65 and lose a $380 disability check from the company he worked for when he was injured in a car crash. He also collects benefits from Social Security but wanted to know whether they would grow if he filed for retirement. But he does not have a computer, leaving the office as his only option for information. And it was locked.

A woman nearby, who had driven 46 miles to drop off her adopted daughter’s birth certificate from China so an error on her Social Security card could be corrected, had finally had enough.

“Why aren’t they open?” the woman yelled. “These people work for us! This whole country is backwards right now.”

She approached the security guard. “I was just wondering if there is a reason why your drop box is closed right now?” she asked, then returned to her car to wait more than an hour until 3 p.m., when she could finally deposit the birth certificate.

At 3:54 p.m., the guard took away the drop box, slid shut the top and bottom locks on the front doors and turned out the fluorescent lights. Three more taxpayers sat in their cars, cellphones to their ears, waiting for a Social Security employee somewhere to pick up.

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