How Social Security Office Closings Impact Disability Wait Times (2022 UPDATE)

by fihguide   ·  7 months ago  

On March 17, 2020, the Social Security Administration decided to temporarily close all field offices due to the coronavirus outbreak. More than a year later, SSA offices began accepting some limited in-person appointments on May 28, 2021. Regardless, every Social Security office in the nation remains closed to walk-in traffic as of June 2021. Right now, people can only schedule in-person appointments for certain requests; but applying for disability isn’t one of them. As a result, people interested in disability benefits must access this vital SSA service through one of the following options:

  • Having a legal representative file your disability application, check your claim status or handle your appeal in a timely manner
  • Visiting SSA.gov’s online web portal
  • Calling 1-800-772-1213 to contact the SSA by phone toll-free (TTY: 1-800-325-0778)

It’s unclear how long these coronavirus office closings will stay in effect. Below, we’ll address some concerns from people worried about getting disability benefits until offices fully reopen to the public.

Who Can Now Request an In-Person Appointment in 2022?

For the following issues, call 1-800-772-1213 to request an in-person “express interview” appointment at your local Social Security office:

  • Original Social Security card requests for people aged 12 and older
  • Replacement Social Security cards for people whose current information is incorrect (i.e., name change after marriage or divorce, change in citizenship status, incorrect date of birth, etc.)
  • Those who cannot submit original documents required to prove their identity in the mail or via external drop-box locations (for example: lawfully present non-citizens applying for SSI benefits that must also have immigration documents on their person at all times)

When you call, the SSA will “pre-screen” you by phone to ensure your issue qualifies for an in-person express interview. First, they review all other options with you in case there’s another way to fulfill your request. Once they’re sure you must come in, they’ll explain which documents to bring to your appointment. Then, they’ll schedule a time and date for your office visit to review that evidence in person. Finally, your “express interview” is solely to review your evidence documents and should last 5-7 minutes total. Once the field agent verifies those documents, they’ll give them back and confirm your current mailing address.

You cannot ask questions, apply for benefits, or handle other Social Security-related business during your in-person appointment. A local SSA agent can schedule a time to discuss those issues with you by phone after your interview, if needed. Otherwise, it’s best to ask those questions when you first call to request an appointment.

Social Security Office Closings Won’t Stop You From Getting Your Monthly Benefit Payments

Scammers are sending out letters saying that unless you call a specific phone number, you’ll stop getting Social Security payments. This is not true. Social Security’s Inspector General, Gail S. Ennis, recently issued a press release about the latest scams. If you get a letter, call, text or email that fits this description, report it to the SSA here.  

How Long Does It Take to Apply for Disability Benefits Over the Phone?

If you planned to apply for disability benefits in person at your local Social Security office, we have good news. Those office employees still answer your phone calls and provide critical support services to those in need. When calling the SSA’s national, toll-free numbers, automated telephone services should help reduce your time spent on hold. To speak with an employee at your local Social Security office, you must call the general inquiry (GI) line instead. Visit the Social Security office locator page, type in your ZIP code and then click the “locate” button. You should see the GI phone number displayed on the next page.

In FY2020, anyone calling the SSA’s 1-800 national number waited an average of 16 minutes before speaking to a person. In fact, the SSA received almost 33.5 million calls that year (250,000 per day)! Depending on which disability benefit you’re applying for, expect it to take 91-130 minutes total over the phone. That’s about how long the application process takes in person at your local Social Security office. We recommend blocking off a three-hour period to complete your disability application by phone.

Applying for Disability Benefits or Checking Your Claim’s Status Online

You can, of course, apply for disability benefits online through the SSA’s website. Be aware, though, that applying online won’t increase your chances for approval or get your benefits paid any faster. (Filing through a lawyer makes you nearly 3x more likely to get approved the first time than applying on your own.)  Once you’ve created your SSA.gov account, you can save your progress as you go and check your claim status anytime. However, you’ll still need to wait about four months, on average, to hear back from the SSA.

How Might Social Security Office Closings Impact Disability Approval Wait Times for New Applicants?

The average estimated Social Security disability claim-processing time in 2021 was 171 days. While Social Security offices nationwide remain closed, expect even longer average wait times. What’s more, that 171 days is how long it takes from the date you apply to hear back from the SSA. It’s not how long the average person waits for claim approval, in other words. If you apply on March 1, 2022 and get approved, expect your first payment in August 2022. However, if the SSA denies your claim, you still have 60 days to appeal.

Reconsideration is the first appeal stage, and it adds another 152 days to your wait time, more or less. If successful, you’ll wait an average of 323 days for approval. Add in time to file your appeal, and you’ll likely get your first SSD payment in early Spring 2023. And if the SSA denies your first appeal? Then your wait time grows much longer, unfortunately. Every state has its own court calendar, and you’ll have to wait months or years to schedule an appeals hearing. If you get to this stage, expect to wait at least 633 days before receiving your decision.

No matter how strong you think your disability claim is, talk to a lawyer before you apply. Every disability lawyer works on contingency and offers free, no-obligation consultations. Attorneys won’t charge anything up front to file your SSD application. If the SSA denies your claim, then you owe $0 in legal assistance. And if you do get approved for benefits, then you’ll only pay a small, one-time fee. Determined to apply on your own? We recommend Real Tactics for Filing Your Disability Claim, written in plain, easy to understand language by someone who got approved for benefits herself.

Related: Disability Question: Do I Have to Quit My Job?