Social Security’s customer service promises improvements
Camp is President of the National Organization of Social Security Claimants’ Representatives (NOSSCR), an association of more than 3,000 attorneys and disability advocates who specialize in social security cases. He alleges that some ongoing COVID-19 protocols and practices, including social distancing, remote working and guiding people to make appointments rather than show up in offices, are impeding access to some people in dire need.
While it recommends appointments, the SSA says the vast majority of offices “have resumed in-person service for those without an appointment.” Camp says that as a practice, many offices “won’t accept walk-ins except to make an appointment,” creating a barrier for applicants with severe disabilities.
“As it is a later date, it causes the same problems for the closest suitors. A homeless person with schizophrenia needs a place to go,” he says. “We have had local SSA offices available to help people through generations through COVID and we are struggling with SSA not going back to what has worked in the past.”
Telephone, online access desired
Since field offices reopened, SSA’s public communications and social media have encouraged people to call the agency’s national customer service number, 800-772-1213, or use the My Social Security online platform whenever possible.
Many routine SSA services can be accessed online or over the phone, including applying for various types of benefits, getting estimates of monthly payments, requesting a replacement Medicare or Social Security card, and obtaining a benefits confirmation letter.
However, the national phone line has been plagued by service issues while the SSA implements a system-wide upgrade. A Sept. 6 post on the agency’s social media account noted that callers could experience “busy signals, dropped calls and long waits.” We sincerely apologize for any inconvenience and appreciate your patience while we work to fully restore phone service.”
In July, the most recent month for which data is available, callers to the national number waited an average of about 32 minutes to speak to an agent, up from 9 minutes a year earlier. According to an SSA report, the agency’s goal is to reduce response times to 12 minutes by September 30, 2023.
Angela Digeronimo, a Social Security Claims Specialist, handles calls at her local office in Woodbridge, New Jersey, and serves both in that role and as the local union executive of the American Federation of Government Employees, representing SSA field offices and teleservice workers, from far. She says teleworking offers “a better way to provide services to the public than crowded waiting rooms and long waits.”
“Teleworking supports our employees with their work-life balance,” says Digeronimo. “The agency is not competitive when it comes to offering work-life balance. People want teleworking. Candidates primarily ask whether the position is suitable for teleworking.”
According to Camp, working remotely is efficient for certain Social Security positions, e.g. for administrative judges hearing appeals in disability benefit cases, but it’s no panacea for ailing customer service.
“To pretend that we can replace that in-person level of functioning with remote working ignores what we see in terms of the facts and the number of people served,” he says. “There’s no other explanation for the fact that it’s difficult to get into an office and there aren’t enough people when they get there.”
While accessing services by phone or online can save many people a trip to a field office, Doggett says it may not be the best approach for beneficiaries and applicants who are older or who are in poor physical or mental health.
“I know a lot of seniors aren’t that skilled at using such services,” he says. “I agree that we need more staff in the offices to deal with these issues. Virtual workers are simply not an adequate solution to this problem.”
“While we understand your encouragement to use SSA’s online or telephone options,” LeaMond wrote in her letter to the agency, “we recognize that this strategy presents significant challenges in reducing service issues in field offices.” Some services , such as applying for survivor benefits or SSI, cannot be completed online, she noted, and “even among those who prefer online services, many who apply for Social Security benefits online ultimately turn to in-person or telephone counseling for assistance.”
6 Social Security Tasks You Can’t Do Online
You can complete many social security transactions online, from registering a change of address to applying for a pension. But there are still some services, some of which are fairly common, that require direct interaction with a live representative. Here are six things you can do just by calling the Social Security Administration (SSA) or visiting a local field office.
Apply for a survivor’s pension: There is no online mechanism to claim benefits from the income file of a deceased spouse, ex-spouse or parent. Call the SSA National Customer Service Number (800-772-1213) or contact your local office to make a claim.
Report death: You should notify the SSA as soon as possible if a person receiving benefits dies. A funeral home will often take care of this, but if you are reporting a death yourself you will need to do so by phone or a social security office.
Apply for a death benefit: Spouses and children who qualify for a survivor’s pension may also be able to receive a $255 one-time death benefit from Social Security.
Apply for additional security income (in most cases): You can start the SSI application process online, but except in very narrow cases, you (or someone you designate to represent you) must meet an SSA representative in person or by phone to complete it.
Become a representative payee: Representative payees administer benefits for millions of Social Security beneficiaries who are unable to do so themselves because of age (e.g., having a young child) or disability. You must be approved by the SSA to fill this role, and the application process usually requires an in-person interview.
Request a new social security number: You generally can’t change your Social Security number, but Social Security will consider assigning a new number if you’re at risk from domestic violence or are experiencing acute financial loss as a result of identity theft. You can only apply in person at an SSA office.