Sunday, June 19, 2022

Should I Object To A Telephone Or Video Hearing?

Many of my clients are looking for guidance as to whether they should object to a telephone or video hearing should they have to appear in front of an Administrative Law Judge ("ALJ") for a Social Security Disability Insurance "(SSDI") and/or Supplemental Security Income ("SSI") hearing. It is an excellent question and I think that many attorneys have different views on the matter. 

I want to give you my personal opinion on the subject. Keep in mind, I am currently only practicing in California  (I used to practice all over the Western US) and that my firm is located in Long Beach.  I wanted to clarify my location because I might feel differently about the issue if I practiced in less populated states like Maine or Vermont. However, the California Office of Hearings Operations ("OHO") are currently running over 400 days behind. Apparently, long hearing waiting periods come along with our hefty "sunshine tax."

You may be asking yourself, "What is a OHO?" The OHOs are responsible for  assigning ALJs to hear claimants' cases at the third stage of the SSDI/SSI process. By the time a claimant requests a hearing, the claimant has already been denied at the initial application and reconsideration levels, stages that can take a combined one year to 18 months to go through. 

The California OHOs have made it clear to my office that if we demand an in-person hearing, we will likely be adding up to an additional 200 days of waiting to the already lengthy waiting period for a hearing. This is because not every ALJ is back working at the OHOs due to the pandemic. Many are still working remotely and will remain working remotely for the indefinite future. Additionally, I have been told that scheduling is "easier" on the scheduling units when we agree to virtual hearings. This is due to the fact ALJs and experts have more openings in their schedules when they are working from home. It is essentially easier to find more common time slots in which all parties are available for the hearings. 

I certainly can attest to the fact that my phone and video hearings do seem to get scheduled about four to six months faster than in-person hearings. I also have found that the ALJs are granting as many cases virtually as they do at in-person hearings. In fact, I think the ALJs are granting at a slightly higher rate during the pandemic (for my clients at least).

That being said, there are times that I think it is beneficial to have an in-person hearing. My clients with impairments like hearing disorders, tremors, notable skin conditions, and other impairments that are visible may benefit from an in-person hearing. Also, clients who do not have access to reliable phone or computer service would likely want to select an in-person hearing. The desired format of the hearing really comes down to a case by case basis. 

In summary, I do not think that an in-person hearing is crucial in most instances. However, it is a good idea to discuss the options with your attorney and get your attorney's recommendation before objecting to the format, so you are making an informed decision when it comes to your hearing choices.   

Got a question about SSDI or SSI that you need us to answer? Please check out our website at www.westcoastdisability.com . We try to provide you with helpful information on our website that will allow you to successfully navigate the Social Security Disability process. Also, feel free to email me your questions at megan@westcoastdisability.com or call me at (800) 459-3017 x 101.






Sunday, May 22, 2022

3 Important Updates From the NOSSCR Annual Conference

The National Organization of Social Security Claimants’ Representatives (“NOSSCR”) held its annual conference in Austin, Texas, last week. It was exciting for multiple reasons. For starters, it was an in-person conference. Well, some speakers attended virtually, but the conference goers were all real, non-Zoom-an beings.  While I did come home with a cold (not COVID….I was tested J), I also came back to California with updates – some positive and some a little bleak. Here are 3 updates from NOSSCR that you may be interested in hearing about.

1.     SSA’s Acting Commissioner, Dr. Kilolo Kijakazi, announced that beginning November 30, 2022, SSA is raising the representative fee cap to $7,200.00. This is the first pay raise that representatives have had since 2009. Thirteen years is a long time to go without a pay increase, especially since our fees are not subject to standard Cost-Of-Living-Adjustments (“COLA”) and we have been dealing with all the increased costs that come along with inflation. SSA charges representatives a “user fee” for withholding our fees, so while that fee has steadily increased every year, our attorneys’ fees remained stagnant.  This caused some representatives to start practicing other areas of law to make ends meet and others abandoned their Social Security Disability Insurance (“SSDI”) and Supplemental Security Income (“SSI”) practices altogether in recent years.  I hope the increased fees mean more “mom and pop” practices like mine will be able to survive in order to help those who are truly deserving of disability benefits. Thank you to all of those who lobbied to increase the fee cap!

2.      Acting Commissioner Kijakazi also gave us an honest portrayal of what is going on at SSA. She fully acknowledged that SSA lacks an adequate budget to handle the volume of claims that SSA has to process every day. While she is thankful for any budget increase that Congress may bestow on SSA, she explained that the current budget was not even close to what is needed to successfully run day-to-day service at SSA.

While this news may sound bleak and cynical, I really appreciated Acting Commissioner Kijakazi’s candor. Like most practitioners and claimants, I have become increasingly frustrated with the poor customer service we have been experiencing from our local field offices. There are times I feel enraged at how poorly some of my clients’ cases are handled by the local field offices. I see “red” at times when we can’t get through to any employees at SSA to address pressing issues for our clients. However, I can’t expect champagne service when SSA has a beer budget…and not a high-end microbrew budget, but more like the garbage kids drink in college. SSA CANNOT perform their jobs if they don’t have a budget to run the program.  

Thus, I am going to make an effort to stop criticizing SSA’s field offices, when the blame seems to fall more with our elected officials. SSA employees are clearly overworked and undervalued. You can’t just assign 1,000 cases to employee and think that person is going to do a stellar job. SSA doesn’t need a bunch of attorneys attacking them right now when they are already having dirt kicked in their faces by our elected officials. Instead, I am going to focus more on who I vote for and educating those as to the necessity of SSDI and SSI benefits.

3.      NOSSCR announced a changing of the guard. While NOSSCR has spent years helping to educate attorneys as to the ins and outs of SSDI and SSI law, they seem to realize that they must focus their efforts more on legislative affairs and policy making. Thus, they are moving their offices from New York to Washington D.C. to become a true legislative player. They are also on a hunt for a new Executive Director.  

I think this is excellent news. I have practiced this area of law for 19 years now. I like to see new blood and “shakeups” in the system. I think a lot of us have felt that our clients have gotten railroaded over the last several years with procedural and legal changes that have hurt the most vulnerable people who need help. I like the fact that NOSSCR recognizes the need to develop new strategies to improve the SSA system. I let me membership lapse years ago, but I was impressed enough with NOSSCR’s changes in the works that I plan to reactivate it.   

Got a question about SSDI or SSI that you need us to answer? Please check out our website at www.westcoastdisability.com . We try to provide you with helpful information on our website that will allow you to successfully navigate the Social Security Disability process. Also, feel free to email me your questions at megan@westcoastdisability.com or call me at (800) 459-3017 x 101.

Monday, April 25, 2022

Back In Business

The Social Security Administration (“SSA”) reopened their field offices to the public on April 7, 2022. This is the first time that the public have been able to visit their local SSA field offices in over two years. As would be expected, SSA field offices in rural areas are handling the demand for in-person appointments better than SSA field offices located in highly populated areas.

I understand that people are thrilled that SSA has reopened for in-person visits. However, pack your patience if you plan on visiting them anytime soon. Even better, it would be advantageous to schedule an appointment at your field office before taking a trip to your local office. The last thing that you want is to be told you have to sit outside a field office for five hours before you will be served.

Keep in mind that the SSA’s field offices are extremely understaffed due to budgetary issues. Each SSA caseworker is assigned far too many cases than they can realistically handle. This creates stress, anxiety and sometimes inpatient attitudes when it comes to SSA field office employees. Be kind to these overworked government employees when you talk to them. As my mama used to say, “You get more birds with honey than you do with vinegar!” I promise you that they will be more out to help you if you treat them with dignity and respect.

In conjunction with reopening the local SSA offices, SSA has made some other changes. Some changes are positive and some are frankly discouraging. In terms of good news, SSA has announced that they plan to revamp their website. They are in “beta” testing mode right now, but SSA is indicating that once the updated website launches, claimants should be able to file for benefits within 20 minutes. Twenty minutes seems like an incredibly optimistic goal. The question remains whether it is a realistic goal. Here is a link to SSA’s “beta” site in case you are curious: https://beta.ssa.gov/.  

Now for the bad news…..For some reason, SSA has removed the local field office numbers from their website. If you do a field office locator search, SSA will now only provide you with the generic national number of (800) 772-1213. While the numbers to the local field offices have been erased, SSA is still providing the public with the local fax numbers to the field offices. I have to imagine SSA is trying to decrease the number of callers to the local field offices. I am never a big fan of SSA’s attempts to make it harder for the public to contact them. Removing the local field offices numbers is undoubtedly going to make it harder for individuals to get the help that they need from SSA. Hopefully, there will be enough public outcry that SSA will again post the local field office numbers.

Got a question about SSDI or SSI that you need us to answer? Please check out our website at www.westcoastdisability.com . We try to provide you with helpful information on our website that will allow you to successfully navigate the Social 

Friday, March 11, 2022

SSA's Phone System Is Down

Have you been trying to get through to SSA by telephone with no luck? Do you get a chronic busy signal or does the phone line disconnect when you attempt to call SSA? You are not alone.

There are multiple reports that SSA's phone system has been down for quite some time. It is ALWAYS very difficult to get through to SSA via telephone, which makes doing business with SSA especially tough currently since they still have not reopened due to their continued pandemic concerns. However, it appears that customer service has gone from notoriously bad to just plain awful.  We started noticing that SSA's phone system seemed to be malfunctioning in early February. I started asking other colleagues if they were experiencing chronic phone issues with SSA and everyone is having the same phone problems with SSA. I thought it was limited to the SSA field offices, but today we realized that you cannot call in to many of the hearing offices either. 

On March 8, 2022, SSA FINALLY sent out a tweet confirming that their phone lines are not functioning properly, but clearly it has not been a high priority to fix the phones. I called several offices today and still could not get through to even the robotic message that normally plays when you telephone your local offices. 

Does SSA really think it is acceptable to ignore the fact that their phone system is not functioning at this point? Perhaps that is SSA's objective.....if people cannot contact SSA by phone, and cannot walk in their local offices to get assistance, then SSA is going to save a TON of time and money. They have effectively eliminated the "customer" out of the "customer service" model. 

Millions of people rely on these benefits in order to secure shelter, heat their homes, buy their medicines, and feed their families. Yet, SSA appears to have no problem ignoring the millions of people who depend on these vital benefits. 

SSA also does not utilize email as a form of contact, and offers only certain services online, so if people need assistance with SSA, that leaves snail mail and the fax machine as the only options to contact SSA. I can also tell you firsthand that SSA routinely misplaces mail and faxes, so you have a very LIMITED chance of getting a response to your paper inquiries.  

I have practiced SSDI/SSI law since 2004. I can tell you with 100 percent certainty that this is the most dysfunctional that I have seen SSA in the 18 years that I have practiced this area of law. I find it heartbreaking to say the least. The most upsetting part of all is that SSA doesn't seem to care that the wheels have fallen off the cart and appear to be doing little to rectify the problems and improve customer service.  

I wish I could tell you that  the worst is over and that we will see better service soon. However, I don't feel optimistic about SSA's future AT ALL. A lack of leadership, little accountability and a minimal budget ensures that SSA will continue to be run into the ground. 

Got a question about SSDI or SSI that you need us to answer? Please check out our website at www.westcoastdisability.com . We try to provide you with helpful information on our website that will allow you to successfully navigate the Social Security Disability process. Also, feel free to email me your questions at megan@westcoastdisability.com or call me at (800) 459-3017 x 101.


Monday, February 28, 2022

SSA To Reopen

The Social Security Administration ("SSA") has taken a lot of heat over the last two years for their decision to close their doors to the public back in March of 2020. Nearly two years later, we have seen SSA struggle to maintain any semblance of acceptable customer service while their employees have worked remotely. The phone lines are impossible to get through. Mail is not being opened timely and has been routinely misplaced and lost. Well......I finally have some good news to share with you!

Barring any new threats from COVID-19, SSA will reopen their field offices' doors on March 30th! We do not know exactly what this will look like yet. We have heard that some SSA employees will still be able to work remotely two days a week, which seems like a fair compromise. There also has been some speculation that in-person hearings will not resume until summer, a development that is not a major problem, as the hearing offices have been quite efficient with their phone hearings. However, as the SSA field office's service has further trickled down the drain (especially in the last six months), we are thrilled that the field offices are reopening. 

We are hearing that SSA may open for "appointment-only" visits initially, but that they will soon get back to a "business-as-usual" approach. More and more claimants, and former clients, are reporting that certain field offices' phone lines are no longer even ringing through to the generic SSA message, so this news couldn't come at a better time. 

While there have been reports of some SSA employees quitting their jobs, rather than return back to their offices, many SSA employees recognize that Federal job benefits offer a certain security that will keep them around after certain remote work options are reduced.  The beauty about our country is that we have the freedom to choose what we do for a living. To those Federal employees who are leaving SSA due to the reopening, we thank you for your service! To those SSA employees who are embracing in-person customer service, thank you for understanding how important your efforts are to the disabled community and to retirees! 

 Got a question about SSDI or SSI that you need us to answer? Please check out our website at www.westcoastdisability.com . We try to provide you with helpful information on our website that will allow you to successfully navigate the Social Security Disability process. Also, feel free to email me your questions at megan@westcoastdisability.com or call me at (800) 459-3017 x 101.






Tuesday, January 4, 2022

SSA IS NOT Reopening This Month

 The Social Security Administration (“SSA”) had previously proposed that they would start reopening the field offices on January 3, 2022. On December 22, 2021, SSA scraped those plans. In the announcement, SSA does not explain why the field offices remain closed to the public, but we have to assume they would cite COVID-19 as the continued culprit, considering the rise of Omicron, which still sounds to me like the name of a sinister Transformer from my childhood cartoons.

 SSA claims that they are open to serve the public via telephone and through internet service, but as the online comments to SSA’s announcement suggest, phone service has been basically impossible to utilize due to long hold times and staff shortages. I would like to say the online commenters are exaggerating as to their difficulties getting through to SSA, but they are not. We have been experiencing the same difficulties getting through to SSA since they closed their doors almost two years ago on March 17, 2020. Likewise, SSA still offers only limited online services, so not all business that needs to be conducted with SSA can be done online.  

 While we were still able to get through SSA’s phone to some degree in 2020, we have noticed that it is rare to get through to the local Southern California field offices over the last 6 months. Hold times regularly exceed 45 minutes and then the phone line appears to “time out” and disconnect at various intervals, depending on the particular SSA field office that you call.

 I actually got through to SSA Watts on December 23rd. I spoke to a lovely woman (she was truly one of the nicest SSA employees that I had ever spoken to), but she tried various extensions of employees working from home to address my client’s claim and could not get any of the SSA caseworkers to answer their phones. I appreciated her efforts, but I made no progress on the claim in spite of being on the phone for over 40 minutes with SSA Watts. She had me leave a message on one gentleman’s voicemail whom she thought “might” be able to look into my client’s claim, but eleven days later, he has not returned my call.  

 SSA has the technological advancements of a company from 1988. They don’t allow the public to email them, so you have to mail items in by snail mail or fax in materials…..yes, fax. Remember those archaic fax machines that were mostly purged by companies over the last decade? That is SSA’s idea of current technological practices. We have also been told that SSA is months behind in opening mail at certain field offices, which has undoubtedly resulted in mail being inadvertently misplaced or lost.

 As I mentioned in previous posts, SSA’s Office of Hearings and Operations (“OHO’s”) have adapted to the pandemic and have offered timely hearings by phone. The OHOs pick up the phone when both claimants and attorneys call in. Somehow the OHOs have successfully managed to adjust to the pandemic, but the local field offices have failed to adapt to these unprecedented challenges.  To the public at large, it appears as if the SSA field offices are making no attempts to improve the dismal service that they have provided to the public since the pandemic began.

 I fully understand that the rise of Omicron is further delaying the reopening of the SSA field offices (which I do support for the safety of their employees for January at least), but I do not understand how 22 months into SSA’s public closure they still have not found a way to provide reliable phone service or expand the ways to communicate with SSA by utilizing such commonplace technology as email. I am honestly starting to wonder if SSA field offices will ever recover from the pandemic as the wheels seem to have fallen off the cart to such a degree, that I really can’t imagine the cart functioning again….not in my lifetime at least.  

 Got a question about SSDI or SSI that you need us to answer? Please check out our website at www.westcoastdisability.com . We try to provide you with helpful information on our website that will allow you to successfully navigate the Social Security Disability process. Also, feel free to email me your questions at megan@westcoastdisability.com or call me at (800) 459-3017 x 101.

Friday, December 24, 2021

4 Important Changes for 2022 that Could Affect Your Social Security Disability and Supplemental Security Income benefits

 Every year the Social Security Administration (“SSA”) makes important changes to the monetary thresholds associated with Social Security Disability Insurance (“SSDI”) and Supplemental Security Income (“SSI”) benefits. It is important to know about these changes, so you are in compliance with SSA’s requirements. 

1.     SSA Announces a Cost-of-Living Adjustment (“COLA”) for 2022

The Social Security Administration has announced a 5.9 percent benefit increase for 2022. This cost-of-living adjustment (“COLA”) will begin on December 30, 2021 for Supplemental Security Income (“SSI”) beneficiaries. Social Security Disability Insurance (“SSDI”) and Social Security Retirement recipients will see the effects of the COLA in their January 2022 benefit payments. This is the largest COLA in close to 40 years.

2.      SSA has increased the threshold value for full-time work.

In order to be found disabled under SSA’s definition of disability, you must be able to prove that you are unable to earn a certain monetary value due to the limitations from your disability.  This value is referred to as “Substantial Gainful Activity (“SGA”). If you are able to work at SGA levels, SSA will not consider you to be disabled. For 2022, that monthly rate is $1,350.00 for a non-blind individual and $2,260.00 for a blind individual. Thus, if you are able to earn such monthly earnings, in spite of any impairment that you have, then you are not disabled under SSA’s definition of disability.

3.      SSA has increased the amount that a person can earn during a Trial Work Period.

SSA allows SSDI recipients to test their ability to work in a program called a Trial Work Period (“TWP”). During a TWP, a SSDI recipient is able to work for 9 month period without being at risk for losing his/her benefits. These months do not have to be consecutive. Specifically, SSA looks to see whether an individual can earn at certain levels over a rolling 60 month period. If a person exceeds certain monetary levels for 9 months (even if not consecutive) over a 5 year period, then the TWP has been exhausted. SSA will then look to see if a person has exceeded SGA values (see above) to determine whether or not, the person is still under a disability. For 2022, SSA will consider any month in which a SSDI recipient earns more than $970.00 to be a month in which goods and services have been performed at a TWP level.

4.      SSA has increased the value of a quarter of coverage.

In order to receive SSDI benefits, you must be insured for benefits. This means you must have paid into the Social Security system through the Federal Insurance Contributions Act (“FICA”). An individual must have worked a sufficient amount of quarters to be entitled to these benefits. Every year a person can earn up to 4 quarters. For 2022, one quarter of coverage is $1,510.00. This means you must earn at least $6,040.00 for 2022 in order to obtain all 4 quarters for the year. 

Got a question about SSDI or SSI that you need us to answer? Please check out our website at www.westcoastdisability.com . We try to provide you with helpful information on our website that will allow you to successfully navigate the Social Security Disability process. Also, feel free to email me your questions at megan@westcoastdisability.com or call me at (800) 459-3017 x 101.