The Social Security Administration (SSA) has reopened its more than 1,200 field offices to the public for the first time in two years, and the agency also launched an online tool for first-time Supplemental Security Income (SSI) applicants.
SSA closed its offices at the onset of the Covid-19 pandemic in March 2020, forcing the 43 million people who visit them each year to transact business via telephone, fax, and the mail. Many clients reported difficulties getting through to the agency, raising fears that services were being denied to the most vulnerable.
But the offices were back open April 7, albeit with restrictions: Masks and social distancing are still required. To avoid overcrowding, the agency is still urging people to make appointments — though these are not mandated — and to avoid coming in person altogether if they can accomplish what they need to online or by phone. Alternatively, officials are advising people to postpone in-person visits to avoid long lines that are expected during the first weeks of reopening.
SSA employees and their clients are facing other challenges. Technical glitches have assailed the agency’s national toll-free telephone service, preventing many from getting through and causing involuntary hang-ups. In addition, hopes that the agency would be able to hire employees to replace those who left during the pandemic were dashed last month when it received less than half the budget increase requested by the Biden administration. In the meantime, the agency is rehiring recently retired personnel on a temporary basis to help with the expected crunch of clients.
Meanwhile, the SSA is offering a new online tool to allow people to book an appointment for the purposes of applying for SSI. Doing so establishes a so-called “protective filing date” that is used to determine when an applicant may start receiving benefits. After receiving the online request, the SSA will contact the applicant in 7–14 business days to schedule an appointment. To access the new tool, click here.