How to Manage Social Security While Social Distancing

When businesses and organizations started reducing hours and services in response to the COVID-19 situation, I like many of you started questioning. Will the hardware store stay open? Will my plumber and HVAC service people still work? What about my car repair shop? My veterinarian? The pet supply store? While I feel concern for the waitstaff and restaurant owners, I was not too surprised nor too deprived when the governor asked bars and restaurants to close down. My kitchen and the occasional run to Binny’s Beverage Depot would fill the gap. I was a bit thrown when the schools closed down, but the faculty at my son’s wonderful Montessori school quickly filled the void, sending work home and arranging twice-daily Zoom calls with the teacher and his age cohort. And I got used to a new soundtrack of giggles and humming—Arizona Zervas’ “Roxanne”, for instance, is a current favorite—and frequent calls for “Mommmmm…” When our church had to shut down, I was very discouraged, but the rector and assistant rector stepped bravely into the work of live-streaming liturgy, and I was heartened despite the technology glitches.

But, although I could understand the rationale—most of their clientele are seniors and people with disabilities that may include compromised physical health—I was quite disconcerted when the Social Security Administration (SSA) closed their field offices to physical traffic. If you are a person with a disability, Social Security may be a key component of your income; and Medicare and Medicaid, both of which are closely correlated to certain Social Security benefits, may be critical to maintain your healthcare and support services. In fact, as I was writing this blog, a client using her “Ticket-to-Work” called to ask whether there was anything new or different she needed to do to maintain her benefits. The SSA is doing a pretty good job of updating the public on how they are continuing to offer services during the crisis. For immediate and ongoing updates, you can subscribe here. You can also visit the SSA’s Facebook page or follow the agency on Twitter. Here is a summary of the main developments so far.

The SSA is encouraging everyone to do business online through the website at SSA.gov(hyperlink?) and their My Social Security Account selection. I appreciate that it is not always easy to create a My Social Security account, but I’ll go through the steps. Enter here and click “create account”, and then agree to the terms of service. Next, fill in your basic information such as name, birthdate and Social Security Number as well as address and phone number. You will also need an email address, so create one of those first if you do not already have one. There is also an option to add an extra level of security if you desire. The next screen is where many people have difficulty. In order to verify that you are you (and not some online scammer who stole your identity), you will need to answer several personal questions about items and services you have purchased or used in the past. These questions are developed from your credit history. Unless you have a photographic memory that extends back decades, I strongly suggest that you first print out copies of your credit reports from a website like this one so that you have the answers close by. If you enter too many answers incorrectly, the Social Security system will lock you out, and you will need to go to an office to get it unlocked again which, of course, you cannot do for the time being. The remainder of the account setup process is much as you would expect. You create your username and password. Note that there are some particular specifications for the password. Then, you create security questions in case you need to reset your password in the future. Finally, you arrange for your security code to be texted to your cell phone or emailed to you. It will take a minute or two and you will need to use it within its 10-minute validity period.

If you are able to set up your account successfully, you can then manage your account and conduct a certain amount of Social Security business online. You can change your address of record, add or update direct-deposit information, obtain your 1099 document for tax or other purposes, and print a proof of benefits. You can also get a replacement Social Security card and request a Medicare card. Note that you cannot request a replacement Medicaid/public aid card through the site. You can review your personal data including your work earnings history, view your most recent Social Security statement (once you have a My Social Security Account, statements are no longer mailed out to you), and get estimates of your disability and retirement benefits. If you are not already receiving a benefit, you can apply for Social Security disability or retirement benefits as well as Medicare.

Typically, I advise clients, who are applying for or appealing a decision on Social Security Disability benefits, to set an in-person appointment. Disability applications can be complicated, and it helps when the Social Security agent can see and hear the applicant and the applicant can explain the details of her/his condition, living situation, and work situation (if applicable). It is also easier to bring a large stack of documents to an office in person and point out the relevant sections to the agent than it is to scan and upload a lot of documents and then hope that someone on the other end has the patience to look at them all and find those applicable sections. However, for the duration of the COVID-19 slowdown, I suggest that those applying for benefits at least begin the process online because this starts the clock ticking. If and when benefits are approved, the recipient will be back-paid to the date of application. Thus, you want to make this date as early as possible. If you are appealing a Social Security decision, I recommend you at least start the appeal process online in order to submit the appeal prior to the applicable deadline.

Because it is often difficult to provide all the relevant information within the categories and questions that are included on specific Social Security forms, I also recommend that you include a cover letter with either your application or your appeal that lays out as briefly and clearly as possible of the most compelling two or three reasons why, due to your disability and related conditions, you are unable at this present time to earn more than $1,220/month (gross). Note that for the SSA’s decision making process, it must be your disability that is limiting your earning capacity. The decision will not be based on the strength or weakness of the general economy or your particular field.

It is unnerving when an agency on which you rely has to reduce or suspend its service. The Social Security Administration, like our schools and houses of worship is trying to meet beneficiary needs in ways that pass social distancing muster. When self-serve through the Social Security website is not sufficient, you can find a phone number for your specific local office here. Note that you have to look towards the bottom of the listing under “Additional Office Information.” If you have any questions about benefits, whether you are receiving them yet or now, please contact me by email at alexandra@coyjllc.com or by phone at 773-297-1556 or go to my website. I am working from home as I shelter in place and will do my best to find an answer to your question.

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