The COVID-19 pandemic has affected the functioning of systems and processes. In the heat of the pandemic, the United States had to enforce the restriction of movement and closure of many government offices. The government took these measures to minimize the spread of the virus.
Many government offices have had to close for several months, limiting their operations to online services. The Social Security Administration (SSA) offices in various states are other government agencies that had to operate solely online. Walk-in services are limited in such offices, making it impossible for many claimants to access benefits.
The Social Security Administration as a government agency was initially set up to provide social assistance programs to improve the living condition of poor and disabled people. The social assistance program under the jurisdiction of this agency includes the Social Security Income (SSI) and the Social Security Disability Income (SSDI). Through these social assistance programs, the different government administrations have positively impacted the lives of many American citizens.
As expected, the pandemic has increased the need for social assistance programs with the decrease in income level for most people. A survey carried out by Pew Research Center has shown that one in every four adult Americans has at one point or the other found it difficult to pay their bills since the COVID-19 pandemic. Additionally, one out of six Americans has had to depend on one form of assistance or the other to survive the pandemic.
However, with the closure of the local field offices of the SSA in different states, the processing of social security applications has become more cumbersome. Many beneficiaries rely on the walk-in services available in the field offices to process their application. These walk-in services are no longer available, leaving many Americans without access to social security benefits.
Before the pandemic, the SSA 1200 statewide offices attended to over 43 million visitors. However, the pandemic has forced the agency to make massive administrative and technological changes. SSA offices have to carry out their functions remotely to protect the public and its employees from being exposed to the virus.
The changes in operations have succeeded in denying some older, and disabled Americans access to Supplemental Security Income and disability benefits. Even as things begin to normalize after the extended lockdown, the SSA field offices have not resumed their operations fully. Several SSA employees are still working remotely with the agency bringing in workers in strict adherence to guidelines given by the government to ensure the safety of workers.
One of the things that have been evident since the pandemic outbreak is the sharp drop in the number of applications received by the agency for SSI and SSDI. A large proportion of recipients of supplemental income are people of color.
“The reduction in the number of applications can indicate that these people are going through tough times. The conclusion from the decline in the application is simple – many poor, aged, and disabled Americans are not getting the assistance they need,” says Attorney Sara Khaki of the Khaki Law Firm
Though the agency is doing its best to ensure it operates efficiently, it has faced criticism in the online application requirement. Many claimants have had to make the hard decision of sending in sensitive documents needed to complete their applications, such as driver’s licenses, through the mail.
The agency deserves commendation for its proactiveness in switching to online services. However, the role of field offices in ensuring that Americans who require assistance have access to it cannot be overemphasized. From food stamps to eligibility for reimbursement of medicare expenses review – these are part of the gap employees of SSA in the field offices fill.
While the SSA is making moves to reopen its field offices by January partially, it is also essential that measures are put in place to ensure they are operating without restrictions. The agency should channel more resources to areas that have witnessed the highest decline in applications for SSI and SSDI since the closure of the field offices. The agency could also go the extra mile to extend its working hours, especially during the weekend, so that its staff members can attend to more people.
Providing a walk-in service will not be out of place as it would give the applicants with limited access to the internet the opportunity to still process their application. Finally, making the online application rigorous defeats the aim of online services. The filling of the applications should be as easy as possible, making it possible for anyone to apply with little or no assistance.