Mar 31, 2020

Transmission of Fraudulent Robocalls Enjoined

     From a press release:
The Department of Justice announced that the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of New York entered orders in two separate civil actions barring eight individuals and entities from continuing to facilitate the transmission of massive volumes of fraudulent robocalls to consumers in the United States.  In one of the matters, United States v. Nicholas Palumbo, et al., the court entered a preliminary injunction that bars defendants Nicholas and Natasha Palumbo and two entities from operating as intermediate voice-over-internet-protocol (VoIP) carriers during the pendency of the civil action.  In the other matter, United States v. Jon Kahen, et al., the court entered consent decrees that permanently bar defendants Jon Kahen and three entities from operating as intermediate VoIP carriers conveying fraudulent robocalls into the U.S. telephone system. ...

Mar 30, 2020

More Covid-19 Scams

     From a press release from Social Security's Office of Inspector General:
Today, I am warning the public about fraudulent letters threatening suspension of Social Security benefits due to COVID-19 or coronavirus-related office closures. Social Security will not suspend or discontinue benefits because their offices are closed.
The Social Security Office of the Inspector General has received reports that Social Security beneficiaries have received letters through the U.S. Mail stating their payments will be suspended or discontinued unless they call a phone number referenced in the letter. Scammers may then mislead beneficiaries into providing personal information or payment via retail gift cards, wire transfers, internet currency, or by mailing cash, to maintain regular benefit payments during this period of COVID-19 office closures. ...

Mar 29, 2020

Claimants Objecting To Health Risk Of CEs

     From the Buffalo News:
While safety concerns over the Covid-19 pandemic have closed government offices across the United States, the Social Security Administration is putting people in danger by directing them to a small Buffalo clinic for medical evaluations, five Buffalo-area attorneys said Friday. 
The Social Security Administration has continued to require applicants for disability benefits to be evaluated by doctors at the 699 Hertel Ave. clinic run by Industrial Medicine Associates, also known as IMA, the attorneys said. 
“I’ve had clients who have been told to go to this clinic and told that if they didn’t go, their applications for benefits could be negatively impacted,” said Richard G. Abbott, a Kenmore attorney who represents applicants for Social Security disability insurance. “Our president, our governor and county executive are telling people with underlying health issues to stay home. Social Security tells them to go to a place where they may be exposed to people who are sick. It’s outrageous.”

Mar 28, 2020

What To Do With That $300 Million?

     Why is it that I have this feeling that the Social Security Administration, under the leadership of Andrew Saul, will use little of the $300 million supplemental appropriation it just got on additional overtime so it can get its work done but will, instead, spend the money on IT contractors who may help the agency, at best, in the long run? Perhaps because I've noticed that Republican officeholders are enormously hostile towards the federal workforce and either indifferent or hostile towards the federal government providing services to the public. Perhaps because I've seen what has happened previously when Social Security got special appropriations when a Republican Administration was in power.

Mar 27, 2020

Some Info On Economic Stimulus And Social Security

     From a Senate Finance Committee staff summary of the economic stimulus bill just passed by the House of Representatives and which is only pending the President's signature:
Are individuals with little to no income or those on means-tested federal benefits, such as SSI, eligible for a recovery rebate? Yes, there is no qualifying income requirement. Even individuals with $0 of income are eligible for a rebate so long as they are not the dependent of another taxpayer and have a work-eligible SSN.
Are seniors whose only income is from Social Security or a veteran whose only income is a veterans’ disability payment eligible? Yes, as long as they are not the dependent of another taxpayer. The bill also provides IRS with additional tools to locate and provide rebates to low-income seniors who normally do not file a tax return by allowing them to base a rebate on Form SSA-1099, Social Security Benefit Statement or Form RRB-1099, which is the equivalent of the Social Security statement for Railroad Employees. However, seniors are still encouraged to file their 2019 tax return to ensure they receive their recovery rebate as quickly as possible. ...
I am eligible for a rebate, what do I have to do to receive it? For the vast majority of Americans, no action on their part will be required to receive a rebate check since the IRS will use a taxpayer’s 2019 tax return if filed or their 2018 return if they haven’t filed their 2019 return. This includes many individuals with very low income who file a tax return despite not owing any tax in order to take advantage of the refundable Earned Income Tax Credit and Child Tax Credit.
What should I do if I did not file a tax return for 2019 or 2018? The best way to ensure you receive a recovery rebate is to file a 2019 tax return if you have not already done so. This could be accomplished for free online from home using the IRS Free file program (  ...
If I have a past due debt to a federal or state agency, or owe back taxes, will my rebate be reduced? No, the bill turns off nearly all administrative offsets that ordinarily may reduce tax refunds for individuals who have past tax debts, or who are behind on other payments to federal or state governments, including student loan payments. The only administrative offset that will be enforced applies to those who have past due child support payments that the states have reported to the Treasury Department.
     This is a bit confusing. It says that the payments can be made just based upon the SSA-1099 but goes on to encourage Social Security benefit recipients to file a tax return even if they don't really have to. Why? What about SSI recipients? They don't get SSA-1099s. Do they have to file tax returns even though they have zero income?

Extra $300 Million For SSA

     A Federal News Radio article says that the Social Security Administration will receive a special $300 million appropriation under the economic stimulus bill which is likely to become law today. However, I don't see anything about this in the link to the bill which they give. That's probably because what they link to is only Part A of the bill, with the appropriations being in Part B. I would love to see Part B if anyone has a link.

Social Security Recipients Will Get Stimulus Payments

     From WYMT:
We at WYMT received many calls and emails from viewers who wanted to know whether or not individuals that are living on social security will receive the benefit checks as a result of the stimulus package currently making its way through congress.

Thursday, we talked directly to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell for answers.
His office told WYMT that all U.S. residents who are not claimed as a dependent of another taxpayer and have a work-eligible social security number (up to the income threshold limits) will receive a stimulus check.
"This does apply to those who have no income, as well as those who receive income from non-taxable means-tested benefit programs, such as Social Security," they told us in a statement. ...
     What I wonder about are the people who don't  get their stimulus checks because they've changed bank accounts. Who's responsible for taking care of those cases? I don't think it's Social Security, though.

Mar 26, 2020

Up To 90 Minutes To Get Through On Phone

     From Social Security's Covid-19 webpage (emphasis added):
During the COVID-19 pandemic, we are dedicating available staff to serve people in most critical need of our services. Please read below before deciding whether to contact your local Field Office inquiry line or our National 800 Number. Please be aware that our call wait times are longer than normal. It may take you up to 90 minutes or more to reach an agent ...

Covid-19 Response Bill Would Not Affect Trust Funds

     Section 2301 of the Covid-19 response bill passed by the Senate and likely to be passed by the House of Representatives, gives employers temporary relief from payroll taxes, including the F.I.C.A. tax. However, part (i) of §2301 requires a transfer of funds from the Treasury to the Social Security trust funds to make up for the lost revenues.

Future Of Field Offices After Covid-19?

     When the Covid-19 threat is over will the field offices ever fully reopen to the public or will they be on their way to being phased out?

Mar 25, 2020

Only Limited Service Available

     Social Security has updated its Covid-19 webpage to include a statement that "During the COVID-19 pandemic, we are dedicating available staff to serve people in most critical need of our services." Also, "Our 800# agents can assist with limited transactions and are focused on helping those people most in need."

$300 Million More For Social Security?

     From Fedscoop (emphasis added):
... House appropriators are prepared to give federal agencies more IT funding than the White House is seeking to meet the unprecedented demand from teleworking during the COVID-19 pandemic.
A House emergency appropriations bill released Monday would increase much of the technology spending the Office of Management and Budget had initially requested in a memo on March 17. The $2.5 trillion legislation, intended to bolster the wavering U.S. economy, differs from the package that Senate Democrats and Trump administration officials have been negotiating, but it’s possible the House proposal could influence that bill. ...
The Social Security Administration would have $300 million of coronavirus-related impact relief, including teleworking, “phone communications services” and overtime pay. ...

Mar 24, 2020

Are Law Firm Scanning Personnel Essential Under A Stay At Home Order?

     My firm has employees of a legal staffing agency doing onsite scanning for us. The staffing agency says they are hearing that those doing scanning have been considered essential personnel and exempt from stay at home orders in other states. We are expecting a stay at home order in the near future. Has anyone already under a stay at home order faced this issue? Were scanning personnel considered essential and exempted from the stay at home order?

Major New POMS Section On Representation Of Claimants

     Social Security has added a new section to its POMS manual on representation of claimants. I'm not sure how much is new. Here are a few things I noticed on a quick read through:
... [A]n appointed representative may not: 
  • sign an application on behalf of the claimant. ...
An appointed representative cannot delegate to an associate the performance of tasks that require taking legally significant actions about the claimant's case such as: 
  • appearing at a hearing and presenting the claimant's case in proceedings before us ...
A claimant must sign a written notice of appointment.
The claimant's signature must be in ink. We do not accept signatures generated from electronic software programs (e.g., DocuSign or HelloSign) or rubber-stamped signatures from claimants on written notices of appointment. [Problematic at this time]
Return a notice of appointment if the claimant's signature is electronic. ...
The following individuals cannot appoint or revoke a representative on behalf of a claimant:
the representative payee ...
If a claimant dies before we complete action in a pending claim, matter, or issue, the representative's appointment continues until it is ended by one of the events listed in GN 03910.060B.

Should Social Security Be Expecting A Tsunami Of Disability Claims?

     If you believe that the number of Social Security disability claims filed is a function of the unemployment rate shouldn't you be expecting a tsunami of disability claims right now as the unemployment rate soars, perhaps to greater than 20%? If you're the Commissioner of Social Security shouldn't you be urgently seeking a huge special appropriation to deal with this?
     By the way, at least at my firm, the number of phone calls from new prospective clients isn't going up since Covid-19 exploded. The number is actually down.

Mar 23, 2020

A Little Update On What's Going On In SSA Land

     From Government Executive:
Amid growing concerns over the coronavirus pandemic, the Social Security Administration’s ongoing saga over telework has reached some finality this week.  ...
SSA’s Office of Hearings Operations (OHO) will shift to full-time telework this week, he said.
Some employees in SSA’s payment service centers began full-time telework last Thursday or Friday. Others in the agency’s tele-service centers already have or will begin telework Monday, said Rich Couture, president of the American Federation of Government Employees Council 215....
Employees at SSA headquarters and other regional operations offices are also teleworking, Couture said.
SSA did not respond to multiple requests for comment. ...
Couture said SSA didn’t yet have enough “soft phones,” the special systems that tele-service center employees need to connect into the agency’s phone network and remotely handle their work.
The agency will also roll out some new technology in the coming week, which will allow OHO employees to remotely assist and cover hearings done over the phone, Couture said. ...
The agency is planning to first ask SSA supervisors to come into the office to handle some tasks that can’t be handled remotely, Couture said. ...

The Crooks Don't Let Up

     From a press release:
The Inspector General of Social Security, Gail S. Ennis, is warning the public about fraudulent letters threatening suspension of Social Security benefits due to COVID-19 or coronavirus-related office closures. The Social Security Administration (SSA) will not suspend or discontinue benefits because their offices are closed.  
The Social Security Office of the Inspector General has received reports that Social Security beneficiaries have received letters through the U.S. Mail stating their payments will be suspended or discontinued unless they call a phone number referenced in the letter. Scammers may then mislead beneficiaries into providing personal information or payment via retail gift cards, wire transfers, internet currency, or by mailing cash, to maintain regular benefit payments during this period of COVID-19 office closures. 

Some Things I'm Hearing About SSA And Covid-19

     Here are some things I'm hearing about Social Security's response to Covid-19, as well as some things I'm wondering about:
  • It will be possible for Administrative Law Judges (ALJ) to do hearings from their homes. Everyone will have to be connected through the hearing office, however. This requires someone to be at the hearing office to initiate and end the recording process.
  • ALJ hearings will only be conducted between 8:30 and 2:00. I guess they want to cut down on the amount of time someone has to spend at the hearing office initiating recordings?
  • Snail mail and faxes may be a problem at field offices. The field offices do not have e-fax capacity. The plan is for someone, probably a management person, to go to each field office each day to handle the snail mail and faxes.
  • I haven't heard what will be done about snail mail and faxes at the hearings offices but expect the same problem there. For that matter, I expect the same problem at the payment centers but on a much larger scale.
  • A White House memorandum says that "It is recommended that agencies identify any impediments to using digital signatures, and remove those impediments, consistent with applicable law." Does this mean that attorneys can now submit appointment of representative and fee agreement forms that have been signed electronically?
  • Disability Determination Services (DDS), being state agencies, have differing setups as far as allowing employees to work from home. My state, North Carolina, has no capacity for employees to work from home. Other states have full capacity. North Carolina DDS has tried to solve this problem by switching to two shifts in order to allow more distance between employees at their cubicle farm. Of course, this won't work if we get a stay at home order.
  • There are already some physicians who have been doing consultative examinations for DDS who don't want to continue doing them due to Covid-19. This may become a serious impediment.
  • I have heard nothing about Social Security's centralized printing operation. Keeping that going has to be a priority but can they?

ALJ Corps Dwindling As Receipts Dwindle

     This was obtained from Social Security by the National Organization of Social Security Claimants Representatives (NOSSCR) and published in its newsletter, which is not available online to non-members. Click on the image to view full size.
     Note to Social Security: It's OHO now, not ODAR. Time to get this updated.

Mar 22, 2020

Big Contract For MetTel

     From the Federal Times:
The Social Security Administration has awarded a $253 million telecommunications task order to MelTel, according to a March 19 news release from the telecom company.
The task order is part of SSA’s Grand SLLAM contract vehicle, which procures local, long distance and access management telecommunications services.
According to the release from MelTel, the company will provide consolidated and centralized voice and IP-based services, toll-free services, audio conferencing, and other “ancillary” support services. ...
     Federal Times got something wrong. It's MetTel, not MelTel.

Mar 21, 2020

Fichtner Nomination Advances

     The nomination of Jason J. Fichtner to be a member of the Social Security Advisory Board has been voted out of the Senate Finance Committee favorably. However, there were four votes against Fichtner.

Mar 20, 2020

Social Security Finally Going To Telework Generally

     From Government Executive:
Officials with the American Federation of Government Employees said Friday that leadership at the Social Security Administration is instituting fulltime telework for the vast majority of the agency’s workforce beginning next week.
After weeks of resistance as the coronavirus outbreak grew, Social Security officials told union leaders on a conference call Friday that effective Monday, all of the agency’s teleservice centers would be closed. Every employee who is able to take phone calls remotely will do so from home, while those who cannot will be on weather and safety leave until the agency can acquire and distribute more softphones, a technology where employees can take phone calls on behalf of the agency through their laptops.
Additionally, the vast majority of employees of the agency’s processing and payment centers also are working from home. Those who already had telework agreements began working remotely on Thursday, while all other employees were trained to telework that day and began working from home on Friday.
Field offices, which were closed to the public earlier this week, will be fully shuttered by Tuesday at the latest. Most employees will move to telework at that point, although a “very limited” number of people may be recalled on occasion to handle nonportable work like the mail and facility issues, said Ralph Dejuliis, president of AFGE Council 220. ...
Hearings office employees also mostly are working from home full time now. But AFGE Council 215 President Rich Couture said some employees can be recalled to handle telephonic hearings.
“These hearings can be recorded remotely, so I’ve been working with hearings operations to get that applied more broadly so that they can further mitigate the need for anyone to come in at all,” Couture said. ...

Evacuation Authority To Quickly Implement Mass Telework

     From Government Executive:
... In recent days, federal workers have reported that implementation of administration guidance urging agencies to maximize the availability of telework has been a mixed bag, with several organizations continuing to resist allowing employees to work remotely. The Office of Management and Budget on Tuesday issued its strongest memo yet, ordering agencies to “minimize face-to-face contact,” maximize telework, and reprioritize non-mission critical services.
OPM on Thursday wrote that agencies can more quickly implement mass telework by formally evacuating employees’ worksites in connection with a pandemic. By using evacuation pay authority, agencies can mandate that federal employees use telework, regardless of whether they already have a telework agreement.
 “This evacuation pay authority provides agencies with an additional option in dealing with the COVID-19 outbreak,” OPM wrote. “In particular, in the context of a pandemic health crisis, the evacuation pay regulations allow an agency to direct employees to work at home (or an alternative location agreeable to the employee and the agency) without regard to whether the employee and the agency have a telework agreement in place. Also, an employee may be assigned to perform any work considered necessary without regard to the employee’s grade, level or title.” ...

What's Going On In California?

     The governor of California has ordered the entire population of the state to remain in their homes. However, Social Security's office closings website only shows two offices in California closed. So, what's going on? There's many field offices, of course, but also a large payment center in California. I imagine there are one or more teleservice centers in California. Are they open? How much of their work can be get done by telework? How can Social Security compensate for work that doesn't get done.
     California may be the first state to issue a shelter in place order but it probably won't be the last. That may be coming in New York soon, like maybe today. Even if governors don't issue shelter in place orders, they're probably coming locally in places like New Orleans. 
     Social Security has to figure how what it's going to do and cope with the fact that a lot isn't going to get done for now. Social Security needs to plan on a huge amount of overtime as soon as practical and to ask the White House for this to be included in a future special appropriations bill.
     If this doesn't sound real to you, consider that in Spain four people an hour are dying from Covid-19. Did 9/11 seem like a crisis to you? It was nothing compared to Covid-19.

     Update: Within minutes after I posted this, the governor of New York issued a stay at home order. New York also has many Social Security field offices, a payment center (which is a mess in the best of times) and may have some teleservice centers. I don't know which states are on the clock now -- Washington, New Jersey, Connecticut, Louisiana, Illinois, Massachusetts, Michigan?

No Answers From Social Security

     From the Tacoma News Tribune:
At the Social Security Administration office in an Auburn office building, the routine has been the same each day.
Dozens of workers touch the same keypad to enter the building. They use the same bathroom doors. They don’t always sit 6 feet away from colleagues. They share a kitchen, a copier and a fax machine.
While President Donald Trump urges people not to gather socially in groups of 10 or more, employees in many federal offices have been doing that day after day - and worrying about whether they’re being exposed to the coronavirus. ...
The agency has taken steps this week to implement telework policies. Agency spokesmen in Washington, D.C., and Seattle did not answer requests for comment.
Nor has the agency responded to some congressional requests.
“Social Security employs approximately 40,000 public-facing workers, some of whom have reported an array of concerns from lack of ability to telework, limited access to cleaning supplies,” wrote Rep. John Larson, D-Connecticut, chairman of the House Social Security subcommittee, and others, to Social Security Commissioner Andrew Saul on Tuesday.
Larson’s office said he has received no response. ...

Read more here:

Read more here:

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Management Resistance To Telework

     From Government Executive:
Faced with the choice of going into the office or taking personal vacation days, many federal workers are opting to stay home. The Office of Management and Budget has issued guidance instructing agencies to implement “maximum telework flexibilities” in any area with an outbreak of the novel coronavirus, but managers are still requiring many employees across the country to come into the office. ...
Following an agency-wide push last year to curtail telework, SSA [Social Security Administration] has resisted taking the same steps many of its counterparts across government have taken during the coronavirus pandemic. One employee who works at the Harold Washington Social Security Administration Center in Chicago says staff are capable and willing to telework, but it has not been given that option. Instead, he has taken leave all week. 
“My supervisors will not approve me to telework, even though my position is one that can be done remotely,” the employee said. Some of his colleagues performing the same functions are now working remotely because they have children out of school or someone else to care for, but the staffer's pleas that he was worried about his wife and kids were not enough to persuade agency managers to allow him to telework, he said. ...
The White House, meanwhile, has provided inconsistent messaging. President Trump on Thursday confused the entire concept when asked if he wanted to push more telework for government employees. 
“We are, and we’re using the medical term of telemedicine, and it’s been incredibly busy and really where people don’t have to, I mean some people can’t do it anyway,” Trump said. “They can’t get up, they can’t see a doctor, but we’re using this and it’s been telehealth, different names, and I will tell you that it’s been really successful.” ...

How Well Do You Think That Social Security Has Responded To The Covid-19 Pandemic?

     Social Security has an Office of Security and Emergency Preparedness, run by Joseph D. Sliwka. He's in charge of continuity of operations planning. Mr. Sliwka works for Michelle King, the Deputy Commissioner, Budget, Finance, and Management. Let's remember that while Mr. Sliwka can plan and advise, the major decisions were made and are being made above his pay grade. In the past, when natural disasters, such as hurricanes have happened, my impression was that Social Security did a fine job of responding. This is a different emergency to say the least.

Social Security Employees Worried About Covid-19

     Many Social Security employees are worried about their potential exposure to Covid-19. Can anyone blame them? If you’re not worried, you’re not paying attention.

Mar 19, 2020

CMS Says Facetime And Skype Are OK To Use For Confidential Conversations. Why Not SSA?

     The Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) has now approved patient visits with physicians via Facetime and Skype, so why can't claimants and their attorneys use such services to do Social Security hearings during this time of emergency?

CDRs And Overpayment Collection Suspended Among Other Things

     From a new Social Security Covid-19 website:

What workloads is SSA not doing during the COVID-19 pandemic?
Created: March 18, 2020

We have suspended the following workloads until further notice:
  • We will not start or complete any current medical continuing disability reviews. If you have a medical continuing disability review pending, please do not request medical information from your doctors at this time. We will follow up with you for any medical evidence once the COVID-19 public health emergency subsides.
  • Where possible, we are suspending our processing and collection of overpayments.
  • We are not conducting organization or individual representative payee accountings.
  • We will not be able to process a third party requests for information, except from appointed representatives and representative payees
  • We will not process any Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests.
     What if Social Security is already withholding part of a claimant's benefits because of an overpayment? Are they suspending that?

"We Don't Social Distance Because We Can't"

     From a summary of an interview conducted by National Public Radio:
... At the Social Security Administration office in Tulsa, Okla., the first order of business yesterday was a staff meeting. Forty people, four times the number the government recommends should be in one place at one time, crammed into the meeting room to be told their office would be closed to the public but not to employees. Ralph de Jullis works there. He's also an official with the American Federation of Government Employees, which represents some Social Security workers.

RALPH DE JULLIS: Most of our offices are more than 10 people. We don't social distance because we can't. We're in cubicles. So we're all exposing each other. It would be safer for us to be at home to prevent the spread of the coronavirus because if we're here and we all get sick, we're not going to be able to do the work. ...
The Social Security Administration announced late Monday it was closing field offices ...
DE JULLIS: But the people who are over 60 were told, oh, yeah, we don't agree with the CDC guidance. Unless you have one of the other serious medical conditions, you can't telework. They're just making it up as they go along. ...
Tony Reardon, president of the National Treasury Employees Union, is calling on the Trump administration to close all federal offices with more than 50 people. Reardon says the government should also allow federal employees to take special leave, called weather and safety leave, if they're low on paid sick leave.

TONY REARDON: You have employees who don't have a great deal of leave. They don't feel well. And if they are not provided weather and safety leave, they still have to provide for their families. They still have to earn a paycheck. So you know what they do? They go to work, and that really puts all the other employees in their workplace at risk. ...

Why Can't Attorneys Use Facetime Or Viber To Do Video Hearings?

     The Covid-19 emergency isn't going away soon. The Department of Health and Human Services is planning based upon an assumption it will last 18 months or more.
     Social Security has allowed attorneys to do video hearings from their offices but only if they install expensive video equipment. Very few have done so.
     Why don't we allow attorneys to use Facetime or Viber to appear with their clients at these hearings? Skype doesn't but Facetime and Viber have end-to-end encryption. They're far more secure than the telephone calls we'll be using otherwise. At least from out end this can be implemented quickly. Come on, we're in an emergency situation here!

Mar 18, 2020

No, This Isn't Going To Blow Over In Two Weeks Or Two Months

     The Department of Health and Human Services has issued a Covid-19 response plan. The plan assumes that the Covid-19 pandemic will last 18 months or longer and may include multiple waves of illness.
     Social Security has to plan for prolonged dislocations. We all do.

A Little Bit More Requested For Social Security

     The Office of Management and Budget is asking for $45.8 billion in emergency appropriations for agencies affected the Covid-19 but only an extra $50 million for the Social Security Administration.

"The Sudden Transformation Did Not Unfold Seamlessly"

     From the Washington Post:
Social Security closed its 1,250 field offices and 165 sites where administrative law judges hear appeals of rulings on disability applications, after weeks of pressure from employees and the unions that represent them. In theory, business will carry on by phone, officials said.
In reality, the sudden transformation did not unfold seamlessly. 
Some employees arrived at work first thing Tuesday morning because they were not yet set up to telework. They watched as customers pulled into parking lots, looking for help with disability claims or with replacing lost Social Security cards. Then they watched them peer into the darkened offices and walk away in frustration. 
“We’ve been asking for this for a while. They did it overnight — and failed to get the word out,” said Ralph Dejuliis, a field worker in Oklahoma and national president for the union that represents the federal employees. 
Dejuliis said Social Security employees don’t know how they are going to handle a variety of tasks. What if they are not sure people on the phone are who they claim to be? In the past, they made them come to the office to be sure. Also, only a fraction of the staff have work computers equipped with Softphone, a software program that allows employees to make and receive calls using the Internet. 
So they are being asked to use their personal cellphones to talk to dozens of strangers each day. Managers are advising them to block their personal number by using *67 before dialing. 
Workers said they are receiving confusing directions from managers about telework. 
Milana Bubrinkova, who processes claims in a Chicago district office, said she learned Friday afternoon that her children’s schools were closing.
She asked her manager for permission to telework and didn’t receive a clear decision, she said. She grabbed her work laptop before she left that night. The agency policy allowed for telework under such circumstances, and she wanted to be ready for work Monday morning. 
That morning, she said her manager approved her to telework but reprimanded her for taking her computer home without his permission. “I’m trying to find a way to get my work done, and I’m getting reprimanded for it? You cannot make this stuff up.” ...

$1.3 Billion In "Improper" Payments, Most Of Them Being Claimants Not Getting All They Were Supposed To Get

     From a recent report by Social Security's Office of Inspector General (OIG) (emphasis added):
... Once a beneficiary becomes entitled to OASDI [Old Age, Survivors and Disability Insurance] benefits, SSA must update its records to reflect changes in the beneficiary’s circumstances. SSA refers to these updates as post-entitlement actions. T2R is SSA’s primary post-entitlement processing system. In some instances, T2R cannot process post-entitlement actions to update beneficiaries’ records and PC employees must do so.  
When updates must be manually processed, T2R produces alerts. A PC employee must review the alert, correct any issues that prevented T2R from automatically processing the update, and make the necessary changes to the beneficiary’s record.
We identified 52,108 OASDI post-entitlement alerts T2R produced on or after January 1, 2017 and designated as processed and completed by PC employees from January 24 through February 6, 2019. We reviewed a random sample of 200 post-entitlement alerts to determine whether PC employees processed them correctly.
Of the 200 OASDI post-entitlement alerts we reviewed, PCemployees incorrectly processed 83 (42 percent). Of the 83 incorrectly processed alerts, 48 resulted in improper payments totaling $329,767 through May 2019. Based on our sample results, we estimate PC employees incorrectly processed approximately 555,000 alerts, resulting in approximately $1.3 billion in improper payments.  
 For 45 of the 83 alerts, PC employees took incorrect manual post-entitlement actions and did not update the beneficiaries’ records correctly. Our analysis showed that, in some instances, employees took incorrect manual actions because they did not—for unknown reasons—follow the provided instructions when they processed alerts. In other instances, employees may have incorrectly processed the alerts because of vague and generic alert language and corresponding written instructions. 
Employees processed the remaining 38 alerts incorrectly because they cleared the alerts without taking corrective actions. SSA does not require that employees document why they did not take corrective action on alerts. Thus, we were unable to determine why employees cleared the alerts without taking action.
      The term "improper payment" makes you think that people were being overpaid and some were but further down you see that most of the "improper" payments were underpayments to claimants. This sounds like a big problem.

Mar 17, 2020

How Do Telephone Hearings Work?

     This is from the press release that Social Security put out late yesterday afternoon:
... If you have a hearing scheduled, we will call you to discuss alternatives for continuing with your hearing, including offering a telephonic hearing. Our call may come from a PRIVATE number and not from a U.S. Government phone. Please remember that our employees will not threaten you or ask for any form of payment. ...
     How is this going to work? Will I and my client have to be at the same location? What about expert witnesses? What about cases that are already scheduled for video hearings? Will hearing reporters, the people who, among other things, operate the recording equipment, be allowed in the hearing offices? What is this "private number" business?

A Message From The Commissioner To SSA Employees

A Message to All SSA Employees
Subject: COVID-19 Update

I know that there is a high level of concern among our employees about the COVID-19 outbreak.  I greatly appreciate how hard you are all working to continue to provide our critical services, even as you tend to your personal wellbeing and that of your loved ones.  As you know, confirmed cases now exist in many communities and many schools have closed for an extended time.  We are all being asked to practice social distancing to help stop the spread of this coronavirus.  In addition to the measures we announced on Friday regarding high-risk employees and school closings, today we began implementing additional steps.
In non-public facing offices, most employees will perform their work with additional days of telework.  For field offices and hearing offices, to protect our employees and the public we serve, we will close to the public beginning Tuesday, March 17.  We are sharing field office general phone lines with the public so our employees can provide telephone service at the local level.  Hearing offices will offer voluntary hearings to claimants, by telephone.  Due to the nature of our work, some of us must continue to come into the office to handle critical workloads.  In these situations, supervisors will try to enable you to work from home as much as possible, but not every day.  We will also take measures to distance staff from each other while in the office.

Systems has worked to ensure that all employees have VPN access during this crisis and to ensure we are ready to support a large volume of teleworking employees.  However, this will be our first time to significantly depend on this structure for an extended period.  Please be patient and immediately report any issues to your supervisors so that we can not only assist you but also coordinate at the national level, as necessary.

Please continue to follow the CDC guidance about COVID-19 to prevent illness and recognize symptoms. If you are sick, stay home, or go home immediately if you are at work, and call your healthcare provider for medical advice.  If you test positive for COVID-19, please immediately let your supervisor know.

We know that this outbreak may be stressful to you.  It may be difficult to cope with the fear and anxiety about a disease, particularly when there is uncertainty.  We hope that the decision to expand telework and to close our offices to the public will ease some of the stress.  I encourage you to visit the CDC Coronavirus webpage, which includes information and resources to cope with this stress and ensure your mental health.  Our Employee Assistance Program (EAP) is also available. 

I ask for your patience as we continue to work through these very complicated issues that affect many different aspects of the agency.  We will continue to talk with experts and to evaluate our response, and we will continue to update our human resources site to provide you with current information.

Finally, we all chose to work in public service.  During this difficult time, the public will need our help.  I know I can count on you to do all you can to serve the public with integrity.  You have my deep appreciation.

Andrew Saul

Just How Much Can Telework Help SSA In An Emergency?

And Happy St. Patrick's Day!
     Since I don't work at Social Security, I have only the haziest idea how telework has operated at the agency. I wonder to what extent it's technically feasible for agency employees to telework. To what extent can the following categories of employees telework?
  • Employees at teleservice centers
  • Employees at payment centers
  • Field office employees
  • Hearing office employees apart from Administrative Law Judges and decision writers
     Are there groups of employees who might potentially be eligible to telework who won't quickly be able to telework because they never previously jumped through the technical security hoops needed to telework?
     Are there other impediments to widespread teleworking at Social Security?

Mar 16, 2020

Field Office Closure

     I’m hearing reports that all Social Security field offices will be closed to the public beginning on Tuesday. 
     Social Security needs to get out a press release.

     Update: And here’s the press release.

This Sounds Like Field Offices Should Close To The Public

     From an NBC News Blog (emphasis added):
President Donald Trump said Monday his administration's coronavirus task force updated its guidelines amid the coronavirus outbreak. 
He said the administration recommends all Americans, including young and healthy, should homeschool children, avoid gatherings of 10 or more people, stop discretionary travel and avoid bars and restaurants. ...
     There would be 10 or more people in the waiting room of most, if not all, Social Security field offices for most of the day. That would also be the case at some times of the day for many Social Security hearing offices.

Maybe It Is Time

     I had posted skepticism about shutting down Social Security hearings while the Supreme Court is still holding oral arguments. Well, the Supreme Court has just cancelled oral arguments for the time being.
     I still think that if it's time to stop holding hearings, it's time to close the offices. 
     And by the way, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, you're ordered to stay home and see no one for the foreseeable future.

New York City Status

     From the New York City Health Department: "New York, stay home. Healthy or sick, all New Yorkers need to stay home as much as possible."

     From Social Security: The field office in White Plains (which is a suburb of New York city) and the hearing office in Bedford Heights (which is in New York City) are closed.

30 Hours Is The New 40

     From HuffPost:
... [T]he Trump administration is planning a regulation that would essentially redefine full-time work as 30 hours per week, instead of the usual 40, for purposes of determining whether someone is disabled. Fewer people would likely win benefits as a result.
The tighter eligibility standard, which has not been previously reported, is part of a draft rule that, if finalized, would bring sweeping changes to the Social Security Disability Insurance program. It would follow multiple other efforts by the Trump administration to cut social programs that help people afford food, health care and housing. ... 

The full draft rule, which has not been formally released yet, is the culmination of years of work by the Social Security Administration to update its data on the U.S. labor market ― and years of grumbling by Republicans and right-wing think tanks about how disability benefits coddle people who supposedly could get jobs. ... 
Actuaries in the Social Security Administration are currently reviewing the draft rule to see how many beneficiaries would be affected and how much money the government might save by denying benefits, according to a source. ...
     In order to adopt this, they have to send it to the Office of Management and Budget for approval. OMB is likely to take several months to review it. They must then publish it for public comments. That takes a few months. It must then be sent back to a OMB for a second review which normally takes a few months. Could this all be done before the next Inauguration Day? In theory, yes. Remember, though, that this wouldn’t be popular. Is it the sort of proposal that would make progress during an election year? And there’s the Covid-19 thing which may slow down the wheels of government.

Mar 15, 2020

ALJs Want To Stop Holding Hearings But Don’t Ask For Office Closure

     A press release:
WASHINGTON — March 15, 2020 — The coronavirus pandemic has caused the Association of Administrative Law Judges (AALJ) to make the unprecedented demand that the Social Security Administration immediately cancel all hearings in its 163 offices across the U.S. for the next two weeks, and longer if needed, in order to protect Americans. AALJ’s move follows what it sees as weeks of poor decision-making by SSA’s leadership. To date, SSA hasn’t enacted AALJ’s common sense request to have claimants asked if they would like a telephone hearing before they arrive for their hearings or if COVID-19 symptoms are exhibited in the hearing room. AALJ leaders, who represent approximately 1,300 judges who preside in Social Security disability hearings, note that municipal, state and federal courts have canceled their proceedings and the lack of similar action in disability hearings is confounding. AALJ President Judge Melissa McIntosh says, “We can’t understand why Social Security officials are blatantly ignoring public health guidance. Let’s always remember that many claimants in our hearing rooms and offices are senior citizens and report they have compromised immunity; they could be particularly at risk for the coronavirus. As administrative law judges, we take the health and safety of the claimants, representatives and our colleagues very seriously. Because of the Agency’s failed response, the only way to ensure the safety of the American public is to cancel hearings for a limited period of time.” The latest details about coronavirus are available at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention website at 
     Why would it be appropriate to stop holding hearings but not close hearing offices? Why the concern about protecting ALJs from claimants? Shouldn’t ALJs be more worried about the staff in their own offices? If you think that claimants are dirty people who will make you sick but the nice people you work with aren’t a threat you don’t understand the situation. ALJs have much less physical separation from hearing office staff than from claimants. 
     This doesn’t come across to me quite the way the ALJ union might like and, no, I don’t think that protecting claimants is really what the union is concerned about. The hearing offices and field offices may have to be shut down altogether soon but I don’t think that merely stopping hearings is much use. Social Security hearing rooms don’t have anything like the foot traffic of a general courtroom or a Social Security field office, for that matter. If anything, I would say that Supreme Court justices face a greater threat from other justices and attorneys than Social Security ALJs and the Supreme Court isn’t shutting down oral arguments even though many of the justices are at serious risk due to age.

What’s Going On? shows H.R. 6201 as having been passed by the House of Representatives without amendment. The text of the bill given there shows Social Security with a major roll implementing benefits for those out of work due to Covid-19. That is what I posted about yesterday. However, the House Appropriations Committee website links to a different version of the bill which shows no significant role for Social Security. I don’t know what is going on.
     If I have misled anyone, and I don’t know that I did, I’m sorry, but if you can’t rely upon the official Congressional website what is one to do?