Supplemental Security Income and Unemployment Benefits

The COVID-19 pandemic may have a devastating impact on individuals who are receiving SSI disability benefits.  SSI beneficiaries who were working and lost their jobs because of COVID-19 may have been eligible for unemployment insurance (UI) benefits; including the expanded federal UI benefits that were available through the CARES Act.

SSI benefits will be reduced or suspended if a participant has earned or unearned income. SSI is reduced $1 for every $1 of UI benefits after the first $20. By comparison, earned income reduces SSI by $1 for every $2 that is earned after the first $85. The enhanced federal UI benefit would have reduced an SSI participant’s benefits to $0.00 when it was $600 a week or $2400 a month, far greater than the $783 SSI monthly payment. The enhanced UI benefit stopped on July 26, 2020 but state UI benefits continued and may have been low enough that it would not result in a loss of all SSI income. The newly passed COVID-19 Relief Act provides for a federal UI enhancement at a rate of $300 per week or approximately $1200 a month. This will also result in a suspension of SSI benefits for anyone receiving it. SSI suspensions for 12 consecutive months could result in the need for the individual to reapply for disability benefits which could be a long process if the individual has to prove that they are still disabled. There is also the possibility that SSI beneficiaries will receive notices that they were overpaid SSI because SSA suspended most overpayment actions from March through September 2020. Individuals who receive notice of an overpayment because of UI income should file a waiver to avoid collection. Finally, Medicaid benefits should not be stopped because of the loss of SSI benefits during the COVID-19 Pandemic.

The receipt of UI benefits should not have an impact on SSDI benefits because SSDI is not reduced for unearned income.

Evictions Update

With time running out on the eviction moratorium imposed by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Congress approved, and the President signed into law on December 27, 2020, an extension of the CDC’s moratorium through January 31, 2021.

The new law did not change the requirement for tenants to provide a declaration to their landlord under penalty of perjury that they meet the criteria for invoking the protection of the CDC’s order.  However, anyone wishing to invoke that protection under the new law should update the declaration to indicate that it extends through January 31, 2021 instead of December 31, 2020. 

Also included in the legislative package was an additional $25 billion for rental assistance.  It remains to be seen whether that assistance will be up and running in time to help people who are protected under the moratorium only until January 31st.  There is concern that the funds will not be available in only one month.   

The National Low-Income Housing Coalition estimates that South Carolina counties and localities will receive $342,731,000. 

The funds are available only for low-income tenants.  This means tenants at or below 80% of the Area Median Income, with a priority for households at or below 50% AMI.  Eligible households also need to be receiving unemployment benefits or have experienced a COVID-19-related hardship (loss of income, significant expenses, etc.).  And finally, an eligible household must demonstrate a risk of experiencing homelessness or housing instability.

The maximum assistance period is 12 months, with an additional 3-month extension, subject to availability of funds, if necessary to ensure housing stability.  Also, three months of prospective rent payments can be paid in addition to past due payments.  Households that need more than three months of prospective rent payments can re-apply and receive additional assistance if funds are available.

Another innovation in the new law is that it allows landlords to apply for rental assistance on a tenant’s behalf.  The landlord must get the tenant’s signature on the rental assistance application, must provide documentation of the rental assistance application to the tenant and must actually apply the funds to the tenant’s rent owed. 

Foreclosure Update

All the main federal entities that own or insure mortgages announced extensions of their single-family mortgage loan foreclosure moratoriums that were set to expire December 31, 2020.  Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac extended the foreclosure moratorium on their single family loans through January 31, 2021, while those insured by the Department of Housing and Urban Development, the Department of Veterans Affairs, and the Department of Agriculture have been extended through the end of February. 

COVID-19 Restrictions Make It More Difficult for Veterans to Get Records

SCLS has veteran accredited attorneys who can assist low-income veterans and their families navigate through the record request process for VA compensation and VA pension benefits claims. These attorneys are available to share legal information on the benefits process to VA offices and others who serve veterans and accept referrals.

Veteran claims, especially VA Compensation Claims, can be a very record intensive process. An Official Military Personnel File and treatment records can prove a service connection for a veteran’s disabling condition which may be dismissed without those records, particularly in cases where a veteran is applying for benefits long after their separation from service. Applying for assistance early in the claim process can improve odds of success by allowing a representative to help develop a record and present a clear case for the claims. Even with some limits on record processing in place, it is better to make referrals or apply for assistance early.

COVID-19 Increases Need for Advance Directives – Looking for Partners

COVID-19 seems to continue to have a disproportionate effect on the low-income communities served by South Carolina Legal Services(SCLS). This is especially true for elderly and people of color who live in rural communities. Unfortunately, these are also the demographics, that are least likely to understand the value of and how to locate resources to prepare end of life documents.  These documents let family members know loved ones’ wishes about providing medical treatment, deciding who will handle necessary affairs and determining ownership of property at death.

SCLS is looking for and is eager to partner with faith-based organizations, non-profits, civic and social groups and other agencies to educate low-income communities about the value of advance directives and preparation of these documents. To help SCLS help people who need these documents you can:

  1. Agree to partner with us.
  2. Distribute educational materials to the targeted communities.
  3. Assist applicants in contacting SCLS for an intake.
  4. Provide a COVID-19 safe location to meet with applicants.
  5. Publicize events that will be held in your community.
  6. Refer applicants to SCLS.

Partnership and Participation with Homeless Connect Help Man Get Birth Certificate

The Florence Office of SCLS has partnered with and attended The Homeless Connect Event since 2012. This event, with participation from several other groups, provides a one stop shop for services to the low income and homeless community.  The idea behind the event is to have enough services to attract attendees to the event and to make it easier for them to avail themselves of all the services (thereby eliminating obstacles to getting needed help). Intakes for potential clients are done at the event with interviews scheduled shortly thereafter. Because this event was a great success, SCLS wants to participate in and accept referrals from your homeless shelter.

Here is an example of the kind of help SCLS can provide to you. John came to us through our monthly homeless event for help to get his birth certificate. He was born in Taiwan. His parents worked at the embassy.  Because of serious legal troubles, he was estranged from his parents and had been for years. He did not have a valid state ID and could not get his birth record.  He was working very hard on becoming employed and getting services including rehabilitation.  John was born abroad, therefore, the application had to be made through the State Department (DC Consular U.S. Citizens born abroad). This made the process to get the birth certificate much more complicated.  We waited for months and due to the COVID-19 shutdown, it seemed to be hopeless.  As diligent SCLS staff, we continued to work with the Consular over an extended period of time and were able to obtain John’s birth certificate. Our partnership and participation with Homeless Connect allowed John to gain employment and housing.

COVID-19 Impact on Special Education Services

We have listed some questions and answers to commonly expressed concerns of parents with children in need of special education services.

Question:  What about kids with an IEP who, in a normal, non-COVID world, are required to receive supportive services? Are those services gone?  Or can those students somehow receive physical therapy, occupational therapy or speech therapy virtually?

Answer: Those students CAN and SHOULD receive those services virtually.

Turns out, physical therapy and speech therapy have been happening virtually or via tele-medicine for years. Physical therapists in some areas have been reaching out to clients with smart phones and internet connections well before COVID-19 made such a thing seem “normal.”

The occupational therapists (and the insurance companies) took some time, but they have now swallowed the bitter COVID-19 pill and embraced virtual appointments.

Question: Can the school deny a student special services because of COVID-19?

Answer: No.

The IEP is a contract that requires the school to provide those services. Parents should certainly be somewhat flexible with schools given the unique nature of these COVID-19 times. However, now that we are 10 months in, schools need to have found a way to provide those services.  

Furthermore, any service time your child did not receive because of COVID-19 should be made-up by the school at some point soon. We call this make-up time “compensatory education/services.”

Question: Can the school require a student to come physically to school in order to receive special ed services?

Answer: Yes.

In some cases, a school might deem is appropriate for a student to come physically to school to get their services, instead of providing a virtual option. You do not necessarily have to send your child to school, if you believe it to be unsafe. However, the school offering this option fulfills their obligations under the IEP contract.

Question: Due to my student’s disability, they are unable to get an appropriate education at home via virtual school. The school is 100% virtual. What can I do?

Answer: This is a hard one (and a fact-pattern from an actual case). The child is eligible for compensatory services in the future. That’s easy. However, that does not do much to help with the opportunities the student is missing right now. To force a special exception for in-person schooling, you would likely have to retain an attorney and file a Due Process Hearing Request. Even then, I do not know that it is a very strong case, as the school has a legitimate obligation to protect the health and safety of students and staff.

SCLS Lawyers’ Top Scams and Theft That Raise Red Flags

Let’s take a look at the top scams that SCLS Lawyers say raise the red flag of caution at this time of year.

  1. Package Theft
  2. Gift Card Fraud
  3. Fake Temporary Holiday Jobs
  4.  Fake Websites
  5. Fake Freebies
  6. Fake Charities
  7. Phishing Emails

KEEP IN MIND OUR TOP TIPS ON HOLIDAY SPENDING

  • Online shopping? Pay by credit card.
  • Buy gift cards for gifts, not for payments.
  • Research charities before you donate.
  • Give gifts, not personal information.
  • Don’t save your credit card information on retail sites.
  • If possible use a third-party payment method.
  • Enable purchase alerts on all credit cards and mobile payment apps.
  • Disable international purchases on all credit cards.
  • Only make purchases from your home or cellular network.

Thanksgiving is Blessings Appreciation Time

This is the time of the year when we count our blessings and meditate on all the opportunities, events, relationships and people that we appreciate. COVID-19 has made the last eight months particularly difficult for SCLS to effectively offer legal representation, advocacy and legal education to low-income South Carolinians at a time when it was most needed. You, the agencies, faith-based organizations, social services providers, non-profits, civic and social organizations, have made our job of sharing legal information, providing legal representation and advocating for our clients possible. We are especially grateful to those of you who, with swift and prompt action, distributed our flyers to advise and encourage citizens to seek available CARES Act monetary resources. We received numerous calls from deserving folks who desperately need this money to survive in these extremely difficult times. Truly, without your support and willingness to get this information to these people who are struggling daily, we simply could not have reached so many of them. Thank you for working with us. Thank you for caring about these people. Thank you for joining our endless mission to make the lives of low-income South Carolinians better in any way we can. This is the meaning of Thanksgiving. For your work and support, we give thanks.

Unemployment Benefits and Discrimination Against LGBTQ+ Employees

Were you fired after you began to transition, or your employer found out you identified as a member of the LGBTQ+ community? When you applied for unemployment benefits did your employer claim you were fired for cause or for misconduct causing you to be denied unemployment benefits? South Carolina Legal Services may be able to help with your unemployment appeal. 

A recent Supreme Court case held that an employer cannot discriminate against or fire an employee for being gay or transgender. Prior to this Supreme Court decision, LGBTQ+ employees facing discrimination due to their sexual orientation and gender expression were not considered protected under this law. 

If you are fired for a reason related to your sexual orientation or gender expression your employer is not going to admit you were fired because you are gay or transgender. The discrimination may appear in more subtle forms.  For example, employers may allege that you engaged in misconduct by violating the dress code or that you engaged in unprofessional conduct or conduct out of line with the values of the employer.  This could result in the DEW making an initial finding that you are disqualified from benefits because your employer terminated you “for cause” or for “misconduct.”  

You must appeal this decision within ten days of the mailing date of the decision. South Carolina Legal Services may be able to represent you. To see if you qualify for legal services, you may apply for representation by calling 1-888-346-5592 or online at: https://www.lawhelp.org/sc/online-intake.