Social Security Disability Hearings and COVID-19: The New Normal

The COVID-19 Pandemic has impacted many areas of our lives from routine shopping trips to doctor visits. It has forced the unprecedented and prolonged closure of federal and state government offices to the public on a national scale. The closure of the Social Security field and hearing offices has vastly changed the way the public conducts business with a government agency.

The Social Security hearing offices are collectively known as the Office of Hearings Operations or OHO. These offices are responsible for hearing appeals filed by people who are unhappy with a decision made by the Social Security Administration (SSA). An administrative law judge (ALJ) who is an independent decision maker presides over the hearing.

Since April 1, 2020, the only type of hearing being held is by telephone and the only appeals being held are on the denial of disability benefits. It is unknown when this practice will end but the plan is to continue it through the end of August 2020. The reason for telephone hearings is multifold but it is important to remember that most of the people who have hearings are seniors or persons with disabilities. The hearing office rooms are small and often crowded, making social distancing very difficult. Further, the rooms would be difficult to keep thoroughly cleaned from one hearing to the next.

Individuals who are unhappy with a decision made by SSA have an absolute right to an in-person hearing. The decision on whether to agree to a telephone hearing is not an easy one and many factors should be considered before agreeing to it. You need to remember that the ALJ (judge) will not be able to see you and if you have a serious physical or communication impairment, a telephone hearing may not be the best choice for you. Another factor to consider is whether you are currently receiving benefits. If you are receiving cash benefits from SSA and have health insurance, it may be better to wait for an in-person hearing because your benefits will continue until the ALJ releases a written decision after a hearing.

The following points are things you also need to consider before deciding to consent to a telephone hearing.

  1. Timing: Hearings are scheduled for a specific time but as the day progresses, there are delays that cannot be helped. You need to be flexible and realize that a late afternoon hearing may be late by an hour or more.
  2. Location: You must have a private place where you can be alone and away from any interruptions. The ALJ will ask if you are alone and if there is nobody else in the room telling you what to say. Other problems that may arise are outside noise if you live close to an airport, construction site, or busy highway. Outside noise may make it difficult for the ALJ to hear you or for you to hear them. If the case involves a child or young person, privacy may not be possible and you may not want your child to over hear what you tell the ALJ about them.
  3. Connection: Most of us use cell phones and do not have a landline. Your phone needs to be fully charged or connected to a power source because a hearing can take more than an hour to finish. You also need to think about whether you have problems with your phone connection because you live in a “dead zone.”
  4. Communication: You need to be able speak loudly and clearly. The hearing is being recorded and your answers need to be heard. If you cannot hear the ALJ or anyone else, you need to let the judge know that. Some people speak too softly or do not feel comfortable talking to others on the phone. If you are hard of hearing, this may also be a problem because there are usually three to four people on the call: you, your representative, a vocational expert and the ALJ.

This article only provides a brief overview of the SSA telephone hearings. Everyone’s situation is unique, and you should talk to your representative before making a decision. It is more important than ever to be represented at a telephone hearing because of the complications that can arise. Disability hearings are always stressful, and you want to make sure your case is properly presented to the ALJ. Not everyone is comfortable with speaking on the phone and if your situation allows you to wait for an in-person hearing, that may be the best option for you.