Sunday Dec 04, 2022

Closed Social Security offices make it hard for COVID widows to get benefits – Poynter


Covering COVID-19 is a daily Poynter briefing of story ideas about the coronavirus and other timely topics for journalists, written by senior faculty Al Tompkins. Sign up here to have it delivered to your inbox every weekday morning.

The 19th has an interesting piece about how widows who are eligible for Social Security survivor benefits can’t get the help they need because Social Security offices have been closed during the pandemic. More than 90% of people who apply for Social Security survivor benefits are women, and almost all of them are women over age 60.

The 19th points out that women tend to live longer and earn less than men, so their Social Security benefits are less than their spouses. When a spouse dies, the survivor may apply for survivor benefits, the higher benefit that would have gone to the spouse who earned more money.

The 19th reports:

Applications that could be completed in one in-person visit in a normal year are taking weeks and even months to complete.

Many people have to provide documentation to receive benefits. Without an in-person option, applicants for Social Security benefits like disability benefits and survivors’ benefits — paid to those who have lost a spouse or to dependents — will sometimes be required to mail original copies of sensitive documents, which has led some people to delay applying, experts said. They also must rely on limited customer service help to get through an application, which is particularly difficult if a person’s first language isn’t English.

“Social Security is vitally important to women and LGBTQ+ people and people of color — those who have been discriminated against historically, and especially lower-income people,” said Nancy Altman, president of advocacy group Social Security Works. “It just compounds all the issues with the field offices closed.”

The 19th found that the people who work in the Social Security field offices are swamped with applications:

Inside the field offices, workers have been coming in on a rotation to go through tens of thousands of pieces of mail and scan documents, but the demand has increased as the pandemic has gone on, along with phone calls. According to a report from the agency’s Office of the Inspector General, only about 51 percent of phone calls to field offices and the national number were answered in fiscal year 2020.

AARP has this advice:

If you are already receiving a spousal benefit when your husband or wife dies, Social Security will in most cases convert it automatically to a survivor benefit once the death is reported. Otherwise, you will need to apply for survivor benefits by phone at 800-772-1213 or in person at your local Social Security office.

[Editor’s note: Local Social Security offices are closed to walk-in visits due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Many services are available online and by phone. If you have a critical situation regarding your benefits or need to update information attached to your Social Security number, such as your name or citizenship status, you may be able to schedule an in-person appointment. Offices are tentatively scheduled to fully reopen March 30. See Social Security’s coronavirus page for more information.]

Truly this is the kind of topic that crosses generations. Not only does it affect vulnerable seniors, but it also weighs on children who oversee their parents’ affairs. The people affected are some of your most loyal …….


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