Regardless of where you stand on the political issues that surround the covid-19 pandemic, one thing is certain – life as we know it was upended in March of 2020. Almost no facet of society escaped covid-19 unscathed, and the Social Security disability process has been no exception. As health officials learned more and more about just how contagious covid-19 is, as well as how it is spread, leaders instituted shutdowns and even many essential businesses ceased in-person operations out of an abundance of caution and to prevent the spread of the disease. The Social Security Administration was no different and ceased in-person hearings and services in March as well. In some ways, ceasing in-person operations served (and continues to serve) the best interests of most individuals applying for disability benefits. Many individuals applying for disability benefits suffer from chronic illnesses, injuries, etc. that leave them particularly vulnerable to the virus. The result, however, is that many feel as though their claims are stuck in limbo, and now face difficult questions about how to move forward.
So where does the covid-19 pandemic leave those claimants waiting for a hearing in front of a Social Security Administrative Law Judge? Are you waiting for a hearing and wondering what to do? When the pandemic hit in March many claimants had been waiting for their chance to appear in front of a judge for a year – sometimes longer. SSA’s decision to suspend in-person operations came as a devastating blow to many anxiously awaiting progress on their claims.
In April of this year, Social Security began conducting disability hearings over the phone and has announced that it will begin conducting disability hearings via video-teleconferencing in the near future as a result of the pandemic. Of course, claimants have the option of postponing their hearing, agreeing to wait until the administration resumes normal operations before being scheduled in front of a judge – but when will that be? No one knows the answer to that question. And for many disability claimants struggling financially or struggling with decisions regarding much-needed medical care due to a lack of health insurance and/or financial resources, waiting just isn’t an option. As a result, many claimants now face what seems like an impossible decision.
Why is this a difficult decision? If agreeing to a telephone hearing is the golden ticket to keeping your claim moving forward, why not? If the only other option is waiting a seemingly indefinite amount of time for a hearing date, then what is the big deal? For some historical context – Social Security has been offering and conducting disability hearings via video teleconferencing for several years now. In the video teleconferencing hearings of pre-pandemic times, the administrative law judge appears via a television feed, while the attorney and claimant are still required to appear in-person at a Social Security disability hearing office.
The complexity behind the decision regarding whether to choose to appear in person or agree to a telephone or video conferencing hearing lies in the simple ability of the judge to lay eyes on you, the claimant, in real life. Your hearing in front of a judge is your opportunity to explain, in your own words, why you cannot work full time. Simply put – it is your chance to tell your story – in person. Up until the hearing, Social Security’s representatives have been reading your medical records and making their decision on what they can see in black and white print. Medical records can’t possibly tell the whole story. Being able to see you in person can give the judge a better understanding of your disability. For instance, many of my clients who suffer from chronic pain have a very difficult time sitting through the hearing. Your voice gives life to the medical records and translates those findings to real-life activities. Many claimants struggle through tears to articulate to the judge how difficult it is that they cannot attend their grandchildren’s baseball games, prepare simple meals for themselves or their families, tie their own shoes, or even get out of bed some days. Of course, an in-person hearing also allows a judge to better assess your history – the very nature of having a conversation in person can make or break some cases.
So what do you do now that in-person hearings are no longer an option? Ask your representative – weigh the advantages and disadvantages of choosing to wait vs. accepting a telephone or video-conference hearing. Every case is unique. Despite the fact that in-person hearings are, without a doubt, better, do not assume that you will lose your case if you accept a telephone or video hearing. Having an advocate to help you navigate the process, make this difficult decision regarding a hearing, and help you with your hearing is the best way to ensure you present the strongest claim to the Social Security Administration. If you do not have a representative, call my office! The consultation is free!