There have been a number of recent developments that indicate Social Security disability claimants will have better access to offices and hearings in the near future. As we enter the third year of the COVID-19 pandemic, these developments are positive steps towards addressing the significant barriers to services people with disabilities encounter.
The Social Security Administration (SSA) issued a press release on January 19 celebrating that they have reached a reentry agreement with three labor unions. The release is vague but assures the public that this “will be a significant step toward improving access to our services as we implement this plan.”
Further, SSA and the Association of Administrative Law Judges (AALJ, the ALJs’ union) have developed a Memorandum of Understanding on the return of in-person hearings. ALJs covered by the union can volunteer to hold in-person hearings beginning on May 4; all ALJs, except those with medical exemptions, will be required to do so beginning on June 3. At times when they are not scheduled for in-person hearings, ALJs will be able to choose whether they work in their offices or telework.
Everyone who enters the hearing office must complete a screening questionnaire (NOSSCR’s comments on the screener are here) and wear a mask, and masks will be made available to claimants. The MOU says only ALJs, claimants, parents of child claimants, and representatives will be allowed in the hearing room. NOSSCR will inquire about hearing reporters, interpreters, and necessary support people for adult claimants.
This memorandum does not affect SSA’s existing plans to have non-union ALJs, such as National Hearing Center ALJs, Hearing Office Chief ALJs, and Regional Chief ALJs, hold up to three in-person hearings per day beginning in March for a very limited subset of cases (primarily aged critical cases where the claimant has chosen not to accept a phone or video hearing).
NOSSCR will closely monitor SSA’s plans for implementing this memorandum and will share NOSSCR members’ feedback with SSA throughout the reentry period.