For decades, we have all gotten used to hearing government warnings about the health of the Social Security Trust Fund. Then the pandemic hit, and the Social Security Administration (SSA) suddenly faced worries about the effect of the lockdowns on the Trust Fund’s balance and income, as well as the need for an abrupt switch from in-person services to online and snail-mail.
Trust Fund Balances
COVID-19 hit the SSA in several ways. First, of course, there was a significant loss of jobs, especially early in the pandemic, particularly among low-wage earners such as food service workers. Low interest rates and low inflation also impacted the OASI Trust Fund’s income, but late the high inflation of 2021 and projected interest rate increases in 2022 should reduce that impact somewhat.
Ironically, and tragically, the pandemic has also reduced the SSA’s costs. First, the higher than usual mortality rates mean that fewer persons are collecting benefits than previous projections expected. Further, many of those who do collect benefits will see an effect on their earnings history due to job losses. In addition, the reduction in the Average Wage Index (AWI) applied to initial benefits.
The most recent pre-pandemic projection for the OASI Trust Fund (Trust Fund), which pays monthly Social Security checks to millions of Americans, indicated that the Trust Fund would be depleted in 2034, reducing benefits paid to about three-quarters of original benefits. Current estimates have moved that date to 2032 based on the pandemic induced downturn over the last few years. However, more recently, the economy has become growing again, and the Trust Fund balances, say some, may not be affected much at all.
In March 2020, the Social Security Administration essentially ended in-person services at its various offices due to COVID-19. As of early 2022, limited in-person appointments are available but require that the need be critical. Critical means, in this context, that you’re experiencing severe difficulties with obtaining food, shelter, or medical care. The SSA also prioritizes appointments for applications for an initial Social Security card and those who urgently need to correct or update their information to obtain services or benefits. Otherwise, standard transactions like replacement cards continue to be completed by mail.
As of January 2022, the SSA advises individuals to mail copies of primary documents and other materials to the SSA. The Administration has also provided for Express Interviews, available by appointment, and Drop Boxes in some locations. These services require a call to the local SSA office to determine whether the individual qualifies for an appointment. Even if the person does meet the in-person standards, there may be a delay in getting an appointment based on local conditions.
Many services can be performed online. For example, the My Social Security online account, which can be easily set up, allows for handling a lot of requests, like a replacement card and balance information, online. You can also use it to check the status of any outstanding applications or similar disability materials you have filed.
But, just like many other federal agencies, the SSA is way behind in handling its mail. Recent visits to many field offices have revealed a serious problem with mail handling, and the Inspector General’s Office is working with the SSA to try to deal with the backlogs.
Although the impact on the Trust Fund hasn’t been as severe as many expected, there remains the possibility that a large bump in disability applications could hit the Social Security Administration as long-term survivors of COVID being to evaluate their likelihood of returning to gainful employment.
Impact on SSI
Some had been concerned that various COVID programs for financial assistance, such as the assistance payments distributed to many Americans, would adversely impact those receiving Supplemental Security Income (SSI) due to its very strict asset and income eligibility requirements. However, the Social Security Administration has stated that such assistance, including the Child Tax Credit, will not count against income or asset limitations for SSI. The SSA is reviewing such cases to restore payments for those whose payments were affected. The COVID-19 payments that do not count against SSI eligibility or payment amounts include, among others:
- Economic Impact Payments
- State Stimulus Payments (Some exclusions may apply.)
- Unemployment Assistance (also includes regular unemployment)
- Paycheck Protection Program (PPP): Loan Forgiveness to Employers and Self-Employed Individuals
- Emergency Assistance to Children and Families through the Pandemic Emergency Assistance Fund
- Economic Injury Disaster Loan (EIDL) Program: Loans/Grants to Employers and Self-Employed Individuals /Grants
- Emergency Rental Assistance Fund
- Emergency Assistance for Rural Housing/Rural Rental Assistance
- Homeowner Assistance Fund
- Higher Education Emergency Relief Fund
The SSA is currently examining all such cases. Affected beneficiaries do not have to take any action regarding their benefits restoration unless contacted by the Social Security Administration with questions.
As with many government agencies, the SSA continues to struggle with its responses to the pandemic and the resulting service issues. Most experts expect that 2022 will continue to show slow but definite improvements. Speak with a qualified Orange County social security disability attorney today.