SSA Reaction to Coronavirus

Written by TC Newlin

TC is a disability litigator and one of the managing partners in the Social Security Disability Department at Fleschner, Stark, Tanoos & Newlin. He has had the pleasure of helping thousands of people obtain the benefits they so desperately need.

March 15, 2021

How is the Social Security Administration Conducting Hearings During the Coronavirus?

The Social Security Administration (“SSA”) has been closed to the public due to the Coronavirus since March 2020. In March, the SSA and much of the country was almost completely shut down. Many if not all, of the scheduled hearings at that time were postponed because in-person hearings were completely halted.

Should I Agree to a Telephonic Hearing?

In an effort to continue conducting hearings and serving its customers, in March/April of 2020, the Social Security Administration (“SSA”) began conducting telephonic hearings for both Social Security Disability Insurance (“SSD”) and Supplemental Security Income (“SSI”).

If you would have asked me in 2019 whether or not I would consent to conducting a hearing over a telephone, without face-to-face interaction, I would have flat out told you ‘no’. But the COVID-19 pandemic created an extraordinary situation.

As of January 2021, we still do not know when the SSA will be able to conduct in person hearings again.

As a result, I recommended and continue to recommend that all of my clients consent to a telephonic hearing. Having a hearing now seemed like the better option than waiting until some unknown point in the future. Extending the already long wait time is not acceptable.

The results of those telephonic hearing have been great.

Our overall firm win percentage shows no statistical differences between in-person or telephonic hearings. The bonus is that all claimants are able to attend their hearing from the comfort of their own home. There is no traveling long distances. There’s no waiting in crowded waiting rooms or paying for parking.

Should I Still Agree to a Telephonic Hearing After COVID Restrictions Have Lifted?

Going forward, if given the option, I will actually recommend that almost all of my clients conduct their hearings virtually even when the option for in-person hearings resumes.

The only time I would advise against a telephonic hearing is if a claimant has an ailment that is easier to see than it is to describe. Tremors is a good example of an ailment that fits that description. The overall ease and convenience for my clients and the fact that your odds of winning remain the same make the virtual hearing the preferred method in most situations.

What Happens at a Telephonic Hearing?

Just like an in-person hearing, you, your lawyer if you have one, the ALJ, the hearing monitor, and likely the vocational expert will all be present via telephone.

You will have the opportunity to submit evidence, review your file and testify as to your condition. Although not in person, the processes and procedures of a telephone hearing remain the same. Click here for a detailed video explaining that process.

How Should I Prepare for My Telephonic Hearing?

In order to have a successful telephonic hearing, you need to prepare as though it’s going to be in-person.

    • Make sure you have a good phone connection. Landline preferred, but a well charged or plugged-in cell phone is okay. Borrow the neighbors if your telephone connection is notoriously bad.
    • Find a quiet place so there are no interruptions during your hearing.
    • Dress up as though you were actually going to a hearing. Even though no one will see you, this seems to put you in the proper frame of mind.
    • If you feel comfortable, mute the phone when you're not talking, but this can backfire if you forget to unmute it.

    If you believe a telephonic hearing is for you, be sure to inform SSA that you consent to conducting your hearing in this way. There are hearing offices that will not even schedule your hearing until they have that written consent to conduct your hearing via telephone or online video.

    Should I Agree to an Online Video Hearing?

    In response to the coronavirus, the Social Security Administration (“SSA”) rolled out a new program, in October of 2020, that allows claimants the ability to conduct their ‘at-home’ hearings via video. This program has had a slow roll out, starting in Washington state and then slowing becoming an option throughout the country as an at-home alternative to telephonic hearings.

    To participate in an online hearing, you must have access to email. You also need a personal desktop computer, laptop or an Android/Apple tablet or phone with an internet connection. Your device must have a camera, microphone and speakers.

    If you have access to a device, I am of the opinion that on online video hearing makes a lot of sense. Our office will be recommending this option going forward. However, we have not noticed any statistical differences in win/loss rates whether you choose in-person, phone or video, so we will defer to our client’s preferences.

      What Happens at an Online Video Hearing?

      SSA will email you a link prior to your hearing. This link will contain a user guide that explains how to access and use Microsoft Teams on the personal device of your choice. If you have done something like Facetime or Zoom, you can do a video hearing via Microsoft Teams. If you have not, the learning curve is not terribly steep, have confidence that you can figure it out.

      Here at Fleschner, Stark, Tanoos & Newlin, we’ve really pushed forward with firm-wide use of the Microsoft Teams program. We conduct internal meetings and have been using it to communicate intra-office.

      If a client has an online video hearing scheduled, we ensure that they are familiar with the program so it is not something brand new they are experiencing on the day of the hearing. If you are not a client of ours, I recommend you try to become comfortable with Microsoft Teams prior to your hearing as well. In most instances, if the video option fails the day of the hearing, a perfectly reasonable second option of a telephonic hearing will be presented.

      In order to have a successful online video hearing, you need to prepare as though your hearing is going to be in-person.

        • Do a trial run with your attorney to check, video and sound quality of your device. Your attorney can make comments about what may or may not be in the background of your video.
        • Ensure your personal device remains connected to a wired (or wireless if wired is not available) internet connection.
        • Find a quiet private location to ensure there are no interruptions during the hearing.
        • Connect to a nearby power source so that your device remains powered.
        • Dress up as though you were going to a hearing. The ALJ will see you.
        • Mute your computer during Microsoft Teams conversations.

        Just like in-person hearings, you, your lawyer if you have one, the ALJ, the hearing monitor and likely the vocational expert will all be present via the online video. You will have the opportunity to submit evidence, review your file and testify as to your condition. Although not in person, the processes and procedures of an online video hearing remain the same. Click here for a detailed video explaining that process.

        If you believe an online video hearing is for you, be sure to inform SSA that you consent to conduct your hearing in this way. As of January of 2021, there are offices that will not even schedule your hearing if you refuse to consent to either a telephonic or online video hearing.

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