Without any advance warning, SSA sent these forms out to every Social Security applicant with a hearing scheduled. The decision to mail these forms to attorneys (and send copies to claimants) was not well thought out. I know it’s hard to imagine that the government did something that had unintended consequences. Attorneys got the forms, but name and SSN information was missing from each form, which is not a big deal, but it did create unnecessary work for everybody involved. Claimants got the forms, but their copies didn’t have return envelopes (because SSA wanted the attorneys to complete the forms and send them to SSA using the electronic process). Claimants would sometimes complete the forms and mail them to SSA. But in many cases, claimants were sending the forms to SSA with their attorneys’ office phone numbers instead of their home or cell phone numbers. Not a big deal, just more unnecessary work.
If you have had a Social Security case at the hearing level since the pandemic began, you have probably received one of SSA’s COVID-19 Telephone Hearing Agreement Form (available at www.ssa.gov/OHO.pdf). What happens if you say yes? What happens if you say no? A claimant has the right to request an in-person hearing before an administrative law judge. You are not required to have your hearing conducted by telephone. But you can agree to it.
The form says:
Due to the coronavirus 2019 (COVID-19) national public health emergency, we are conducting hearings only by telephone at this time. We will not conduct the hearing by telephone unless the claimant (hereinafter “you”) voluntarily agrees to appear in that manner. If you, the claimant, agree to appear at your hearing by telephone, the administrative law judge (ALJ) assigned to your case will conduct the hearing from his or her personal residence. Please check one of the boxes below to tell us whether you voluntarily agree to appear at your hearing by telephone.
Telephone hearings are OK, right?
In some circumstances, yes. In others, not so much. In my experience, the primary factor for most of my clients agreeing to a telephone hearing has been their need to have their hearing as soon as possible. If you have been out of work for a year, living on favors and borrowed money, not knowing where next month’s rent is coming from, I can see the appeal of having a hearing as soon as possible. However, some people simply do not have a good enough cell signal or cell phone to have a clear conversation that might last 30-60 minutes.
For the most part, telephone hearings have gone smoothly. Clients seem more relaxed talking over the phone. There have been brief telephone quality issues in about 1/3 of phone hearings, but the sound quality issues seem to only last a minute or two – and all of the judges have made sure to repeat themselves as many times as it took to make sure everybody was up to speed. I have been disconnected in one instance, and the hearing monitor was quick to get me back on the line. The biggest issue I have observed is that its very easy to interrupt somebody on the phone – partly because there is a slight delay over the VOIP lines, but mostly due to being unable to see the person speaking. Those subtle visual cues that we pick up when we can see the person speaking are gone.
What happens if I opt-out of a telephone hearing?
If you opt-out of a telephone hearing, the Social Security Administration should reschedule hearing once in-person hearings are available. But when will that be? Nobody really knows at this point – it could be early in 2021, it could be next summer. Making predictions about when the federal government will do something that involves so many moving parts is not high percentage shot. SSA has indicated: “Our hearing offices will be closed to the public for the foreseeable future, and we will not be offering in-person service.” (From ssa.gov/coronavirus, accessed on 10/8/2020).
What happens if I agree to the telephone hearing?
Your hearing will go ahead as planned, but instead of driving to the Social Security Office for your hearing, you can stay home and do it over the phone. The judges have been making it known they are in private areas of their homes, and have asked that each participant be in a private area with nobody in the room assisting them with their answers.
What should I do?
Each person’s circumstances are different. I have encouraged some clients to agree to the phone hearing. I have advised others that a phone hearing may be a bad idea. My clients know it is their choice to make. The bottom line is that if you are OK with having your hearing conducted over the phone, you (or your representative) will need to check the appropriate box and let SSA know what telephone number they need to call for the hearing.