SSA reaches deal to resume some in-person disability claims hearings starting in May

SSA and the Association of Administrative Law Judges reached an agreement this week to resume in-person disability as soon as May 4, while continuing to hold vi...

The Social Security Administration plans to resume some in-person disability claims hearings this spring, after holding remote hearings for nearly two years.

SSA and the Association of Administrative Law Judges reached an agreement this week to resume in-person disability claims hearings as soon as May 4, while continuing to hold virtual video and phone hearings.

Administrative law judges have held hundreds of thousands of hearings virtually since the start of the pandemic, and point to a hybrid model of in-person and virtual hearings under the memo as a promising model for the future of work.

SSA field offices, meanwhile, have been mostly closed to the public, or open by appointment for “dire-needs” only, since March 2020.

AALJ President Som Ramrup, an administrative law judge in New York City and an SSA employee for more than 20 years, said the MOU prioritizes both workplace flexibility and safety.

“The AALJ corps is really focused on providing due process to the claimants that appear before us. Part of that process is the method of the hearing, and to the extent that certain individuals and claimants are uncomfortable with video or telephone, we’re going to give them the opportunity to do it in-person,” Ramrup said in an interview.

The memo allows judges to voluntarily schedule in-person hearings as soon as May 4, while the earliest return-to-the-office date for all other judges is June 3.

The memo notes that the exact date of re-entry is subject to change, based in part on SSA’s negotiations with other unions.

The memo mandates masks, social distancing, plexiglass barriers and HEPA air filtration purifiers in each hearing room. It also gives judges the ability to retain control over conduct in the hearing room, and can adjourn the hearing if, for example, a claimant or representative isn’t complying with the mask requirement.

The memo also allows for “split days,” meaning judges can either work their entire day onsite or return home after hearings are over to complete their workday.

Judges can continue to telework on all days without in-person hearings, and will only be required to work onsite on days when they’re scheduled to hold in-person person hearings.

SSA has also agreed not to mix in-person hearings with online or phone hearings without prior approval from the judge, which gives the agency an incentive to ensure judges have full dockets of in-person hearings.

Ramrup said claimants can still request a virtual hearing, out of a recognition that they may have an underlying medical condition that puts them at higher risk of contracting COVID-19, or may otherwise feel uncomfortable with travel or appearing in-person before a judge.

While the closure of other agency offices and the move to mandatory telework has exacerbated backlogs at other agencies, administrative law judges have seen the number of pending cases go from 575,000 at the start of fiscal 2020 to a current pending caseload of about 352,000.

SSA, meanwhile, received about 430,000 new cases over that same period of time.

“We transitioned on a dime, to first telephone hearings, and then added in video hearings. We pretty much did that seamlessly, and it’s reflected in the fact that the pending number of hearings has continued to come down throughout the course of the pandemic,” Ramrup said.

Ramrup said the MOU indicates a “more favorable atmosphere” between judges and SSA management and could be the first step in a longer-term rethinking of workplace flexibilities.

“It’s really an opportunity for us to reimagine the hearing process and talk about those larger issues. It doesn’t have to be the status quo. Just as in the private sector, where they’ve reimagined the workplace, we can do the same thing in the public sector. I think it’s an opportunity to do that, and to the extent that we’re successful during this short-term period of time that this MOU covers, I think it will reflect in our term bargaining that’s about to occur,” Ramrup said.

Kilolo Kijakazi, a Biden appointee, is currently serving as SSA’s acting commissioner, having replaced Andrew Saul last July. 

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