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COVID-19 widows left on hold with Social Security offices closed

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

Rondell Gulick first called Social Security the day after her husband's funeral. He had contracted COVID-19 and died earlier this year at the age of 45, leaving behind his wife and nine children. In normal times, his widow, Rondell, would have been able to visit a Social Security office to apply for benefits. Often everything would get sorted out with just one appointment. But almost two years into the pandemic, Social Security offices are still closed for everything except emergency appointments. And so COVID widows are fighting to access the benefits they're entitled to.

Chabeli Carrazana is the economy reporter for The 19th, and she's written about these hurdles. Welcome to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED.

CHABELI CARRAZANA: Thank you so much.

SHAPIRO: Many services figured out how to do this remotely, whether we're talking about remote schooling or telemedicine. What is the experience like applying for Social Security death benefits with those offices closed?

CARRAZANA: Well, for almost every benefit that you would need to interact with Social Security, you need to either go in-person or do it through the phone. The only thing that you can apply for online is retirement.

And so in the case of death benefits, that's been a huge problem for folks because getting through the phone lines has been a huge barrier. If you can't go in person and you can't apply online, you're at the mercy of a phone call.

SHAPIRO: And so practically, what does that mean for the ability of somebody like Rondell Gulick, who you spoke to, to get the benefits that she's entitled to?

CARRAZANA: That means you have people on the phone 45 minutes, an hour on hold trying to get to somebody, calling over and over and over again, people who have just lost family members. In some cases, where this money is their livelihood, it's something that they are relying on to be able to make it through the next few months, and they just cannot get through. And so Rondell was able to finally get through to somebody who told her, we can't even talk to you again for another two months when you will have an appointment, and that appointment will also be on the phone.

And so that's - really what is happening is you have to just be extremely, extremely persistent. And we know how people's lives are complicated. There are some folks who just are not getting these benefits at all because they're unable to go through all those hurdles.

SHAPIRO: And this is happening during a time period when 900,000 people in the U.S. have died of this disease, and so the number of people applying for these benefits - there's an extraordinary need right now.

CARRAZANA: The need is enormous. And we've already seen the impact of these closures. We've seen that the number of benefits for the antipoverty program under Social Security - the number of people receiving those benefits has gone down by about 27%. Social Security's other program, which includes the death benefits, includes workers with disability, that's down 7%.

So it's clear in the numbers that people are not accessing these benefits. It's not a matter of eligibility, it's access.

SHAPIRO: And this isn't a result of people not having information or not having experience. You've spoken to lawyers who deal with Social Security as part of their occupation and are running into these same problems, right?

CARRAZANA: And this is not a case where people should be speaking to a lawyer to solve their case, right? This is not something that should be this complicated. And you have attorneys who are trying to work in the middle and are not able to.

I had - I spoke to one attorney who's been working on a case for nine months, and the back-and-forth has been simply about a birth certificate. Social Security says they don't have it, then they do have it, then it's not the right one, this back-and-forth, back-and-forth, back-and forth. And like you mentioned at the top, this could be resolved in a day, not months.

SHAPIRO: Who tends to be most affected by this?

CARRAZANA: Well, it depends on the kind of benefit that you're looking at, but really, overall, we were talking about the most vulnerable groups in this country, right? A lot of workers with disability, people with disabilities, they are really having a hard time accessing benefits. In particular, those applications are even more complicated. And typically, you need somebody to help you with that in person.

And then, of course, we have the survivors group. And so you have these - a lot of these young widows who have never interacted with Social Security, did not expect to and are now having to navigate a system that really is not really built to help people right now.

SHAPIRO: It would be easy to paint Social Security as the villain here, a typical dysfunctional bureaucracy. Is that what's going on?

CARRAZANA: No, I don't think it is. I think you have folks at Social Security who are very, very dedicated to this work and have been navigating what's been a really difficult situation for them with really low staffing, not a lot of help. You know, Social Security has seen its budget decrease by about 13% over the past decade when you adjust for inflation. So this is an agency like other agencies - like IRS is another - that have been sort of the victim of these budgetary cuts.

And now we're reaping the consequences of those actions, and it's affecting the staff there. It's affecting their workers. And it's affecting, again, the most vulnerable people who really needed these benefits in a time like now.

SHAPIRO: If Social Security offices do open next month as scheduled, there's going to be a huge backlog. So what happens then?

CARRAZANA: That's the big question now, right? We know that there are people who did not apply at all this year because of these hurdles that we talked about. And so those backlogs that we're seeing on the phones where only half of phone calls are getting answered, those backlogs are going to be taking place in lobbies at Social Security offices around the country. And what we don't know yet is the detailed plan for how Social Security is going to tackle that because we know that's coming.

SHAPIRO: Chabeli Carrazana is the economy reporter for The 19th. Thank you for sharing your reporting with us.

CARRAZANA: Thank you so much. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.