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Next Avenue: How to get Social Security help while the agency’s offices are closed

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This article is reprinted by permission from NextAvenue.org.

The Social Security Administration has closed all its 1,200 field offices around the country until further notice due to the coronavirus pandemic. So, what will it mean for you if you’ll need help with benefits, a replacement Social Security card or have questions about Social Security or Medicare?

The answer depends on how you’ll turn to the Social Security Administration for help as a result. You may be able to get what you need online — though that could depend on which state you live in. But if you’ll want to speak to a Social Security phone rep, prepare for a long (possibly very long) hold.

For questions or concerns that require speaking to a human, you’ll need to try calling the Social Security toll-free number and be prepared to wait.

The decision to close the offices, Social Security Administrator Andrew Saul said, “protects the population we serve — older Americans and people with underlying medical conditions — and our employees during the Coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic.”

That it does. And it’s especially wise considering that many of the 43 million annual visitors to Social Security offices are older Americans, who are the most susceptible to the coronavirus.

Social Security benefits during the pandemic

Payments to the 69 million-plus Social Security beneficiaries won’t be affected by the field-office shutdown. And field offices will continue offering in-person assistance in what the agency calls “dire circumstances” — such as helping people with severe disabilities, blindness or terminal illnesses.” You’ll need to call the local office in advance to arrange for these meetings.

Also read: I tested 2 free Social Security retirement calculators, and here’s what I found

If you had an office appointment scheduled, expect to get a call from a Social Security staffer. That person will either try to help you by phone or reschedule, according to Mark Miller in the New York Times.

One impending Social Security customer service problem: the agency’s toll-free number (800-772-1213) has been understaffed for years due to severe agency budget cuts.

Social Security’s customer service challenges

“We have some challenges, as everybody knows, in delivering the proper service to our customers,” Saul told AARP in February 2020. “The 800 number, that has been a major problem, major concern for all our customers. If you called in, you would find you had an unacceptable waiting time — sometimes 30 minutes, sometimes 40 minutes.”

To his credit, Saul announced plans to attack the problem when he took the job last year, calling improved customer service his priority. Since then, he brought on 500 teleservice reps, which he told AARP cut down call time by about 50%.

Also on MarketWatch: How can we fix Social Security’s coming cash shortfall?

He said another 500 phone reps would be hired later this year, though that was before the pandemic. In February, he told AARP: “I think if you watch over the next six months, we will get the call centers down to the proper waiting time, which will be close to zero. That’s a prediction that I’m willing to make here, and I believe we will succeed in doing this”

Whether that prediction will come true given how the world of work has changed due to the coronavirus is anyone’s guess.

In January, Saul also reversed a 2012 decision to close Social Security offices at noon on Wednesdays. From then until the coronavirus shutdown, all its offices were open 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. weekdays.

Getting a replacement Social Security card now

About a third of people coming to Social Security offices do so to get replacement Social Security cards. And roughly 20% come for their Social Security benefit statements.

You can also get your Social Security benefit statement on the Social Security website or apply for benefits there, as long as you have a “mySocial Security” account.

Read next: The IRS is postponing tax payment deadlines during the coronavirus outbreak — what that means for your taxes

If you need a replacement Social Security card, you can apply for one free online at the Social Security website — but only if you live in one of the 40 states that permit this for all citizens age 18 or older. The ones that don’t: Alabama, Minnesota, Nevada, New Hampshire, Ohio, Oklahoma, Oregon and West Virginia. In Delaware and Wisconsin, you can only apply online if you have a driver’s license. So, if you can’t apply online, you’ll need to call Social Security for help getting a new card.

To apply for a card online if you live elsewhere, you’ll need to have or set up a “mySocial Security” account. Before the pandemic, it generally took 10 to 14 business days from the time your application was processed to get the new card in the mail.

There’s no need to pay a fee to a private service to do this for you.

What the Social Security site can do for you

You can also get your Social Security benefit statement on the Social Security website or apply for benefits there, as long as you have a my Social Security account.

Check the Social Security site periodically for updates on its procedures during these turbulent times or sign up there for alerts about the updates.

When you have to speak to someone at Social Security

For questions or concerns that require speaking to a human, you’ll need to try calling the Social Security toll-free number and be prepared to wait. Social Security’s advice to callers: “Please be patient.” The phone reps will prioritize urgent issues.

Back in December 2019, Kathleen Romig, senior policy analyst at the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, told Next Avenue: “If you are going to call the 800 number, you should block out an hour of time so that you can wait on hold.” And that was before the you-know-what.

Richard Eisenberg is the Senior Web Editor of the Money & Security and Work & Purpose channels of Next Avenue and Managing Editor for the site. He is the author of “How to Avoid a Mid-Life Financial Crisis” and has been a personal finance editor at Money, Yahoo, Good Housekeeping, and CBS MoneyWatch. Follow him on Twitter.

This article is reprinted by permission from NextAvenue.org, © 2020 Twin Cities Public Television, Inc. All rights reserved.

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