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My name is Attorney Thomas Durkin. I am a partner with Cabranes, Durkin, and Longdin. I have been helping people with their SSDI and SSI cases for over 25 years. I have physical offices in Racine and Milwaukee, WI, but the COVID-19 pandemic has changed how I practice law and has actually allowed me to broaden my practice area as I no longer have to travel to hearing offices for in-person hearings for the reasons explained below.

Since March of 2020, all local social security and hearing offices have been closed to the general public due to the Covid-19 pandemic, with some limited exceptions for the local offices. This has substantially affected how SSDI and SSI claims are processed and handled in many ways. I will outline some of those changes below.

The local offices are where most of the day-to-day transactions take place and the hearing offices are where hearings used to be held in person. The local offices are now open in limited, critical situations. However, you have to schedule an in-person appointment with your local office in order to be seen. Limited, critical situations exist when: (1) you are without food, shelter, or without medical care or (2) coverage and need to apply for or reinstate benefits or you currently receive benefits and have an urgent need for payment to meet expenses for food, shelter or medical treatment and you cannot receive the payment electronically.

You must call your local office to set an in-person appointment. If you just show up to your local office, the doors are locked and you will not gain entry. Most of the staff are working remotely, and on any given day there may only be a couple of employees in the office. More than ever, social security is encouraging people to use their online services prior to calling them by phone, but you can still reach your local social security office by phone. You can go to www.ssa.gov to do most things that you would need to do, such as completing an application for disability, doing an appeal, checking your case status, and filling out forms. You can also create a social security “my account” on the social security website that will allow you to do many things, such as checking the status of your application or appeal and managing your benefits if you already received them.

The hearing offices continue to be closed to the public nationwide and this will likely continue for the foreseeable future. There are no in-person hearings being conducted at this time. Social Security has replaced in-person hearings with telephone hearings and has recently started online video hearings. You must agree to waive your right to an in-person hearing and agree to either a telephone or online video hearing. You have the right to object to a telephone hearing or online video hearing and request an in-person, but at this time no one knows when the hearing offices are going to reopen for in-person hearings and it could substantially delay a decision on your case.

There are a few things to keep in mind with telephone hearings. The Administrative Law Judge (ALJ) will conduct the hearing from a private location in their home. Their clerk will contact you by phone at the time of the hearing, so you must provide the hearing office with a working phone number where they can reach you. ALJs will ask you at the beginning of the hearing if you waive your right to an in-person hearing and agree to a telephone hearing. They will also ask you for certain identifying information to confirm that it is actually you on the phone because they cannot see you in person. They will ask to confirm that you are in a private location with no one else present and remind you that no one can assist you in testifying, just like at an in-person hearing. Finally, they will make sure that you are not recording the hearing as only the social security office can conduct the official recording of the hearing.

Most clients that I have agree to do either the telephone or an online video hearing because they have already waited so long to get a hearing and cannot afford to wait even longer for an in-person hearing. I personally have not seen a difference in the ALJ decisions, either favorable or unfavorable, with the telephone and online video hearings. One of the bigger downsides to a telephone hearing is the ALJ who is deciding your case cannot personally see you and this can make a difference in certain cases. One way to deal with this situation is through submitting photographic or video evidence. Otherwise, the telephone and online video hearings have been conducted just like an in-person hearing, with the occasional technical difficulties with having multiple parties on the telephone line at the same time.

This article is not meant to give legal advice but is for informational purposes only. If you have specific questions relating to SSDI and/or SSI, then please contact me at Cabranes, Durkin, and Longdin at (262) 638-0529 or durkin@cdllawoffices.com or www.cdllawoffices.com.

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