Social Security Disability Insurance is provided to people who are disabled and may be unable to work at a time when the money is desperately needed.
"I had a slip and fall where I damaged my spine. At 4, 5 and 6 in my neck," said Antonio Evans, who has been unable to work since his accident in 2019. "I had to recover from being paralyzed from the neck down."
While in the hospital, the electrical technician was given information about filing for Social Security Disability Insurance or SSDI.
"I'm still in the process of healing. I'm in a lot of pain in the nerve path that's along the arms," Evans told the I-Team.
That filing process is known for being time-consuming and complicated, but the pandemic has slowed down the government agency even more.
According to the Social Security Administration, changes were made when the pandemic hit, "to safely serve the public, contributing to increased backlogs and wait times in some priority service areas". Agency services were temporarily shut down early in the pandemic and since starting back up, employees have worked remotely. Then receiving medical documentation became difficult due to mail delays.
"It's a hard system to navigate. It's like, I don't try to do my income taxes myself. It's a complicated system. And I would say that Social Security and SSI disability is similar. The rules are incredibly complex," said Tom Yates, who runs a non-profit legal-clinic to help low-income people through the SSDI application process.
He said the pandemic made it difficult for filers to get their required medical evidence.
"They've been having trouble getting medical records or sending people out for medical exams when they can do that," Yates said. "So the whole process has really kind of slowed down because of the pandemic. It's, I wouldn't say collapsed, but for some people, it's probably the same effect, just nothing is moving like it should be."
Social Security told the I-Team that early in the pandemic, medical offices stopped all elective medical care and 30% of their medical providers are still unwilling to resume in-person exams.
Yates said this has disproportionately affected his clients.
"Either people can figure out how to do it online but not everyone has access to the computer, particularly in lower-income communities, or they're filing for a type of benefit where they actually have to talk to someone on the phone and then submit some sign documents and that is really pretty drastically slowed down the pace of applications going in," he said.
TJ Geist is a private claims consultant who is hired by applicants to help them get approval. He said the slowdown can dramatically affect people's financial situations.
"The longer someone sits in the backlog the more bankruptcies we see, foreclosures, just general financial instability," Geist said.
Lawyers, legal-aid advocates and private companies can help with the application process. The Social Security Administration must first approve them. Typically, the fee is 25% of back benefits with a cap of $6,000.
Some volunteer legal services, like the one run by Yates, may be able to help for free if you qualify.
It took Evans nine months to receive his needed disability funds after hiring a representative.
"There was no way I could have did this by myself. I mean, I how can you with a debilitating disability be responsible for taking care of the paperwork," he said.
Yates expects a spike in disability applications in the near future by people experiencing long-haul effects of COVID-19, placing an even bigger burden on the system.
If you are planning to file for SSDI with representation, let the Social Security Administration know in writing as soon as possible so they can approve your fee-agreement.
Ways to Apply
Checklist for online adult disability application
SSI/SSDI Outreach, Access, and Recovery (SOAR)