Prior to COVID-19, Social Security Disability (SSD) claimants were required to appear in person to have their hearings in front of Administrative Law Judges (ALJs). This often meant traveling long distances by car or public transportation, finding reasonable parking, and getting through a security check before reaching the hearing office waiting room.
“For someone with a spine injury, chronic illness, or mental health issues, this could be an overwhelming task,” said Christopher J. Grover, attorney, Jeffrey Freedman Attorneys, PLLC. “Many of my clients had hearings in the downtown Buffalo hearing office but would have to travel from long distances to get there, which would trigger severe pain.”
“And for those with mental health issues, like PTSD, waiting in the hearing office with 30 to 40 other people would be traumatic.”
One fortunate outcome of COVID-19 was that the Social Security Administration (SSA) had to enact emergency measures, which allowed claimants to appear by video and phone conferencing instead of in-person for their hearings. This allowed claimants to appear for the hearing from the comfort of their homes instead of travelling to the nearest hearing office. Now, after successfully completing more than 65,000 hearings by video and 900,000 hearings by telephone, the SSA has proposed a new rule that will allow the option for phone and video hearings to continue beyond the emergency measures required by the pandemic.
Currently the rule change is out for comment by the public before it becomes official, but the SSA gave claimants a chance to rate their online or audio experiences and found the overall satisfaction on a scale from 1 to 5 was 4.2 or higher.
“The overwhelming majority of our clients prefer to have their hearings remotely, and if they want to meet in person, they can still do that,” Grover said. “It would be difficult to take the option for remote hearings away at this point; as it’s really a win/win for both claimants and the agency.”