January 21, 2022
Kilolo Kijakazi, the Acting Commissioner of Social Security, announced earlier this week that the Social Security Administration (SSA) has reached an agreement with the American Federation of Government Employees (AFGE), the Association of Administrative Law Judges (AALJ), and National Treasury Employees Union (NTEU) for their federal government employees to make a return to the office. This comes several months after news began to circulate that Social Security offices would reopen and staff would return to working in-person at the beginning of the new year. Unfortunately, the resurgence of the COVID-19 pandemic, heightened by the Omicron variant, delayed plans.
The AFGE, which represents workers across SSA, has announced a tentative return to the office date of March 30, 2022. While this return to work announcement was not accompanied by a confirmation of the reopening of local Social Security offices and card centers for in-person services, the AALJ, the union representing Administrative Law Judges (ALJs), has provided a date for a return to in-person hearings, developing a “Memorandum of Understanding (MOU)” with SSA. On a volunteer basis, ALJs may begin to hold in-person hearings beginning on May 4, 2022. Those judges who choose to remain working remotely during the first thirty days, will be required to begin holding in-person hearings on June 3, 2022, unless they qualify for a medical exemption.
To ensure the safety of all participants, enhanced cleaning protocols, plexiglass barriers, high efficiency particulate air (HEPA) filtration symptoms, and additional safety measures, such as a mask mandate and enforcement of social distancing, will be put in place. At this time, only the ALJ, claimant, and their representative will be allowed to attend the hearing. It is currently unclear if additional pertinent parties, such as court reports, translators, and support persons will be allowed to attend in person.
What does this mean for me?
If you have filed a request for a hearing and are waiting for a hearing date to present your case in front of an Administrative Law Judge, you may now have the option to attend in-person beginning on May 4, 2022, instead of remotely via telephone or video on Microsoft Teams. We do not expect this move to in-person hearings to lengthen the time frame you must wait, nor do you need to refile for a hearing date.
What if I have a telephone/video hearing upcoming – will the hearing be moved to in-person?
Unless you receive written or verbal notification from the Social Security Administration or Office of Hearings Operations, the format of your hearing will not change. If your hearing is scheduled prior to the initial reentry date of May 4, 2022, you can expect your hearing to be held remotely.
How will I know if I am scheduled for an in-person hearing?
Social Security is required to provide you at least 75 days’ notice if you are scheduled to have an in-person hearing, unless you agree, in writing, to waive that waiting period. SSA will provide you with written notification, as they do now, of your scheduled hearing and where it will be located should it be in-person.
While, for many claimants, the process of a remote hearing is a welcome convenience, for others, their impairments or lack of access to proper technology makes an already stressful situation that much more difficult. At The Advocator Group (now doing business as Brown & Brown Absence Services Group), we remain committed to supporting our clients through this process and are prepared to attend all upcoming hearings – in-person or remote – with each of our clients. We will continue to monitor this situation closely and will communicate any changes that should arise as the proposed return-to-office date approaches.