Immediately following her husband’s funeral, Rondell Gulick called Social Security. The stay-at-home mom now had the responsibility of raising nine children alone and faced how she would claim the benefits that would keep her family afloat for months to come.
The phone is Gulick’s only access to benefits, as it is for many others. There are thousands of people seeking Social Security survivors benefits, some of which they are unaware of since Social Security offices across the country have been closed since the outbreak. In addition, nearly 900,000 additional deaths have been caused by Coronavirus. Women make up the majority of those seeking survivors’ benefits, according to 19thnews.
The most recent data indicates that about 92% of women seeking young survivors’ benefits were mothers with one or more children, while about 96% of women seeking widow’s benefits, for those over 60, were women.
In the event that Gulick were to retire, she would be able to apply online for those benefits. Nevertheless, since most offices don’t allow in-person visits for other Social Security benefits, she is restricted to calling for assistance.
The processing of applications that would ordinarily take only one visit in the course of a year is taking weeks and even months.
In the weeks following her husband’s death, Gutick has spent countless hours on the phone trying to get the benefits most of her children are eligible for. Her husband was a corrections officer who earned enough to support a family consisting of five biological children and four adopted kids from their decade as foster parents. The average benefit per child is $1,000, but larger families will be subject to a cap, and Gulick is not sure what that means for her.
Ben Gulick died suddenly on January 2 of complications associated with COVID-19 — he was only 45 years old when he died. Families and friends have donated to help, but it won’t last forever.
“Dealing with so many hurdles on top of dealing with loss, while also trying to help nine children grieve this process” has been stressful, Gulick explained.
“I do not know what our future holds. I just don’t know.”
The process would have been fairly simple if it had been a normal year. She could have completed the process on the spot if she had taken her husband’s original death certificates, the children’s original birth certificates, their adoption papers, as well as her original marriage license. However, she has only been able to schedule an appointment for March at the Carson City, Michigan, office.
In order to receive benefits, many people need to provide documentation. Because Social Security benefits like disability and survivors benefits do not offer an in-person option, applicants may be required to mail original copies of sensitive documents, which may cause them to delay applying, experts said. To get through an application, they also need customer service assistance, which is especially difficult for those whose first language is not English.
“Social Security is vitally important to women and LGBTQ+ people and people of color — those who have been discriminated against historically, and especially lower-income people,” said Nancy Altman, president of advocacy group Social Security Works. “It just compounds all the issues with the field offices closed.”
Women have historically relied more on survivors benefits because of structural inequities, according to economist David Weaver, a former associate commissioner at Social Security’s Office of Research, Demonstration, and Employment Support.
According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, women earn about 80 percent less than men by the time they are 65. Due to their tendency to live longer, they’re more likely to qualify for benefits that are generally higher than those they can obtain on their own.
Although only a few people were awarded benefits over the last two years due to the barriers. From 2019 to 2021, the number of Supplemental Security Income awards decreased by 27 percent. Since 1996, Social Security insurance awards, which include survivors benefits, retiree benefits, and disability benefits, are down about 7 percent.
In terms of widows and widowers and surviving children, the numbers have increased by about 10% from last year. However, there are signs that not everyone is getting the help they need. Due to COVID-19, the death rate rose by 17 percent from 2019 to 2020, and according to death records so far, 2021 is expected to have been even deadlier. Accordingly, awards haven’t increased as quickly as deaths, but numbers would have been much higher if the field offices hadn’t closed, Weaver said.
“The fact that the [overall] data fell, that tells you people are having trouble getting access,” Weaver noted.
“The deaths are highly concentrated among the populations that Social Security serves. Those deaths are creating widows and survivors.”
There have been rotations of workers in the field offices who go through tens of thousands of pieces of mail and scan documents, but as the pandemic continues, the demand has increased, as have phone calls. The agency’s Office of Inspector General reported that only 51 percent of incoming calls to field offices or the national number in fiscal year 2020 were answered.
“It was an unsustainable situation that continued to deteriorate as demand increased,” Peggy Murphy, district manager of the Social Security office in Great Falls, Montana, said, during a hearing.
A surge in cases and pushback from unions delayed Social Security’s plans to reopen offices at the start of the year until March. Darren Lutz, spokesman for the agency, said employees will return to work on March 30 and services will resume without appointments in early April.
If you’ve already gone through the process, it may be too late.
Social Security Distress Threatening Lives
After hearing about survivors benefits from other widows, Brianna Berry, 31, began to apply for them. Her husband, Lewis, died in Indiana from COVID-19 at a young age and was the earliest casualty. He was 37 at the time.
In the months after Lewis died, Berry spent a lot of time trying to contact someone at Social Security. It wasn’t clear to her where she could go or even whom to call at first. A search on the website did not reveal how she could apply or what qualifications she had. As she jumped between phone numbers and representatives, she finally applied after bouncing between a few.
All in all, she received a final benefit of $255. Berry wasn’t eligible for any other benefit than her one-time death benefit payment because of her age and income.
Despite being married for 17 months, Berry and her husband never had children. Even if she had children, her income would not affect their benefits. The lack of guidance cost her valuable time during what was already a difficult time in her life, which she could have resolved more quickly if she had been able to visit her local office.
“I was angry, because it was like my husband worked his whole life and when he’s gone I don’t get any support because we didn’t have children,” she explained.
“It was like my grief was less because I’m young.”
Similar Distressed by Social Security
In Jolene Reeves’ case, Social Security hasn’t responded. The Georgia resident spent 45 minutes to more than an hour on hold on half a dozen calls before a phone appointment was made for the end of March.
The death of Reeves’ husband, Bennie, from coronavirus complications occurred in November, and she began applying for benefits for her two teenage daughters in December. She will not qualify for the enhanced benefits for “aged widows” because she is 55 years old.
In Reeves’ case, the money isn’t as important as it might be for other applicants working in billing. The main complaint she has is that it is so difficult to obtain the benefits she is entitled to.
“You go into a lot of places — even to get your nails done — they have the plexiglass between the person and [you]. Everyone’s figured it out but the government,” Reeves said.
Even attorneys hired to act as social security intermediaries have been stumped by the situation. Delaware Community Legal Aid Society Inc. advocacy director John Whitelaw worked with Social Security for a year and a half to allow emergency in-person appointments.
According to Whitelaw, survivors and persons with disabilities who apply for benefits get little help.
“It’s not an eligibility problem, it really is a knowledge and access problem,” he explained.
“I don’t think it’s nefarious, and it’s not part of some plan, but I think it’s an unintended consequence of the public health precautions.”
Undying Social Security Distress Since the 2019
Nicholas Parr, an attorney with the Charlotte Center for Legal Advocacy, has struggled to get Social Security benefits. The case of one survivor he’s been representing has lasted from 2019 through the entire pandemic. After a certified copy of the birth certificate was sent, Social Security claimed it had not received it. The Social Security Administration later sent a message confirming that the birth certificate was received – but weeks later requested it again.
Nine months were spent playing that ping-pong alone. Parr’s client could have filled out the paperwork and submitted it one day if the offices were open.
“From my point of view, the fact that they’ve closed the office has made things incredibly difficult for anyone who has any interaction with Social Security and this has really been exacerbated by the fact that they’ve had some very serious issues with answering their phone calls,” Parr stated.
“The fact that they can’t go in and meet with someone or that they can’t reliably talk to someone by telephone is an incredibly serious barrier.”
People without Internet access, a telephone, or easy access to mail face the greatest challenges, she said.
The Backlog of Challenges and Reoccurring Issues
“Even during normal times, these individuals find it difficult to conduct business with SSA, but at least they could visit a field office. This is not a viable option so long as our lobbies remain closed to walk-in service,” explained District Manager named Murphy.
Some field offices have added drop boxes at their locations across the country until offices open again in March and April so people can drop off sensitive documents without worrying they will be lost in the mail. The pandemic has, on the other hand, proven the need for rapid technological changes at Social Security.
Taking inflation into account, Social Security receives 13 percent fewer funding today than it did in 2010, regardless of the increase in beneficiaries of 22 percent. According to Murphy, President Joe Biden’s budget allocates $14.2 billion to the agency, money that could be used to improve the processing of benefits and outreach to vulnerable populations, as well as improving IT systems.
The area of outreach, in particular, is ripe for improvement. A Better Collaboration with Other Agencies, such as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, would help Social Security inform people who lose family due to COVID-19 about their eligibility for benefits, according to Weaver. When a former spouse dies, divorced widows and widowers are not contacted by the agency regarding their eligibility for benefits. Less than half of surviving children receive Social Security benefits, Weaver noted, often because they have never applied.
“Everybody thinks of it as a universal program — it’s universal for those over 65, but for children who have lost a parent, Social Security is not a universal program,” he said.
Social Security faces a new problem with the reopenings on the horizon: demand.
Social Security expert Kathleen Romig, who works for the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, said the agency will have to deal with thousands of people unable to get through when its offices open again.
“Advocates are saying it’s not enough simply to reopen — we also have this big backlog of people who weren’t served over the last two years,” she said.
Those people who have been waiting to apply have been doing so for a long time, and the backlog on the phone may now be taking place in Social Security lobbies.
“When Social Security does reopen,” she continued, “it’s not going to look the same.”