Social Security offices are expected to reopen in March

The national network of Social Security customer service offices, which closed nearly two years ago at the start of the pandemic, is scheduled to reopen on March 30.

The Social Security Administration and unions representing the agency’s workforce agreed this week to reopen more than 1,200 offices, pending changes in pandemic conditions and further negotiations. Negotiations are due to be completed by March 1, which would give 30 days to plan for re-entry into the office.

“This agreement will allow all parties to wait and see what happens with the latest wave of the pandemic,” said Rich Couture, chief negotiator for the American Federation of Government Employees, one of three unions representing agency employees involved in the talks. “Hopefully it abates but if not then we may be able to take further action to delay reopening.”

Social Security offices process pension and Medicare claims. But they also help with applying for Social Security Disability Insurance and Supplemental Insurance Income, the benefit program for low-income, disabled, or elderly people. Since the pandemic began, almost all public services have been available only online, by phone and by mail, and the agency’s nearly 60,000 employees have been working virtually. Office visits are by appointment only and only for a limited number of critical issues.

Processing of Social Security retirement benefits and Medicare claims was not affected during the office’s closure, agency records show. In 2020, however, there were sharp declines in benefit approvals for supplementary security income and disability insurance.

Social Security previously announced a tentative plan for staff to return to offices on Jan. 3. However, that date has been pushed back because of disagreements between the agency and unions over details of the plan.

The new agreement requires all employees and visitors to social security facilities to wear masks, regardless of their vaccination status. Under the agency’s original plan, visitors who said they were vaccinated would have been allowed to refrain from wearing masks. The agreement also calls for negotiations between the agency and various segments of the workforce over the details of each group’s reopening plan.

“Our primary concern is to ensure the safety and health of employees and visitors,” Mr. Couture said.

Details of how the offices will reopen, including hours of operation, are still being negotiated but are expected to be announced in March. The agency also plans to continue allowing telecommuting to varying degrees for different jobs.

During the transition, the agency advises people to use their website whenever possible or call their national toll-free number 800-772-1213 as a starting point for assistance.

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