A couple of weeks ago, I mentioned the fact that the new commissioner of Social Security, a guy named Andrew Saul, has promised to improve the service people get when they call the Social Security Administration 800 number or visit a local Social Security office. I said I hoped he would be true to his word and wasn't just blowing a lot of political smoke. Today's questions illustrate the kinds of problems he is facing.
Q: I wanted to share my recent experiences when I filed for widows benefits. First, I called the Social Security Administration 800 number. I was told there would be a two-hour wait before an agent would be available to help me. Can anyone really be expected to wait on hold for two hours? So I decided to hang up and try my luck at our local Social Security office. Because I didn't have an appointment, I was given a number. I could tell by the numbering system that it would be a very long time before I would see anyone. It turned out to be four hours! The woman I was finally assigned to seemed tired, overworked and frazzled. Throughout the entire interview, she never once looked up at me, except at the very end when we were all done. And frankly, I was disappointed that she never once acknowledged my situation. I had recently lost my husband and a simple expression of sympathy would have meant so much to me. I left the office feeling much worse than when I went in. What can be done about this?
A: Gosh, I feel so sorry for what you went through. I hope your experience with the local Social Security representative was not typical. Many years ago, when I was taking claims from Social Security customers, I used to constantly remind myself that even though I did this every day for a living, it was a once-in-a-lifetime experience for the person I was talking to. And I knew the experience, for them, was fraught with tension, anxiety and in cases of survivors benefits like yours, a great deal of sorrow. So I always did my best to make sure the person I was talking to felt welcome and at ease. Let's hope most SSA representatives today offer the same level of compassionate service — and that maybe you just got stuck with someone who was having a bad day.
And sadly, if my emails are any indication, your experience with SSA's 800 number was typical. People are always complaining to me about long wait times before an agent comes on the phone to help them. They also gripe about the fact that if they are trying to set up an interview at their local Social Security office, the first available appointment is often many months in the future.
As far as dealing with the long wait times, the only advice I can offer is to try calling at the very beginning or end of the workday. SSA representatives are available to answer calls between 7 a.m. and 7 p.m. (local time) every Monday through Friday. I would try calling right after 7 a.m. or shortly before 7 p.m.
Some readers may wonder why I didn't recommend that women file for their widows benefits online. Claims for widows benefits must be done in person.
Q: A few months ago, I tried filing for spousal benefits on my husband's Social Security account. I called SSA's 800 number, and after a 90-minute wait, I finally talked to a nice young woman named Janet. She reviewed our records and told me that I was due some extra money on my husband's account. She set up an interview for us at our local Social Security office. Fast-forward two months. We finally had our appointment yesterday. And imagine our shock when the local representative, a guy named Rodney who seemed to be new to the job, told me I would not be due any extra benefits until my husband dies. We left the office confused and disappointed. How do we know which agent to believe?
A: Regrettably, I hear stories similar to yours all the time. And I always tell people this: Insist on filing a claim. You have every right in the world to do so. That way, you will get a formal and legal decision that will come from SSA's national computer system and not just Janet's or Rodney's opinion about your eligibility for benefits.
Q: When I was 66, I took spousal benefits on my husband's record. I will soon be turning 70 and need to switch to my own retirement benefits. I called the 800 number and told them what I wanted to do. The agent proceeded to interview me. I could tell she was filling out a form on her computer. It started simply enough, when she asked for my name, Social Security number, etc. But then things got weird. She asked how much money I had in my savings account! She asked if I owned any property besides my home. And she wanted to know if I had a life insurance policy. I asked what this had to do with trying to start my Social Security. She said these were just routine questions. I finally decided to end the interview. I plan to go to my local Social Security office and start the process over again. Are they also going to be asking me these strange questions?
A: You were right. That was indeed a very weird interview. I can guess what might have happened. I wonder if you used the term "SSI" when you talked to the telephone representative? I have written many past columns about how many people confuse SSI (which stands for Supplemental Security Income, a federal welfare program), with Social Security. In other words, I think you may have possibly said, "I want to file for SSI," when you really meant to say, "I want to file for Social Security." The reason I think that is because all those questions you were asked about your bank accounts and property ownership are standard questions on an SSI application form.
Still, even if you used the wrong term, the SSA telephone representative, with a little bit of extra questioning, should have been able to figure out that you wanted to apply for Social Security and not SSI. Oh, well. Just make sure you don't say "SSI" when you go to your local Social Security office.
If you have a Social Security question, Tom Margenau has the answer. Contact him at [email protected] To find out more about Tom Margenau and to read past columns and see features from other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate website at www.creators.com.
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