The Coronavirus and its Effect on Social Security

Published in the Woonsocket Call on March 22, 2020

As the coronavirus (COVID-19) spreads across the nation, the Social Security Administration (SSA) and other federal agencies strive to cope with meeting the huge challenges they face resulting from the unexpected pandemic outbreak, attempting to juggle worker safety while maintaining their daily operations.

On March 19, Key House Democratic and Republican Committee Chairs send a clear message to SSA as to the importance of minimizing any disruptions to its operations during the coronavirus crises. Throughout its 85-year history, Social Security recipients (seniors, families who have lost a breadwinner, and people with disabilities) have never missed getting their monthly check. Keeping this in mind, House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Richard E. Neal (D-MA) and Ranking Member Kevin Brady (R-TX), along with Social Security Subcommittee Chairman John B. Larson (D-CT), Ranking Member Tom Reed (R-NY), Worker and Family Support Subcommittee Chairman Danny K. Davis (D-IL) and Ranking Member Jackie Walorski (R-IN), sent a letter on March 19 to Social Security Administration (SSA) Commissioner Andrew Saul calling on the agency to continue their work to prioritize health and transparency in an effort to minimize disruptions as they administer vital services during the coronavirus crisis.

“We know the decision to close SSA field offices…was a difficult decision. … This move will save lives and will also protect the health of SSA frontline staff, whose public service is so critical,” the key House lawmakers wrote.

“We understand that as coronavirus spreads, you are prioritizing work that fulfills SSA’s core mission,” the letter continued. “We fully support this prioritization.”

“We are writing to urge the Social Security Administration (SSA) to vigorously safeguard the health of the public and agency employees during the coronavirus crisis, while also minimizing disruptions in services to the American people,” stated the House lawmakers. “Telework is a commonsense response to coronavirus and we urge you to maximize its use across SSA. In addition, we encourage SSA to communicate regularly and robustly with the public and with its employees about SSA’s coronavirus response. Social Security is a program that affects the lives of all Americans. As SSA’s response to coronavirus evolves, the public must be able to count on timely information about how to access benefits and services, including assistance when a problem arises.”

The members emphasized that that they stand ready to work with the agency to ensure it has the resources and authority it needs to operate effectively during the crisis while ensuring SSA remains able to send benefits on time each month.

COVID-19 Changes Way SSA Does Business

The COVID-19 pandemic has changed the way SSA does business across the nation. Effective Tuesday, March 17, SSA closed all local Social Security offices for in-person service. SSA says that this decision protects the population it services — older Americans and people with underlying medical conditions—and its employees during the crisis.

But SSA employees remain at their cubicles, the processing of benefits and claims continues. However, critical services can be accessed online. The agency directed the pubic to visit its website (https://www.ssa.gov/) or its toll-free number, 800-772-1213 for customer service. You can apply for retirement, disability, and Medicare benefits online, check the status of an application or appeal, request a replacement Social Security card (in most areas), print a benefit verification letter, and much more – from anywhere and from any of your devices.

According to SSA, there is also a wealth of information to answer most of your Social Security questions online, without having to speak with an SSA employee in person or by phone. Visit our online Frequently Asked Questions at http://www.socialsecurity.gov/ask.

However, those persons who are blind or terminally ill, or need SSI or Medicaid eligibility issues resolved related to work status can obtain in person services in local offices.

SSA also provides COVID-19 related information and customer service updates on a special website (https://www.ssa.gov/coronavirus/)
According to a March 19 blog posting by the Washington, DC-based National Committee to Preserve Social Security and Medicare (NCPSSM), “The Ways and Means committee leaders suggest SSA allow employees to telework where possible, in accordance with federal guidelines. National Committee senior legislative representative (and former 35-year SSA employee) Webster Phillips says the agency’s teleworking capabilities have been diminished since Andrew Saul came on board as administrator – and will take time and resources to build back up.”

The NCPSSM’s blog posting noted, “SSA will discontinue several of its normal activities in order to prioritize beneficiaries’ needs. “There are workloads that they’re not going to process while this is going on, focusing exclusively on paying benefits,” says Phillips. Those include stopping all Continuing Disability Reviews (CDRs) and curtailing eligibility re-determinations for SSI recipients.”

Finally, “SSA also has discontinued in-person disability hearings to protect the health of claimants and employees. Instead, those hearings will take place via telephone or video conference, where possible,” adds the blog posting.

The Bottom Line…

On March 19, SSA Commissioner Andrew Saul, issued a statement to assure the 65 million Social Security recipients that SSA payments will continued to be processed. He stated, “The first thing you should know is that we continue to pay benefits.”  But Saul warned, “Be aware that scammers may try to trick you into thinking the pandemic is stopping your Social Security payments but that is not true. Don’t be fooled.”

The United States Postal Service has so far experienced only minor operational impacts in the United States as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. So, with Saul’s assurances and the postal service still delivering mail, you can expect to get your benefits.
Stay healthy.

Report: Hiring Older Workers Makes Good Business Sense

Published in Woonsocket Call on May 3, 2015

Here’s a sound strategy for America’s CEOs to follow to improve their corporation’s bottom line. AARP’s recently released study suggests, just hire or retain older workers.

An AARP study, released on April 27, discredits widespread myths and misconceptions about age 50+ employees, showing that they have skills and abilities that can make them key to operating a successful business. The report, “A Business Case for Workers Age 50+: A Look at the Value of Experience 2015,” says that the argument for employing older employees has grown even stronger during the last decade, reinforcing a 2005 AARP study that found that these experienced workers are highly motivated, productive and even cost-effective.

Researchers claim that this study documents for the “first time why attracting and retaining experienced age 50+ workers is critical for businesses seeking an advantage in the labor market.”

Older Workers Sound Investment

“Leading employers across all industries value the expertise and experience of workers 50+ and know that recruiting, retaining and engaging them will improve their business results,” said AARP CEO Jo Ann Jenkins in her statement on the releasing the 92 page report.

Just as today’s 50+ population is disrupting aging and eroding negative stereotypes, today’s 50+ workforce is adding value by exhibiting traits that are highly sought after in today’s economy,” Jenkins added.

Adds Roselyn Feinsod, senior partner at Aon Hewitt, a multinational company providing human resources, retirement and health solutions, that prepared this report, “Workers age 50+ are highly valuable within many organizations – particularly in those industries that require highly skilled workers or workers with unique skill sets, such as health care or energy.”

Researchers say that the AARP report comes at a time when experienced workers are playing an increasing role in America’s workplace. In 2002, workers age 50+ made up only 24.6 percent of the workforce. By 2012, they were 32.3 percent. By 2022, they are projected to represent 35.4 percent of the nation’s total workforce.

The AARP new study addresses a widespread misconception that older workers cost “significantly more” than younger workers. In fact, adding more talented older employees to your workforce can result in only minimal labor cost increases, says the researchers, noting that 90 percent of large employers now base pay in part on job performance, rather than exclusively on length of employment.

In addition, in terms of retirement costs, only 22 percent of large companies now offer a defined benefit pension plan, down significantly from the 68 percent in 2004.
Looking at the 50+ segment of the workforce from a performance standpoint, AARP and Aon Hewitt say that older workers remain the most engaged age group. The study reports that 65 percent of workers age 55+ are considered “engaged”, based on survey data, while younger employee engagement averages 58 to 60 percent.

Although the generational differences in engagement might not seem large, “it takes only a five percent increase in engagement to achieve three percent incremental revenue growth,” the report finds. This can translate into a large company with $5 billion in revenue achieving a $150 million revenue increase as a result of even a five percent engagement improvement, the study says.

The report concludes “An engaged older workforce can influence and enhance organizational productivity and generate improved business outcomes.” Other advantages of older workers include their job experience, professionalism, strong work ethic, lower turnover, and knowledge.
AARP commissioned the study to assess the advantages of both retaining and attracting older workers. The analysis relies primarily on data from Aon Hewitt databases, an extensive literature review and interviews with 18 large employers to obtain anecdotal information on how they approach older workers.

Contributing to Rhode Island’s Economy

“We have noted in the past the relevance of Rhode Island’s so-called Longevity Economy,” said AARP Rhode Island State Director Kathleen Connell. “Despite being just 36% of Rhode Island’s population in 2013 (expected to grow to 38% by 2040), the total economic contribution of the state’s 50-plus population accounted for 46% of Rhode Island’s GDP ($24 billion). Now we see another reason to embrace the older population.

Connell notes that “This new report reinforces the value of older Rhode Islanders as they continue to be a key asset in the workforce. It is especially good to have reliable data that exposes the false concept that older workers cost significantly more than younger workers. The truth is, that older workers increase labor costs minimally while contributing experience and stability to businesses across the spectrum.

“Many employers in Rhode Island understand this. AARP Rhode Island gets frequent calls from business actively seeking older workers. They know the value and the wisdom they bring to the workplace,” says Connell.

According to Charles Fogarty, Director of the Division of Elderly Affairs (DEA), the recently released AARP study helps his agency spread this message, “older workers are expected to play a key role in sparking Rhode Island’s comeback.”

“We support policies and programs to help this crucial segment remain active in the labor force by connecting older workers to services and training,” says Fogarty, noting that AARP’s study confirms, “our seniors are a valuable asset in our workforce given their wealth of knowledge, ability to mentor younger colleagues, and commitment to hard work.”

Deputy Director Lisa D’Agostino, of the state’s Department of Labor and Training agrees with DEA’s Fogarty. “Age 50+ workers are a talented segment of our workforce that is often overlooked and untapped when businesses seek workforce solutions. Given today’s demand for a skilled workforce the solution is simple – mature workers can bring the talent, leadership and work ethic employers need,” she says, noting that labor force participation for this group is on the rise and unemployment rates are lower than that of the prime working age population and have been for the last ten years.

Oak Hill resident Hank Rosenthal, 64, confirms the importance and value of hiring older workers. But, during his two-year job search, after being laid off, he experienced job discrimination, he claims. “Having been interviewed by numerous Human Resource professionals, they just seem incapable of understanding that the years of experience someone has gained is an asset. They seem unable to appreciate that knowledge, experience, and even skills acquired over a lifetime can be transferred and used in virtually any organization or business,” he says.

Rosenthal, now gainfully employed, views his older contemporaries as being “more stable, reliable, have better work ethics and generally make great employees, in line with the observations of the AARP report. With the difficulty in finding employment he believes that companies have not figured this out yet. “What a terrible waste of human capital,” he says.

While older workers may be forced to continuing working to pay their bills, many employees will take jobs for both psychological and social fulfillment. Hiring and retaining older workers may be a simple way for American businesses to maintain their competitiveness in a world economy. The report says that this can easily be accomplished by having “flexible workplaces, options for transitioning to retirement and fostering generational diversity and inclusion.” The AARP report is a must read for any CEO or Human Resource Director.

For the full report, go to http://www.aarp.org/research/topics/economics/info-2015/business-case-older-workers.html.

Herb Weiss, LRI ’12, is a Pawtucket-based writer who covers aging, health care and medical issues. He can be reached at hweissri@aol.com.