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.

Rockers Hendrix and Joplin Honored with USPS Stamp

Published in Pawtucket Times, February 28, 2014

Miriam R. Plitt, like many of the baby boomer generation were  ecstatic with the announcing by the United States Postal Service (USPS) of its unveiling of a new line of commemorative stamps, including music culture icons. These stamps will be sold as forever stamps and are good for mailing first class letters at that price any time in the future even if stamps price increase, she says.

The long-time Oak Hill resident was elated that two of her 60s favorites, Jimi Hendrix, on of the most celebrated guitarists in the 20th century and legendary singer and songwriter Janis Joplin, who pushed their way into the public psyche at the Woodstock festival at Max Yasgur’s 600-acre dairy farm in the Catskills near the hamlet of White Lake in the town of Bethel, New York, made the cut.

“Janis Joplin and Jimi Hendrix reaches my soul, they speak to me,” notes Plitt, who chairs Pawtucket’s Advisory Commission on Arts and Culture, who grew up loving Rock and Roll when this musical style became entrenched in her generation. “Any time I hear these musicians, I just go into my own world and dance,” she says.

“Joplin and Hendrix are not artists that came onto the nation’s musical scene and left,” she observed, but they have had an impact on preceding generations even setting high standards for other musicians who came after them.

Now in her mid-sixties, Plitt notes that this is a terrific honor for her generation, having musicians that her contemporaries listened to growing up to be placed on a first class postage stamp.

Pushing the Musical Boundaries with His Guitar

According to Mark Saunders, USPS spokesman, this month, the Jimi Hendrix stamp will be released on March 13 at the South By Southwest Concert in Austin, Texas and available nationwide that day.  It’s a natural venue for Jimi Hendrix fans to purchase the stamp, he says.

            According to the USPS’s bio on Hendrix (19421970), the musician was considered to be one of the most influential electric guitarists in the history of popular music, this being a key factor for the honor of being selected by the USPS.

            Combining influences from rock, modern jazz, soul, and the blues with his own innovations, the legendary Hendrix created a unique style that influenced musical guitarist of his era and continues to inspire musicians well into the 21st century.

            As shown at Woodstock, Hendrix pushed the boundaries of what his guitar could do, manipulating various devices to produce sounds that could be loud—the quintessential psychedelic music—or melodic and gentle. A master at the controlled use of distortion and feedback, he expanded the instrument’s vocabulary in a way that had never been heard before—or since.

While Hendrix is remembered as one of the most innovative guitar players of all time, he was also a gifted songwriter, combining visionary, sometimes haunting imagery with deft pop hooks.

            Rolling Stone ranked Hendrix #1 on its list of the 100 greatest guitarists of all time, and #6 on its list of the 100 greatest artists of all time. His band, the Jimi Hendrix Experience, was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1992 and the U.K. Music Hall of Fame in 2005. The band’s first album, Are You Experienced, is considered by many critics to be one of the best rock albums of all time, and in 2005, the Library of Congress selected it for permanent preservation in the National Recording Registry, a list of sound recordings that “are culturally, historically, or aesthetically important, and/or inform or reflect life in the United States.”

In 1993, Hendrix was awarded a posthumous Grammy for lifetime achievement.

Through Hendrix’s mastery of the guitar and use of controlled feedback as a melodic element, he revolutionized and redefined popular music. His music sounds as innovative and fresh today as when it was first released, winning legions of new fans who just might by commemorative stamps with his image.

Bluesy Voice Propelled Her to the Top

Joplin (1943-1970), an icon of the 1960s whose bluesy voice propelled her to the pinnacle of rock stardom, gets her image on a stamp, too. Her stamp will be issued later in 2014.

When announcing the issuance of the Joplin stamp, the USPS detailed her musical track record, too.  Joplin broke onto the national music scene with an explosive performance at the Monterey Pop Festival in 1967. Known for her rebellious public persona, Joplin roared and wailed her way through uninhibited, soulful performances.

Her time at the top, however, was very brief. She recorded only two hit albums and performed at the Woodstock concert, but in October 1970, just three years after she became a star, she died at the age of 27 of a drug overdose. The album she was recording at the time of her death, Pearl, went on to cement her reputation as one of the premier white blues singers of all time. “Me and Bobby McGee,” written by Kris Kristofferson, became a number one hit.

As the years passed, Joplin’s legacy was increasingly recognized by critics. She was inducted into the Cleveland, Ohio-based Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1995 and received a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award in 2005. Rolling Stone included Joplin on its list of 100 Greatest Artists. Some of her most popular songs include “Piece of My Heart,” “Ball and Chain,” and “Cry Baby.”

Washington Posts Reporter Lisa Rein reported in a February 21 article that while stamp designs for both Hendrix and Joplin were scheduled for 2014, other pop and music icons were selected for 2015 and beyond. Specifically, Rein’s commemorative stamp listing also included Beatle John Lennon, NBA Basket Ball player Wilt Chamberlain, celebrity chiefs, recording artist and musician James Brown, late night talk show host, Johnny Carson.  She noted that the USPS even was considering the reissuing of Elvis Presley stamp.

However, USPS Spokesperson Saunders, stated that while Hendrix and Joplin are confirmed for release this year, the others cited by Rein are only being considered at this time, subject to change and most certainly not finalized.  “We may or may not move forward with these stamps,” he says.

            Yes, there is controversy even in the world of stamps.  When hearing that Beatle John Lennon might be honored by having his image on a stamp, collectors voiced their opposition and concerns.  Traditionally, only Americans subjects have been selected, they say.  But, Saunders explains that the USPS has the discretion to select subjects that have made a significant impact to American society and culture, citing examples of Mother Teresa and Winston Churchill. This opens the door to John Lennon’s consideration, he says.

            Bringing more relevant stamps reflecting popular pop culture icons to market is a way to attract younger buyers and increase USPS revenues, notes Saunders.  “With 300 million customers across the nation, our diverse stamp program has something to offer everybody,” he adds.

Saunders notes that “We receive over 40,000 suggestions of subjects on stamps each year.” Many people suggest the inclusion of Rock stars on stamps.  Most certainly, “Joplin and Hendrix will appeal to fans of Rock music from the 60s and 70s,” he says.

            Will Joplin and Hendrix’s commemorative stamps be a big hit with the American public?  It’s a mixed bag says, Ken Martin, Executive Director of the American Philatelic Society,” a nonprofit group representing 34,000 stamp collectors, educators and postal historians in 110 countries.  “Some collectors feel that people commemorated on stamps should be without flaws,” he says, noting that some might just not agree with Hendrix or Joplin’s music style or the way they lived.  However, others might just love them.

            But Martin concedes that “a little bit of controversy adds to promotion of the released stamp and may well increases sales.”  He recognizes that the USPS is broadening the scope of the diverse stamp program to reach out to a broader section of the population.

            Countering the concerns of collectors who may well frown upon the USPS issuing stamps of people with nontraditional or controversial lifestyles, like Hendrix and Joplin, Rick Bellaire, Vice Chair of the Rhode Island Music Hall of Fame, has another take on it.

            Bellaire says that the sudden deaths of Hendrix and Joplin, especially coming as they did [from drug overdoses], one after the other in the Fall of 1970, “were a great blow to the music world.” These musicians were “such giants that there could never be anyone to replace them nor carry on their work,” he says, noting that their “highly original styles promoted deep Rhythm & Blues to the young, white masses in the guise of psychedelic Rock ’n’ Roll while always making sure the audience knew the source material.”

            “I am proud of the U.S. Postal Service for honoring these two masters, judging them not by their personal lives and lifestyles, but by their groundbreaking work as musicians and their generosity of spirit,” says Bellaire.

            For more information on submitting to the USPS your suggestion for a stamp design, go to http://about.usps.com/who-we-are/leadership/stamp-advisory-committee.htm.