The Social Security Administration wants to make video and phone hearings for beneficiaries a permanent option to shorten wait times and offer more flexibility to the public.

The administration, via a Federal Register notice, said it had success with almost a million telephone and online video appearances during the COVID–19 pandemic and realized that keeping virtual hearings an option would benefit agency staff and claimants seeking disability.

The agency’s proposal to double-down on preserving virtual operations comes at a time when all of government is looking inward at its pandemic-era workflows. The White House and Congress have ideologically clashed over whether to recall employees to offices, and employees have vouched in several surveys that the ability to work from home saves them time, money and stress.

As the Social Security Administration digs itself out of a backlog hundreds-of-thousands cases large, it argues in its proposal that it can be more efficient if it can keep using remote hearings. Hearing offices would be able to transfer cases between each other more seamlessly, reduce operating disparities between offices and more quickly hear cases because staff wouldn’t have to wait on a hearing room to become available.

Wait times can vary wildly depending on the location; at the Grand Rapids, Michigan, site, the public could expect to wait 25 months, while those in Paducah, Kentucky, would wait for eight.

For the public, the agency said virtual hearings could eliminate costs associated with having to travel to an office, find childcare or require additional support for mobility limitations.

And if the tech goes wrong, which it inevitably does, the proposal ensures that doesn’t fall on the claimant; a judge could reschedule if audio or video problems arise to ensure the claimant gets a full and fair hearing.

During the pandemic, offices closed and were forced to conduct hearings remotely. For the first time, members of the public could use their own private computers and third-party conferencing software rather than agency-approved equipment and proprietary technology.

That allowance would be extended under the proposed rule.

A July 2021 survey of participants showed that the overall satisfaction rate has been 4.2 or higher out of five, and 83% or more of respondents in each month since then reported an overall satisfaction rate of a 4 or 5.

In-person hearings would still be an option if a claimant prefers that.

Molly Weisner is a staff reporter for Federal Times where she covers labor, policy and contracting pertaining to the government workforce. She made previous stops at USA Today and McClatchy as a digital producer, and worked at The New York Times as a copy editor. Molly majored in journalism at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

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