The term “government shutdown” seems to be appearing in the news headlines more and more often over the past few years. In fact, the American government entered a shutdown three times during 2018. But what does it mean when the government is shut down? Which government agencies are affected, and will your income be affected if you rely on Social Security payments or disability benefits? That answer depends on a few different factors that will be explained in this article. Keep reading to learn more about what a shutdown means and how it might affect you and your Social Security benefits.
What Is A Government Shutdown?
In short, a government shutdown occurs when the Federal government does not have enough money to continue operating and paying federal employees. Government agencies are funded through spending bills passed by Congress. Most budget bills passed by Congress include enough funding to operate the government for a couple of years. However, in some cases, temporary funding bills are passed to keep the government open for only a few weeks.
When the current budget bill expires, the Federal government is not authorized to spend the money to keep paying its employees. So, federal agencies like the Social Security Administration (SSA) and others essentially run out of money to operate. Non-essential services typically shut down immediately, while essential services like Medicare and Social Security try to operate with reduced staff or limited service.
Thankfully, Social Security is considered an essential service, and it is typically not as affected by a shutdown as other agencies. For example, the national parks, Environmental Protection Agency, Housing and Urban Development, and others usually are required to stop working completely. However, Social Security payments like SSI, SSDI, and retirement benefits are still paid during a shutdown. Even though payments are still sent, new applications and hearings may not be processed.
A government shutdown can last anywhere from a day or two to months. It can either be a partial government shutdown or a full shutdown. There is no set timeframe for when a shutdown ends. It will last until Congress approves a new budget bill that provides funding for the agencies that have closed. In most cases, a shutdown lasts no more than a couple of weeks, although some have gone longer than that.
Are Social Security Checks Affected by a Shutdown?
Typically, Social Security checks are not affected by a shutdown. Social Security payments do not require funding from Congress. These payments come directly from the Social Security Trust Fund, so the only funding required is for the employees managing these payments.
If you have already applied and been approved for benefits, you should continue to receive your payments like normal. Even during the total shutdown of 1995, Social Security checks continued to be mailed to recipients on time. The SSA is aware that people rely on this income for survival, so they will do everything they can to make sure that payments go out like normal.
Today, it is even easier for people to get their checks. Since physical checks are no longer mailed, it requires fewer people to administer payments through direct deposit and debit cards. These payments have not been affected by the shutdowns over the past few years. In some cases, SSA employees may even work without pay to ensure that payments continue to go out on time. As a shutdown draws near, the SSA usually puts a contingency plan in place to make sure those payments continue to happen.
Even though existing payments usually go out on time, there are some ways that a shutdown affects SSI and SSDI. If you have a pending application or are getting ready to apply for benefits, then you may be affected. Keep reading to learn how.
What Does The Government Shutdown Mean for SSI & SSDI?
As previously stated, existing Supplemental Security Income payments, Social Security disability benefits, and retirement benefit payments are usually not affected when the government shuts down. Similarly, if you have a hearing already scheduled with an administrative law judge, that hearing will likely take place as scheduled. However, support personnel are often placed on furlough, so that means that your hearing office will be low on staff. Hearings will be limited to the claimant, judge, vocational expert, security staff, and very essential personnel.
Since the support staff may not be working, the final decision on your hearing will probably not get written until the shutdown is over. So, if you are approved for benefits, the start of your payments will probably be delayed until the support personnel return.
If you are getting read to apply for benefits, you can expect that your application will be delayed. The length of the delay depends on which state you live in. Since applications are initially reviewed and the initial disability determination is made by the local field offices, states usually decide whether to continue these operations. They will often work with SSA based on how many employees the SSA decides to keep at work during the shutdown.
In most cases, new applications continue to be processed, but at a slower pace. So, you can expect at least a delay in the processing of your new application. Should you receive a denial of benefits, you may not be able to schedule a hearing for reconsideration until after the shutdown ends. Even though existing hearings may continue, new hearings are typically not scheduled during that time.
Are Social Security Offices Open During a Government Shutdown?
In most cases, local Social Security offices will either close or have very limited staff during a shutdown. In many cases, local offices are already closed due to the COVID-19 pandemic until further notice. The coronavirus has already caused many services to be shifted from traditional in-person processing to online services.
It is a good idea to go ahead and register for a My Social Security account on the SSA.gov website. This will allow you to access many services and benefits, and also prevent someone else from using your Social Security number to commit identity theft and sign up for benefits using your information. Enrollment for an account is simple and it allows you to apply for benefits, get a replacement Social Security card, and many other useful services.
If you cannot use the online system to take care of your request, then you should call the Social Security phone number at 800-772-1213 for assistance. Always call before taking a visit to your local office, as they are likely either closed or working on limited appointments only.
If you receive Social Security benefits, then you can be confident that those payments will continue even during a government shutdown. However, if you are going through the application process, you should expect delays in processing. Limited staff and office closings will result in longer wait times for application processing. You should try to complete as much as possible online and always call your office before visiting in person. While most shutdowns are over within a week or two, there is no way to know exactly when the shutdown will end. As soon as Congress approves a new spending bill, then operations will resume as normal. Just know that it will likely take some time to clear the backlog created by the shutdown.