ALBANY — Thousands of injured or sick workers in the New York City area are spending the holiday season in bureaucratic limbo as they wait to see if they qualify for federal disability payments.
They are among more than a million injured or sick workers nationwide whose initial claims for Social Security disability benefits were denied and are now stuck in a monstrous backlog of cases waiting for an administrative law judge to decide their appeal.
“It is just awful,” said Elsie Nelson, 59, a former school bus attendant from Brooklyn who suffers from rheumatoid arthritis and has been waiting for a hearing on her appeal since March 2016.
“I am on the verge of bankruptcy,” Nelson said, adding that she’s been informed by federal officials that her appeal could take an additional nine months to be resolved.
Five years ago, most cases were decided within a year, but the average processing time is now nearly double that — about 606 days.
In the New York City area, however, waits are much longer, often stretching well beyond 700 days, according to data from the Social Security Administration.
The administration estimates that over the past two years, more than 18,000 people across the country have died while waiting for their appeals to be heard.
“It is a really long haul where the odds are against you from the minute you come in the door,” said Mary Dale Walters, a senior vice president at Allsup LLC, a firm that represents applicants. She noted that only about 33% of people have their initial disability requests approved.
Walters and other advocates blame several factors for the backlog, including a lack of judges and support staff to decide cases and not enough funding from Congress.
“Instead of making common-sense investments, Republicans have cut Social Security’s budget,” said Rep. Joseph Crowley, a Queens Democrat and member of the Ways and Means Committee. “Because of these cuts, there are not enough examiners and judges available to make decisions about benefit applications, resulting in this outrageous backlog. They are punishing people who are hurt through no fault of their own, and it has to stop.”
Rep. Sam Johnson, a Texas Republican who is chairman of the Ways and Means Committee’s subcommittee on Social Security, agreed the backlog was unacceptable but placed blame for the situation on the fact that the agency has not had a full-time commissioner since 2013.
“Without a commissioner, Social Security is just spinning its wheels,” Johnson said in a statement to the Daily News.
Darren Lutz, a spokesman for the Social Security Administration, said the agency is working to reduce the backlog but conceded “previous hiring freezes” had slowed its ability to hire new judges and staff.
“For several years in a row, the agency received a record number of hearing requests, due primarily to the aging of the baby boomers as they entered their disability-prone years,” Lutz said.
“We also received an increase in applications during the economic recession and its aftermath. During this time, our resources to address disability claims did not keep pace with the increase in applications, and backlogs grew.”
Lutz insisted, however, that the agency is making progress in reducing the backlog and still plans to bring on hundreds of new judges.
“Reducing the wait times for a hearing decision is of utmost importance,” Lutz said.
In the meantime, injured workers are left to wait.
“It’s pretty damn frustrating when you have no money coming,” said Michael Schwartz, 62, of Forest Hills, Queens, who says he can no longer work because of spinal cord injuries he suffered in a 2015 fall. “There is something wrong with the system here.”