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U.S. Social Security office reopenings bring opportunities – and some challenges

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U.S. Social Security office reopenings bring opportunities - and some challenges
© Reuters. FILE PHOTO: An American flag flutters in the wind next to signage for a United States Social Security Administration office in Burbank, California October 25, 2012. REUTERS/Fred Prouser/File Photo

By Mark Miller

(Reuters) – The Social Security Administration has announced plans to begin reopening its vast national network of field offices to the public in January following a 20-month COVID-19 shutdown. The reopening will give the agency a needed opportunity to improve public service, but also presents some thorny challenges.

The pandemic forced an abrupt closure by the agency last March of its network of more than 1,200 field offices, which provide assistance on retirement and Medicare claims. The offices also assist on applications for Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI) and Supplemental Security Income (SSI), the benefit program for low-income, disabled or older people. In 2019, the offices had 43 million visitors, but since the pandemic began nearly all public service has been available only online, and by phone and mail.

Earlier this month, the agency announced tentative plans for employees to return to their office posts on Jan. 3, 2022, with managers reporting to work in December. The agency also will continue to allow telework to varying degrees for different jobs.

Social Security describes the phased re-entry as an “evaluation period,” and Mark Hinkle, press officer, said via email that some aspects of the shift still must be determined in negotiations with unions that represent the agency workforce – including the reopening date. The agency also will be “phasing in” its plans to allow walk-in service at the offices, beginning in January, he said. Currently, in office, in-person service is available only by appointment and only for limited, critical issues.

Processing of Social Security retirement benefits and Medicare claims has not been impaired during the office shutdown, agency records show. But there was a sharp drop in 2020 in benefit awards for SSI (down 18%) and disability insurance (down 10%). 

“The most serious problems are related to the drop in awards for the most vulnerable people,” said David Weaver, a former associate commissioner in Social Security’s Office of Research, Demonstration and Employment Support. “It’s people who might have less ability to get information off the internet, or easy access to information on how to contact the agency. And people seeking SSI and disability may have serious mental impairments or be homeless.”

Had benefit awards continued at pre-pandemic levels for SSI and SSDI, 500,000 more people would be receiving benefits for these two programs, according to Weaver’s calculation. (https://

BUDGET, LEADERSHIP CHALLENGES

Reopening the field office network presents an opportunity to address the inequities – but also some tough challenges as the agency works to keep employees and the public safe as the pandemic continues.

The American Federation of Government Employees, which represents 43,000 employees working across a wide array of agency functions, generally is supportive of reopening. But it is seeking to bargain with the agency over specifics of the reopening plan related to COVID-19 safety.

“We are concerned that the plan is vague and full of gaps,” said Rich Couture, president of the AFGE council representing hearings and appeals office personnel and spokesman for a committee made up of six AFGE bargaining councils. “It doesn’t specify what the plan will be for occupancy rates, or how we’ll make sure that waiting rooms don’t get overwhelmed.”

Social Security notes that it is following the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and government-wide guidelines for occupancy and physical distancing. “Our offices will use signage, seating arrangements, floor markings and Plexiglass barriers to assist with distancing and occupancy requirements,” Hinkle said. The agency also is monitoring the Nov. 22 deadline for all federal workers to be vaccinated, and is collecting vaccination information from workers.

The vaccine mandate is another issue for some AFGE members, Couture noted. “We have some who are very vocally opposed, some who are vocally in support and others who are silent,” he said. “Our position has been to encourage people to get vaccinated, based on the science, but we want to bargain over all aspects of the mandate and we’ve asked for more flexibility on it.”

Social Security also is waiting on a decision by the U.S. Congress to meet the funding needs to serve the public. Congress cut the agency’s budget by 13% in inflation-adjusted terms from 2010 to 2021 – a period when the number of Social Security beneficiaries grew by 22%. The Biden administration requested a 10% increase for the coming fiscal year – a bit less than the agency says it needs to avoid rising backlogs of disability claims, longer wait times for other benefit claimants and also on the toll-free number.

Another issue is the lack of a confirmed leader for the Social Security Administration. Andrew Saul, the commissioner appointed by former President Donald Trump, was forced out in July by the Biden administration after a tenure marked by contentious relations with labor at the agency. Since then, the agency has been run by an acting commissioner, Kilolo Kijakazi, a Biden appointee who had been serving as deputy commissioner for retirement and disability policy.

The Biden administration has yet to nominate a permanent commissioner, who would need to be confirmed by the U.S. Senate.

“It is important that the Biden administration nominates a commissioner and the Senate confirms the nominee,” said Weaver. “That will provide SSA with stable leadership in a difficult operational and budget environment.”

If you need to conduct business with Social Security during this transition, the agency advises that you use its website https://www.ssa.gov wherever possible or to call its national toll-free number 1-800-772-1213(1-800-772-1213) as a starting point to receive assistance.

Corrects number of people receiving benefits to 500,000 people in seventh paragraph

Economy

South Korean exports dropped 14% in November, the highest in 2.5 years

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exports South Korea

South Korea’s exports fell 14 percent year-on-year to $51.91 billion in November, preliminary data from the Ministry of Commerce, Industry and Energy showed. The November drop was the biggest in 2.5 years since May 2020 and was caused both by the deteriorating global economy, which even a Google price chart showed, and a truckers’ strike in the country.

South Korea exports 2022 – reasons for the drop

Exports fell for the second month in a row. Analysts on average expected an 11% decline, according to Trading Economics. Respondents to MarketWatch predicted a 10.5% decline.

Shipments of semiconductor products overseas, the country’s top export item, fell 29.8%; petrochemicals fell 26.5% and steel exports fell 10.6%. Meanwhile, exports of automobiles jumped 31% and petroleum products 26%.

Exports to China, South Korea’s largest trading partner, fell by 25.5%, and to Asian countries – by 13.9%. Below, supplies to the USA grew by 8% and to the European Union – by 0.1%.

In January-November exports rose by 7.8% on the same period last year and reached a record $629.1 billion.

South Korean imports rose 2.7% to $59.2 billion in November, marking the 23rd consecutive month of gains, but the current rate of growth is the lowest since November 2020. Experts had predicted an increase of only 0.2%.

South Korea’s trade deficit last month was $7.01 billion, compared with a surplus of $2,973 billion a year earlier.

The negative balance was recorded for the eighth month in a row. As a result, by the end of 2022, the country may record a foreign trade deficit for the first time since the financial crisis in 2008.

Earlier we reported that the UN estimates the cost of humanitarian aid in 2023 at a record $51 billion.

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Economy

The UN estimates humanitarian aid costs in 2023 at a record $51 billion because of an impending humanitarian crisis

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a humanitarian crisis

Joint humanitarian operations will require a record $51.5 billion in 2023 to address urgent problems.

The UN Office for the OCHA estimates that 339 million people will need urgent aid in 2023. At the same time, OCHA called on donor countries to provide funds for assistance in 2023 to the 230 million people most in need, living in 68 countries.

Griffiths explained that aid is needed not only for people experiencing conflicts and disease outbreaks. but also for those suffering the effects of climate change, such as people in peninsular Somalia facing drought and those in Pakistan experiencing severe flooding. For the first time, the growing humanitarian crisis has brought the number of displaced people worldwide to the 100 million mark. Also worsening an already bad situation is the worldwide coronavirus pandemic, which affects the poor. Note that the general economic crisis has begun to negatively affect even the Netflix price chart.

Earlier we reported that house prices in the UK fell by 1.4% in November.

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Economy

Average house prices in the UK fell 1.4% in November

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average house prices in the uk

Average house prices in the UK fell 1.4% in the previous month in November to 263,788 thousand pounds (about $319,000), according to the British mortgage company Nationwide Building Society.

The decline was recorded at the end of the second consecutive month and was the most significant in almost 2.5 years – since June 2020. Analysts on average had forecast a decline of only 0.3%, according to Trading Economics.

Are house prices in the UK going to fall even more?

Residential real estate prices in November compared to the same month last year increased by 4.4%. At the same time, experts expected a larger increase of 5.8%. The growth rate slowed down significantly compared with 7.2% in October. Because of the difficult economic situation, British investors are investing in other instruments. The Microsoft price chart, for example, is showing potential for growth, so many are interested in the U.S. stock market. 

“The market looks set to remain under pressure in the coming quarters. Inflation will remain high for some time, and interest rates are likely to continue to rise,” believes Nationwide Senior Economist Robert Gardner. – The outlook is unclear, and much will depend on how the overall economy behaves, but a relatively soft landing is still possible.”

Earlier we reported that Sanctions Circumvention was included in the EU’s list of criminal offenses.

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