Last week I received my award letter. After paying into Social Security for over 40 years, I’ll start collecting Social Security benefits in 2014. Applying for my benefit was relatively painless. I won’t say it was seamless as there were some glitches. But, applying online in the comfort of my home instead of having to drive 27 miles to an office, take a number and sit in a crowded waiting room for the next available agent was much easier, even with the glitches.
Looking back, the glitches were minor irritations due, in part, to my naively believing the federal government would have their web site totally updated at year-end and their staff ready to handle the call volume at the holidays. After the Affordable Care Act fiasco, it was downright silly of me to expect the Social Security web site to be glitch-free at year end. You see, everything I read about when to apply for benefits, including information on http://www.socialsecurity.gov said I could apply at 61 years, 8 months. I was actually at almost three months prior to my birth date so I thought I was well within the time frame. At least until I reached a certain point in the online application where I inserted my birth date and hit the first glitch. Informed that I was not yet old enough to apply, I counted the months using what else but my fingers. I re-checked what I read on their web site. No, my eyes still worked…61 years, 8 months. So, after being kicked out of their system completely, I decided to call the toll-free number. That’s when I met up with the second glitch.
As with almost every other call center these days, I received an automated response where I had to play 20 questions and couldn’t override their system by pressing zero. Trying to be patient (a tough order for me) I drilled down through the questions until I reached the magic moment (at last) where a human being should come on the line. Instead, the automaton told me there was no one available to take my call at that time so try again later and, without so much as a ‘do you want to hold for the next available operator’, the blankety-blank machine said, ‘goodbye’ and hung up. Frustration does not even begin to cover how I felt at that moment. Obviously, my tax dollars were not at work and neither was anyone else. The holidays, I fumed.
So, my first word of advice is do not, I repeat do not, apply for Social Security during the Christmas/New Year holiday season. For starters, it’s year-end when all systems are being updated to comply with new laws or policies and, to make matters worse, nearly everyone wants time off to spend the holidays with family. Short-staffed and up against the wall with new year changes, customer service becomes yet another government oxymoron. The update causing my glitch? You guessed it. You can now apply for benefits at 61 years, 9 months, not 61 years, 8 months. Well, the good news is at least SSA updated even if they didn’t make it immediately clear on their web site. And, the Monday after New Year’s I did reach a live human being after playing 20 questions with the automaton. This leads me to my second word of advice.
After telling me I should now be able to go back into their system and finish my application, the operator told me what the SSA would need in order to process my application. She told me I would receive a letter requesting certain ORIGINAL documents and I should not to go to a Social Security office with my birth certificate and marriage license. You see, Social Security is already too busy with too many people going to the offices. Instead, she advised, I should mail these documents!!!! Do NOT mail any of your precious proof to the SSA. I received my award letter and was not required to present any documentation whatsoever. But, being a cross your t’s type, just to be sure, I called. According to that SSA rep, if you were born in the United States, the SSA already has all your records including copies of birth certificates, marriage licenses and military service. Even if they do ask for it, do NOT let your precious documents out of your hot little hands. My new friend also mentioned how the SSA receives documents without proper account identification (social security number) and those documents end up in a sort of black hole, never to find their way back to the rightful owner and delaying claims.
Since receiving my award letter, I’ve spoken to other people who had no glitches whatsoever. Everything went as smooth as silk. Somehow, I always end up being the test case. But, hey, if everything aways went well, I might not have any advice to pass on. As it is, I hope all goes well for those of you out there who have yet to log into http://www.socialsecurity.gov and make your claim. As for me, after 40 years in the making, I’m looking forward to celebrating my first deposit.