What Covid-19 long haulers should know about Social Security disability

Joan Bronson, of Chalmette Louisiana, is being treated for coronavirus disease (COVID-19) at the Ochsner Medical Center in Jefferson Parish, Louisiana, U.S., August 10, 2021.

Kathleen Flynn | Reuters

Persistent fatigue. Shortness of breath. Migraine headaches.

These are a few of the symptoms that long-haul Covid-19 sufferers face.

For some, it can make it impossible to work, prompting them to ask: Am I eligible for Social Security disability benefits?

“We certainly have seen an increase of claims because of Covid-related issues, including long haulers,” said T.J. Geist, principal advocate at Allsup, a company which represents Social Security disability claimants.

Some claimants have been awarded Social Security disability benefits based on Covid-19 related symptoms, Geist said. But the majority of those have been people with lingering complications from being put on ventilators.

However, not many of those patients have been classified as Covid-19 long haulers.

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The reason: Social Security disability is designed for people who suffer mental or physical conditions that have lasted or are expected to last at least 12 months.

“Many of those who have long haul symptoms haven’t met that duration requirement quite yet,” Geist said.

In fact, President Joe Biden recently moved to make long haul Covid-19 symptoms recognized as a disability under federal law.

Though there is a lag in disability awards for Covid-19 long haulers, Geist said he expects that to pick up as time goes on.

Still, whether disability requests are successful depends on how well claimants follow the rules.

‘Apply as early as possible’

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The first thing to realize about applying for Social Security disability benefits is that it is often a lengthy process, Geist said.

Once an initial application is filed with the Social Security Administration, it can take three months to five months to get a decision. If that initial application is denied, it can take four months to six months for the application to be reconsidered on a first appeal, Geist said.

From there, if the application has to be reviewed at a hearing, it can take up to 12 months just to get scheduled before a judge, Geist said.

“Apply as early as possible, because it is a long process,” Geist said.

A 2020 Government Accountability Office report found that about 1.3% of applicants filed for bankruptcy while waiting on their appeals, and 1.2% died before receiving a final decision.

“Many — particularly those without legal representation — end up wrongfully denied on multiple occasions before finally being approved with a lawyer’s help,” said Rebecca Vallas, senior fellow that the Century Foundation. “Untold numbers spend what savings they have to try to stay afloat while waiting for an appeal to be heard — and countless more lose their homes in the process.”

There are about 8.2 million disabled workers collecting benefits, according to the Social Security Administration. Their average monthly benefit is $1,277.

Document your physical symptoms

Long haul Covid-19 may present a vague set of symptoms, not unlike other conditions such as fibromyalgia or chronic fatigue that have also been approved for Social Security disability benefits.

However, these types of conditions are more difficult to prove because they generally cannot be diagnosed with one medical test.

“Those aren’t going to be awarded as quickly, because you need to see those over a period of time,” Geist said. “You need a longitudinal history there, and those can be more difficult to document.”

The best way to establish a record of your symptoms is to share them with your doctor and to have them document what is going on.

For example, if you have migraines, how long do they last? What does your recovery process look like?

Keeping track of those details will help if your application has to be considered by a judge, Geist said.

Pay attention to financial qualifications

While the basic rule for Social Security disability is defined as a condition that has lasted or is expected to last for at least 12 months, that should not necessarily determine when you apply for benefits.

“If an individual is not working and earning income, then they’re allowed to apply now,” Geist said. “There’s not a set period of time where they have to wait to apply.”

However, there are certain financial restrictions that claimants will have to meet to be approved.

For starters, you must have paid so-called FICA taxes into the system. Generally, you have to contribute for at least 10 years in order to be eligible.

Additionally, your condition must meet Social Security’s definition of a disability. It must be so severe that you can no longer work. It must also be expected to last for at least a year or result in death.

In addition, your income must fall below certain a certain threshold known as substantial gainful activity. In 2021, that limit is $1,310 per month for non-blind individuals.

Those who have not paid FICA taxes may instead qualify for Supplemental Security Income, or SSI. However, those benefits are means tested and come with strict asset limits of $2,000 per individual, or $3,000 per married couple. (Some beneficiaries receive a combination of Social Security disability and SSI benefits due to the fact that they qualify for both.)

While some disabled workers may be tempted to take advantage of expanded pandemic unemployment insurance benefits that are still available in some states, that could hurt your chances of getting approved for disability benefits, Geist said.

When you apply for Social Security disability, you’re saying you cannot do any kind of work. On the other hand, when you apply for unemployment insurance, you are certifying you are willing and able to work and are looking for opportunities to do so.

“That can be viewed as a contradiction,” Geist said.

Expect possibly longer wait times

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In March 2020, the Social Security Administration mostly shuttered its in-person services.

Today, it is still largely processing correspondence online and via postal mail.

A recent investigation by the Social Security Office of the Inspector General found there have been some big delays for people waiting on application decisions.

Currently, it’s taking about 125 days for the agency to process an initial claim, Geist said. For applications that are reconsidered, there’s an additional four months to six months, he said.

So if you’re planning to file an application for benefits for any disabling condition, including Covid-19 and associated long haul issues, “the earlier, the better,” Geist said.

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