Applying for Disability Benefits During a Global Pandemic

It can take months or even years to get approved for Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI) benefits in the best of times. Needless to say, now is not the best of times, however, don’t let that stop you. And don’t put it off.

A man in a wheelchair gets a pat on the back from a caregiver.
(Image credit: Getty Images)

Applying for Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI) benefits has always been a complicated process. But like everything else in our lives right now, COVID-19 has made it even more difficult.

With Social Security Administration (SSA) offices closed nationwide, wait times via phone are averaging 90 minutes, and the backlog of people waiting for this critical income is growing by the day.

With that in mind, here are some expert tips to help you best navigate the SSDI benefits process as efficiently and quickly as possible during the pandemic.

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1. Don’t wait to apply.

The biggest mistake that applicants make when applying for SSDI is waiting to apply. On average, people wait 7.6 months after the onset of a disability to apply for benefits, and considering that more than 2 million people applied for SSDI last year, waiting now could come with serious, time-consuming consequences.

Already, there are nearly 600,000 people waiting for a decision at the initial application level, where it takes four to six months for someone to receive a yes or no. About two-thirds of applicants are denied at the application level, often due to technical errors. This leads to longer waits through the appeals process.

If this happens to you, the good news is that you can appeal for a reconsideration of your claim. The bad news is that a second denial leaves you no choice but to go before an administrative law judge for a hearing, a process that has an average wait time of more than 400 days.

2. Work with an expert disability representative.

As alluded to earlier, the SSDI application and appeals process can require months to years for receiving a decision from the SSA, depending on the details of someone’s claim. Making a mistake can be costly.

Fortunately, there are experts who know the ins and outs of the SSDI process by heart. They can guide applicants through the requirements and help them find out whether they are likely to qualify before they even attempt to start the process of information gathering required for the application.

Should you qualify, an expert disability representative can potentially help shorten the time it takes to get approved by:

  • Collecting and submitting the detailed and accurate information required by the SSA.
  • Communicating with the SSA on your behalf.
  • Identifying important facets of your claim that are specific to your experience with disability and providing the evidence SSA needs.
  • Monitoring the status of your claim and appeals.

Finding an expert SSDI representative is important to your claim because it can often lead to a quicker path to approval, avoiding an appeal, and a lower representation fee. For example, some representatives help individuals to apply and then assist with appeals if they’re denied. Other representatives only help with appeals or the hearing. Representatives typically provide details online about their approach, how successful they are, how many customers they’ve helped to receive SSDI, and whether they focus primarily on SSDI representation.

3. Continue to keep your options open for returning to work someday.

Many people do not apply for SSDI because they see it as giving up on their working career. Nothing could be further from the truth. Actually, the SSDI program could provide you with the important financial relief and the pathway back to working again in the future.

It is true that unemployment for people with disabilities is historically higher than the unemployment rate for those without disabilities. And COVID-19’s effect on the economy has brought new challenges for all job seekers. In May 2020, the Bureau of Labor Statistics found that the unemployment rate for people with disabilities was 17.9%, and for those without disabilities unemployment was at 12.8%.

But the majority of people we help want to return to work when medically able. The additional value of the SSDI program is giving people a starting point, a place to begin when considering the return to work.

The SSA’s free Ticket to Work program is available to anyone receiving SSDI, and connects them to SSA-certified Employment Networks to streamline the return-to-work process by matching capable workers with employers who need their unique skill sets and talent. The program protects benefits during a Trial Work Period while people test their ability to return to work after their health condition. (For more, please read How to Go Back to Work When You’re on Disability.)

COVID-19 is bringing new obstacles for everyone, but people with disabilities are at an even greater disadvantage when it comes time to apply for benefits. Knowing there are supports and resources available to help can make a world of difference.


This article was written by and presents the views of our contributing adviser, not the Kiplinger editorial staff. You can check adviser records with the SEC or with FINRA.

Michael Stein
Assistant Vice President, Allsup

Mike Stein, assistant vice president of operations strategy and planning, has 25 years experience helping people with disabilities through his work with Allsup. He oversees the claims operations for both Social Security Disability Insurance representation and the Veterans Disability Appeal Service for veterans. During this time, he has become an authority on the SSDI application process, as well as Social Security Administration programs.