The Electrical Worker online
April 2020

Proposal Threatens Social Security Disability Benefits for Millions of Workers
index.html Home    print Print    email Email

Go to

A federal scheme that could rob millions of injured workers of their Social Security Disability Insurance is being widely condemned as a vicious attack on vulnerable Americans, including many IBEW members and retirees. The proposal is similar to disastrous Reagan-era cuts in the 1980s.

"There's no reason to do this other than cruelty and mean-spiritedness," Ohio Sen. Sherrod Brown said at a late January news conference. "It won't save money."

The White House's proposed 2021 budget calls for $75 billion in decreased disability spending over the next 10 years. Overall, the budget seeks to drain more than $1 trillion from Social Security, Medicaid and Medicare.

Any disability insurance savings would come from cutting off benefits to disabled workers by revisiting their cases more often, a process opponents say is cumbersome and unjust and almost always requires legal counsel that low-income working families can't afford.

The Social Security Administration projects that 2.6 million people out of 8.5 million on SSDI would be subject to early reviews over the next 10 years. Between the new criteria and existing landmines, watchdogs expect that most beneficiaries affected would be dropped.

"They want to add these reviews to a workload that will make SSA wait time even worse, and it will cost them almost $2 billion to do it," Sen. Robert Casey of Pennsylvania said at the news conference. "It is wrong, it is a mistake, and it's certainly not in the interests of justice."

Research shows that few, if any, countries make it harder for disabled workers to receive benefits than the United States, where understaffing and a byzantine process of paperwork and hearings typically lead to years of delays.

Ultimately, most applicants are rejected. The most recent data shows that two-thirds of applicants were denied between 2007 and 2017.

Advocates stress that denial does not mean a person isn't disabled. Many applicants can't afford attorneys and can't navigate the system without one. Legal Aid and pro-bono lawyers are overwhelmed.

"They don't tell you up front that you need legal representation," said an IBEW journeyman wireman in his late 50s who spent four years fighting for benefits after disabling back and leg pain forced him to leave the career he loved. He spent his retirement savings to stay afloat before finally being approved in 2019.

The Electrical Worker is withholding his name to protect him from any backlash in the event of a review. "It's a nightmare, the whole thing is," he said. "The problem is that they act like it's not your own money, when you've been paying into it your entire working life."

The proposal set a record for public comments about a Social Security rule change, with more than 125,000 people speaking out on the Federal Register by the end of the comment period Jan. 31.

The same week, 41 senators signed a letter to Social Security Commissioner Andrew Saul detailing ways the agency failed to provide adequate data, evidence or a cost-benefit analysis to support its plan.

"SSA's proposed rule to change when and how the agency conducts CDRs (continuing disability reviews) is unjustified and arbitrary," the letter states. Millions of Americans — including many IBEW members and retirees — would be required "to reprove their eligibility for benefits more frequently without reason, placing significant additional burden on individuals and families that are already stretched thin."

Altering the disability review process had tragic consequences during the Reagan administration in the early 1980s. It caused such a bipartisan uproar that lawmakers voted 99-0 in the Senate and 402-0 in the House to reverse the changes.

"Close to a half-million on disability received termination notices at that time," said Jonathan Stein, a Philadelphia Legal Aid lawyer. "The newspapers were filled with horror stories of suicides, of people on around-the-clock oxygen, people with cerebral palsy who were terminated in these reviews. It caused devastation in the lives of hundreds of thousands of people."

SSDI and SSI — insurance for non-working people with disabilities — are the main targets of attacks on Social Security in the proposed 2021 budget. However, GOP lawmakers are itching to revive a 2016 bill that could radically affect all the so-called "entitlement" programs through service cuts, means testing and raising the retirement age from 67 to 69.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell falsely claims that the benefits are the "real drivers" of the record $23.3 trillion national debt. President Trump also has a knife out, despite tweets and rhetoric swearing he'll protect the programs.

"The president is saying he would be open and welcome to cuts to Social Security in his second term," Rep. Brendan Boyle said at the January event. "Some of my colleagues in the House aren't even waiting. They have already introduced legislation. Sen. McConnell has given remarks that it was his great, unfinished business to cut Social Security."

Brown said the latest blitz of attacks is right out of the "corporate crowd's playbook."

"It's always the special interests' plan — drive deficits up with tax cuts and then come after people with disabilities, come after the elderly, come after low-income people," the longtime labor ally said. "Cut and cut and cut, whether it's taking Social Security money from Americans with disabilities or block-granting Medicaid or forcing nurses and construction workers and others to work until they're 70."


Lawmakers, including longtime IBEW ally Sen. Sherrod Brown, speaking, are condemning a proposed rule threatening Social Security Disability Insurance benefits for more than 2 million ill and injured workers.

Credit: Rebecca Vallas, Center for American Progress