When diabetes made it impossible for Shelly Burke to continue working, she applied for Social Security Disability benefits. It would take eight years before she saw a penny. As time went by, she struggled to feed herself, a daughter and a granddaughter and to keep a roof over their heads.
Jonathan Turner has been living in his broken-down car behind a former Tampa church for four years. Suffering from degenerative disc disease, he filed a disability claim in 2004. He asked for a hearing in 2005 when his claim was denied, and finally got it two years later.
In Tampa, where cases for Florida's west coast are heard, the average waiting time for a hearing is 681 days.
"The backlog is the worst in Florida,'' said Rep. Kathy Castor at a news conference outside the Tampa Social Security office Monday. Castor, a Democrat, announced that she would introduce a bill this week to expedite the disability claims process.
The bill would require that a hearing be held between 60 and 75 days from the date it is requested, and that a final verdict be given no more than 15 days after the hearing.
In Castor's District 11, more than 19,000 people are enrolled in the disability program. The Tampa office has more than 14,000 claims waiting for a hearing, or 966 per judge.
The backlog in disability cases has frustrated and angered applicants and their advocates. Testifying before the Senate Finance Committee last year, Commissioner of Social Security Michael J. Astrue acknowledged that applicants face "an uphill battle'' to get a hearing before an administrative law judge.
"For some, the long wait for their day in court leads to homelessness and the loss of family and friends. Sadly, people have died waiting for a hearing,'' he said.
Astrue and the firms that represent those who apply for disability benefits point to several reasons for the backlog. Mostly they blame inadequate funding and say more money is needed to hire additional staff to address a workload that has increased dramatically in the past seven years. Funding for a 17th judge has been approved by Congress, but the position remains unfilled.
In addition, they say, baby boomers are fueling the rise in applications, and large numbers of experienced Social Security staffers are retiring, leaving behind fewer, less experienced, overworked employees.
"This is a national crisis. People talk about the crisis in the Social Security system. That crisis is down the road,'' said Dan Allsup, communications director for a Belleville, Ill., firm that helps applicants get benefits.
"The crisis is in the disability program. It's just a national disgrace.''
• • •
The Federal Insurance Contributions Act, or FICA, sets aside a portion of payroll taxes for disability insurance. Those who apply for benefits might go through several steps, with a person allowed to ask for reconsideration if an initial application is denied. If that also is denied, applicants can seek a hearing before an administrative law judge. The most onerous delays occur at this stage.
Michael A. Steinberg, a Tampa lawyer, said one of his clients died a week ago without getting a hearing.
"That's not a rare occasion,'' he said. "People get worse over time. Someone will file their claim and then the cancer metastasizes or they have a heart attack. By the time they get to a hearing, it's about three years and most people can't survive without an income for three years, so they live with their parents or their relatives or some of them live at the Salvation Army or on the streets.''
Turner, the man who lives in his car, is Steinberg's client. The lawyer said he took the case in June 2005, after Turner had been denied for the first time. At his hearing last fall, the claim was again denied. Steinberg refiled the claim and Turner began receiving temporary, interim benefits in March.
"The process is just really burdensome, and you find yourself doing without,'' said Turner, 54, who volunteers to cook breakfast on Sundays for other homeless people at Hyde Park United Methodist Church.
He lived with a girlfriend before he became homeless.
"No money, no honey,'' he said.
• • •
Monday morning, Burke stood beside Castor as the representative spoke about her plans to address the backlog. Burke, who said she suffers from diabetic neuropathy and other ailments, first applied for disability benefits in 2000. After her application was denied twice, she hired a lawyer to help her slog through the quagmire.
In the meantime, though, she had to move in with her mother, who, though past retirement, continued to work to help the family survive, said Burke, 40.
"I don't know what I would have done without my mother. I've been one of the lucky ones.''
Mary LaDue, 45, also has a story to tell. She was working at two jobs when she was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis in 2004. When her doctor ordered her to stop work the following year, she applied for benefits, but was turned down three times.
"Without my fiance, I would have never, never got by. I might have been homeless. You just get discouraged and then you get kind of ticked off. I've worked hard all my life. I worked two jobs, sometimes three. I raised two kids on my own,'' the Clearwater woman said.
Desperate, she hired Allsup's firm. "If I didn't keep pushing forward," she said, "there was not going to be any results in the end.''
Waveney Ann Moore can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 892-2283.