I was just looking at a photo album with highlights of a memorable trip my wife and I took to Europe a few years ago. And in looking at a few of those pictures, something struck me that I can associate with some Social Security-related questions and concerns I get from readers.
One set of photos shows us outside the ornate gates of the Palace of Versailles near Paris. We were there at about 8:45 in the morning. The gates opened at 9. And we were the very first people admitted to King Louis XIV’s magnificent royal residence. As we wandered through the splendid rooms, we almost had the entire palace to ourselves. For example, when we were in the Hall of Mirrors, the most famous room in the entire palace (and one of the most opulent rooms in the world), we were all by ourselves! Not another soul was to be seen. As we wandered around, we sometimes wondered if they let us in by mistake on a day when the palace was supposed to be closed. It was downright eerie. But as we finished walking around inside the palace and stepped outside to tour the grounds, we learned the place was definitely not closed. At the entrance, there were what looked like a thousand people in line waiting to get in.
On another day in Paris, we were outside the Cathedral of Notre Dame. (This was before the disastrous fire devastated the famous landmark last year.) There were hundreds and hundreds of people in line waiting to get into the church. We definitely did not get into that line. Instead, we wandered around other parts of Paris. But we came back the next morning. We were there at 8 a.m. The doors were open, and we walked right in. And as with our visit to Versailles, we almost had the entire cathedral to ourselves. We wandered around for half an hour before others started to show up. And once again, when we finally got back outside, long lines were already forming.
And here is one more story. On another one of our days in Paris, we planned to visit the Louvre art museum. For a variety of reasons, we could not get there early in the morning. And sure enough, there were lines a mile long by the time we got there about 11 a.m.! But I had done lots of research before our trip and had purchased something called “The Paris Passport.” By having this pass, we not only got free entrance into a number of Paris landmarks, but we also were able to bypass the lines. So, we looked around, and we saw another entrance marked “Paris Passport holders.” And there was nobody in line at this entrance. And sure enough, we walked right up and immediately got into the museum and thoroughly enjoyed our afternoon there.
So, what do my travel adventures have to do with Social Security? Well, I hear from readers all the time about problems they experience with long wait times when they call the Social Security Administration hotline (800-772-1213). There is no doubt that during this pandemic, when local SSA offices are closed, many more people are trying to reach the agency via the 800 number. So, wait times are bound to be longer.
But I think you could minimize your time on hold with the kind of planning I did during our European trip. Don’t call in the middle of the day! Live operators (trained Social Security reps) are available from 7 a.m. until 7 p.m. Monday through Friday—no matter which time zone you live in. In other words, you can call from 7 a.m. until 7 p.m. local time whether you live in Bangor, Maine or Honolulu, Hawaii. So, I suggest getting up bright and early and calling the SSA at 7 in the morning.
In some ways, I almost feel foolish having to recommend doing things early, whether it’s getting in line at a tourist attraction or calling a government office, because it just seems so obvious to me. But then, when I think of the thousands of people I saw in lines in Paris in the middle of the day or the millions of Americans trying to call the SSA and waiting on hold in the middle of the day, well, I guess I shouldn’t feel embarrassed pointing out what seems to be so apparent!
In addition to that, it’s probably not wise to call on a Monday. Many businesses and most government offices are busier on the first day following a weekend.
And here is another tip I just thought of: Social Security checks come out on the second, third, and fourth Wednesday of each month. And I’m sure call volumes spike on those days, as many people always have questions about their Social Security payment. So, I’d suggest avoiding those days if you plan to call the SSA.
There is another time frame you might want to consider that is the opposite of my “get there early” travel advice. Try calling the SSA very late in the day. For obvious reasons, it would not have been smart of me to show up at places like the Palace of Versailles or the Louvre a half-hour before they close. But the SSA’s 800 number traffic tends to slow down near the end of each working day, so you could get your questions answered or your problems resolved during that last hour or so of the workday.
And I included my little travel story about doing research and obtaining the Paris Passport before our trip because of a recent conversation I had with a former colleague who now manages one of the SSA’s big telephone service centers. My friend contacted me following a column I wrote in which I relayed stories that readers had shared with me about problems they had getting through to the 800 number and then in dealing with the representative on the other end of the line once they got through.
She told me that, obviously, sometimes people don’t get the service they should expect. But then she said this: “Tom, you would be shocked how positively unprepared many people are when they call us!” She shared a couple of stories.
“One lady called to file for widows benefits. She was unsure of her husband’s date of birth and death. And she didn’t even have his Social Security number! Obviously, the call would have gone a lot more smoothly and quickly if she had all the information we needed. Another guy called to file for disability benefits. He was unclear about his work history and couldn’t give us the names of doctors and other medical professionals who had treated him.”
And these were just two of many stories she shared with me. And in many ways, I can relate to her tales of unpreparedness. I get emails everyday with inadequate information. For example, today’s inbox had this email: “Can I get any of my husband’s Social Security?” That’s it. No other information. There is so much more I would need to know from her before I could answer her question.
So, as I did before our trip to Paris, do some research and be prepared before contacting Social Security. Think through your situation; gather all the facts; and have everything in front of you before you pick up the phone and call the SSA (or send an email to a columnist).
Tom Margenau worked for 32 years in a variety of positions for the Social Security Administration before retiring in 2005. He has served as the director of SSA’s public information office, the chief editor of more than 100 SSA publications, a deputy press officer and spokesman, and a speechwriter for the commissioner of Social Security. For 12 years, he also wrote Social Security columns for local newspapers. If you have a Social Security question, contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.