Disrupted mail service is not at the top of the list of problems facing superstorm Sandy's victims - unless you are a senior counting on the post office to deliver a monthly Social Security check.
Most Social Security benefits, which account for more than half of total income for nearly two-thirds of people aged 65 and above, are paid on the third of each month. This month, the payments were made on November 2, because the third fell on a Saturday. That means those payments were made just as the U.S. Postal Service was struggling to restore service around the tri-state area of New York, New Jersey and Connecticut. A USPS spokesman said the situation still varies dramatically around the region.
Social Security payments are made mostly on an electronic basis these days, but a good number of recipients still collect theirs from their mailboxes every month. According to the Social Security Administration, 92,000 retirement and disability recipients in New Jersey still receive paper checks via the U.S. Postal Service; as do 43,000 in Connecticut and 229,000 in New York state.
Sandy walloped the U.S. Northeast on Monday, October 29. By Thursday, almost all mail carriers in northern New Jersey were back on their routes. In locations that could not be reached safely for delivery, mail is being returned to the nearest local post office. Social Security beneficiaries can pick up checks at those offices, and should bring identification that shows the same address that is on the check. The USPS is fielding queries at its national toll-free number, 1-800-275-8777.
Beneficiaries who have not received checks can also visit any local Social Security office to request an immediate payment. In emergency situations, local offices can issue a payment on the spot; for more information, call 1-800-772-1213 or visit www.socialsecurity.gov/emergency.
Some local offices have been closed due to the storm, so call to find the nearest open office. The Social Security Administration has posted a list of closed offices on its website, www.ssa.gov, which it says it updates hourly.
All this may be avoided in the future. The Social Security Administration is in the midst of shifting to an all-electronic payment delivery system. Almost 94 percent of payments are already made via direct deposit to a bank account or debit card. According to the SSA, paper checks will disappear entirely by March 1 of next year, with the exception of retirees aged 90 and above, who will be exempted from the change if they file a waiver request.
"While the New York region has emergency arrangements with the Post Office, this kind of situation does illustrate the advantages of direct deposit," said Webb Phillips, senior legislative representative for the National Committee to Preserve Social Security & Medicare, an advocacy group.
If you are among current beneficiaries who have not yet converted, you have the option of having the funds added to a bank account through direct deposit, to an electronic transfer account (ETA) at a bank or credit union, or using a DirectExpress debit card to access benefits without using a bank account.
ETA fees cannot exceed $3.00 per month, and you can make at least four free cash withdrawals per month. Click here (www.eta-find.gov/ )to locate participating financial institutions near you.
With a debit card, you are entitled to one free cash withdrawal for each deposit credited to your account per month, as long as you use an ATM participating in the program's surcharge-free network. A 90-cent fee is charged for additional in-network withdrawals, and higher fees can be charged if you use an ATM at a bank that does not participate.
Those costs can add up, but not having to journey to the post office or the bank in the middle of a superstorm just to pay your bills? Priceless.
(The writer is a Reuters columnist and the opinions expressed are his own. For more from Mark Miller, see link.reuters.com/qyk97s)