Fairport, N.Y. — Two years ago this week, as the pandemic began, the Social Security Administration shut down most of its in-person services.

Ever since, anyone needing to get in touch with the agency had to call or go online.

For a lot of people, it seemed the safety net of Social Security was broken.

Stephanie Shirley certainly felt that way. The Fairport woman was forced to stop working after a breast cancer battle left her too disabled to do her job.

More than two years ago, she was approved for Social Security Disability, which became her financial lifeline. But in November, Social Security essentially cut her off, and demanded that she pay back more than $61,000 within 30 days.

“All of a sudden I get this letter telling me I owe them $61,000 dollars. The joke’s on them,” she explained.

For two years, the system worked for Shirley. She received Social Security Disability payments of about $1,800 a month.

Then, she received that letter, just weeks before Christmas.

“We are writing to give you new information about your benefits. We paid you $61,777 more in Social Security than you were due. Please refund this overpayment within 30 days,” it reads.

Stephanie Shirley reads from the letter she received from Social Security Disability. (WHAM photo)

Not only did Social Security ask for that money back, it also reduced her monthly benefit $219, which barely covers her Medicare premiums. She was left with $9 a month.

And while it appears to us this was simply a mistake on the part of Social Security, fixing it has been anything but simple.

“And the part that shocked me was we were talking to nobody,” said Rick Dastin.

Shirley turned to the retired business executive for help. He and his wife are her dear friends.

Dastin has been relentless in writing letters and calling Social Security. Long waits on hold usually end with the call being disconnected.

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“Even if we could get through once in a while, the people on the phone couldn’t help us. They had no power or authority. The people who had authority had no phone numbers. They had no contact information,” he said.

Dastin was quick to point out that he has empathy for the workers at Social Security, and that the system did work well for Stephanie at first.

Attorney Ida Comerford specializes in Social Security cases and is representing Shirley.

Q. “As long as you’ve been doing this, it’s never been worse?”

A. “It’s never been worse.”

Comerford considers Social Security workers to be her allies. But since the pandemic began, with many of them working from home, getting through to the right person has been nearly impossible. Resolving disputes can take months.

“So now we have people that are awarded, they got the stamp of approval that they meet the criteria for disability, and they’re not getting paid.”

In Shirley case, Social Security claimed she was also receiving worker’s compensation, so it reduced her benefit to almost nothing and asked for that $61,000 repayment. But Shirley, who was never injured at work, never applied for and never received worker’s comp.

Shirley’s breast cancer came with serious complications, requiring eight surgeries with more to come.

“I have no feeling in my fingers or my feet … and I’m in chronic pain, and this is for the rest of my life. I’m not going to get better,” she said.

Social Security’s customer service problems extend beyond closed officers and unanswered calls.

“We are seeing an epidemic in my office right now of Social Security generating letters in our cases and never sending us the letter,” Comerford said.

“They said they sent her four letters before they cut her off,” Dastin said. ” Well she didn’t get those letters.”

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“We asked them to resend the letters when we finally got through and she didn’t get those either,” Dastin said.

Shirley’s brother and sister have been paying her bills, keeping her in her home. She’s grateful. But also embarrassed to be so dependent.

“I’m 65 years old and I’m in a situation I never dreamed I’d be in. I never thought I’d stop working. Never,” she said.

UPDATE: Shirley reached out to 13WHAM Thursday afternoon. A direct deposit with everything she was owed just showed up in her account. And with some help from Rep. Joe Morelle’s office, her full benefits are back in place. But the frustrating long waits continue for others. 13WHAM is working on follow-up report to find out how and when these customer service problems will get fixed.

Read the full story on WHAM here: https://13wham.com/news/local/social-security-disability-saga-fairport-womans-fight

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