Some lose Social Security benefits for taking COVID stimulus payments

Dave Greune is a caregiver to his daughter Julia, who is permanently disabled, blind, and has cerebral palsy.

He loves spending time with his daughter. She interacts, reads and has an infectious laugh. But what has been frustrating most for Dave has been dealing with the Social Security Administration.

Julia gets around $500 to $600 a month in Supplemental Security Income payments. Earlier this year, the agency asked her to repay more than $7,000. Dave believes it’s not for an overpayment but rather a government mistake.

Dave says the reason -- the only reason -- her assets were too much was because of the stimulus payments she got during COVID.

See, Julia received $3,200 in COVID stimulus payments that apparently counted against her asset limit. But the SSI limit for an individual is a paltry $2,000. Go over it and the agency can claw back the cash.

“It’s incredibly frustrating,” says her father.

Right now, it’s frustrating to families all over the country, because that money, according to the agency’s own rules, shouldn’t count against any beneficiary’s asset limit, ever.

Darcy Milburn is the director of Social Security and Health Care Policy at the Arc of the United States. They advocate for people with intellectual and developmental disabilities.

She says that “there were quite literally hundreds of millions of opportunities for people to have been caught up in this kind of error.”

Darcy also says there is a need for a reckoning with respect to ensuring that people’s benefits are not withheld for no reason other than an easy error that shouldn’t have happened in the first place.

In the wake of our reporting, the Social Security Administration announced it will review its overpayment procedures and policies. But the policy for the COVID stimulus payments is clear. In 2021, SSA directed employees not to count that money as income or assets for one year, to avoid overpayments. Later, that was changed to “indefinitely.” And again, SSA updated it’s procedures two months ago – in another emergency message.

“The timing of that, I think, is significant because it meant lots of people got this money and got overpayments even before Social Security decided to change their mind,” said lawyer Jen Burdick.

Jen Burdick represents Social Security disability appeals for Community Legal Services of Philadelphia. She says it’s logically hard to understand why the government would be giving you relief with one hand and with another, taking it back.

In Julia’s case, the agency is asking not for the $3,200 in stimulus money, but more than $7,000 the agency paid her during the months it now thinks she was ineligible.

Dave can’t make sense of it.

“They want more than twice that amount back,” he said. “Plus, she’s been cut off for the last six months.”

We wanted to know how widespread this issue is, but the Social Security Administration has declined to tell us how many people have received overpayment notices, or the number of reversals of overpayments based on the COVID stimulus funds.

Dave Greune says he thinks the agency should stop trying to collect money from people they paid directly and own their mistake. A mistake Dave says has cost his family dearly. The SSA lowered the amount a bit, but he says the entire debt is just wrong.

“They’re still after me,” he said. “Like, every month they send another letter. Did you forget? You still owe us $6,000.”