Jamie Crouse broke his skull in two places, his collarbone and six ribs, suffered a concussion and lost hearing in one ear in a 2016 motorcycle accident.
The injuries left the chef too dizzy to work anymore in restaurants.
Despite the extensive injuries, it took the federal Social Security Administration more than two years to approve his application for disability.
Crouse is not alone. More than 7,000 people in Syracuse are waiting for hearings to decide if they qualify for Social Security disability benefits. Syracuse’s 19-month wait is among the worst in the nation. After a hearing it can take up to another six months before a decision is issued. That means injured people often struggle to make ends meet or end up homeless as they spend two years awaiting benefits for which they may be entitled.
Crouse, 54, lives in a gutted tavern he bought and began renovating just before the accident. During the long wait, he slept on a mattress on the tavern floor and survived on food stamps.
Before Social Security approved his application in November, Crouse was bouncing checks and running up credit card debt.
“I was definitely going under,” he said. “I don’t know if they are understaffed or they just try to bleed you dry."
Nearly 80 percent of workers like Crouse are denied when they first apply for disability, according to the Social Security Administration. Many are turned down at the initial application stage because they have not worked long enough to qualify or fail to submit enough medical documentation.
About half of them appeal by requesting hearings before an administrative law judge. Ultimately, fewer than four in 10 applicants are awarded benefits from a system they’ve paid into during their working lives.
People in Syracuse seeking hearings face some of the longest waits in the nation. The average wait time in November for a hearing was 19 months, the tenth longest in the US.
Federal budget cuts are to blame for the long waits. The Social Security Administration’s budget was cut 9 percent between 2010 and 2018. That reduction left the agency short staffed at the same time disability applications were increasing. To fix the problem, Congress increased the Social Security Administration’s funding by $480 million in 2018 to help ease the backlog and approved a $40 million increase for 2019.
But the extra money has yet to shorten the wait for hearings here.
Social Security is hiring more administrative law judges and support staff to speed up the process, said John Shallman, a spokesman for the agency.
In Syracuse, there are 7,339 people waiting for hearings, down from 10,159 a year ago.
As the number of pending hearings continues to decline, wait times will, too, Shallman predicted.
The delays can be crushing for applicants, especially low-income people struggling to pay rent and other bills.
“People go bankrupt and they go homeless,” said Nancy Altman of Social Security Works, a national advocacy group. “This backlog creates a lot of harm.”
Social Security records show 7,360 people nationwide died awaiting hearings in 2017.
Social Security disability insurance benefits are for workers who cannot support themselves because of serious and long-lasting medical problems. It is an earned benefit they paid for through payroll tax contributions. The average monthly Social Security disability payment is $1,197.
About 8.6 million people nationwide get Social Security disability. That number has grown nearly six fold since 1970 as the population has grown, baby boomers have aged and more women have joined the workforce.
It’s hard to qualify for disability. Applicants must have worked for at least one-fourth of their adult life and five of the last 10 years.
They also must suffer from a severe physical or mental impairment expected to last 12 months or result in death, and be unable to perform “substantial gainful activity” in any job.
Lawyers say people are often denied because they are not disabled enough or don’t have strong enough evidence to support their case.
People appealing a disability denial are not required to hire an attorney, but many do.
Disability attorneys do not get paid up front. They collect a maximum of 25 percent of a client’s retroactive benefits or $6,000, whichever is less.
“Doing it by yourself can set you up to fail,” said Betsy Krupar, a disability lawyer with the Syracuse Legal Aid Society which represents low-income clients for free. “It’s a very complicated system.”
Disability hearings in Syracuse take place in the One Park Place office building at 300 S. State St.
Because there are not enough administrative law judges, about half the hearings are handled by out-of-town judges via video-conferences. The applicant sits in front of a video screen in Syracuse before a judge who is in Baltimore, Albuquerque or another city hundreds of miles away.
Applicants can refuse video-conferences and insist on in-person hearings.
Neal McCurn Jr., a Syracuse disability lawyer, advises clients to refuse them. He said the extent of an applicant’s disability “doesn’t come across as well through TV 800 miles away.”
McCurn said he’s familiar with the 10 judges who hear cases in Syracuse and can prepare accordingly.
“We did have a couple judges from out of state that were a nightmare and I don’t want to roll the dice,” he said.
David Fredericks, 63, of Syracuse, has been turned down for disability three times since 2011. He recently applied again, hoping he will have better luck with a different judge.
Fredericks had a career in sales, but stopped working because of health problems.
He’s had two heart attacks and suffers from coronary artery disease, congestive heart failure, high blood pressure, degenerative disc disease and spinal stenosis. His most recent appeal was denied by a judge who said Fredericks is capable of doing telephone sales work. Fredericks and his doctor disagree, saying he can’t handle the stress of sales work or sit in one position for long periods of time.
It’s difficult for a disability applicant with a history of doing sedentary work like sales to prove they are no longer capable of doing that kind of work, said Krupar, Fredericks’ attorney.
After he stopped working, Fredericks lived in homeless shelters at the Rescue Mission and Catholics Charities on and off for two years. He now lives in public housing.
“I never thought I’d end up in a position like that,” Fredericks said. “I worked since I was 16 and paid into Social Security. The whole system sucks.”
McCurn said there’s a widespread misconception people seeking disability are faking it.
As a result applicants are viewed suspiciously. “You have to prove you are not a malingerer,” McCurn said.
He believes fraudulent cases are rare. “Even when you have a valid claim you sometimes have to pull a rabbit out of a hat to get a judge to approve it,” he said.
Jamie Crouse has worked as a chef at Pastabilities, Alto Cinco and other restaurants around the country since he was 19.
In 2016 Crouse was working in New Orleans when he learned the former Remedy Tavern, housed in a 103-year-old former bank building at 363 W. Seneca Turnpike in Syracuse, was for sale. Crouse, a Syracuse native, wanted to come home, settle down and run his own business.
So he bought the bar for $70,000, got a Dumpster and gutted the place himself.
The renovation came to a halt on July 7, 2016 when Crouse crashed his motorcycle at the corner of Ostrander and Midland avenues. He has no memory of the accident or how it happened.
“If I didn’t have a helmet on I’d be dead,” he said. He was hospitalized three weeks.
Crouse lost most of his balance and had ear surgery to restore it. He’s regained about 40 percent of his balance. He gets very dizzy if he stands or turns too quickly, hears loud noises, sees bright lights or gets into stressful situations. “People think I’m drunk all the time,” said Crouse, who ran more than five miles a day to stay fit before the accident.
After the crash he didn’t have enough money to complete the renovation. He went to Florida and stayed with his mother, a nurse, to recuperate, then returned to Syracuse.
“If it wasn’t for the love and support of my mother and a couple friends, I’d have ended up homeless,” he said.
Crouse, who is single, lives in the tavern. A former bank vault with a mattress on the floor serves as his bedroom. “Living like this is no big deal for me,” said Crouse, who once lived in a tent for three months while working in Rochester.
He lived as frugally as possible while awaiting a decision on his case.
He received $34,000 in retroactive disability benefits and gets $1,400 a month. Crouse is using all of his disability back pay to finish the tavern which he hopes to open in six months.
Once the bar opens Crouse said he will hire a bartender and security staff because he won’t be able to do much more than paperwork.
“He still has significant limitations that prevent full time functional employment,” said McCurn, who represented Crouse and has been his friend since childhood.
Crouse’s goal is to eventually get off disability. Social Security allows people on disability to return to work on a trial basis for nine months during which they continue to receive full benefits.
“He’s trying to create a job for himself,” McCurn said. “This guy is doing everything he can to get back on his feet.”