Judy Duncan had worked in the same place for more than 40 years.
Over that time, her knees began to give out and, when she was laid off three years ago, she already was medically disabled, she said. Courts and her doctors later agreed.
At 63, the East Ridge resident was able to get by in her job as an insurance company office clerk because she knew the job like the back of her hand and her employer accommodated her limitations, she said.
But when she found herself unemployed at the start of a worldwide economic crisis, her physical problems made it impossible to get back into the work force.
"There just weren't any jobs out there that I could do," Duncan said. "There weren't any jobs at all."
Duncan, with the help of her attorney, was approved for disability compensation seven months after losing her job.
There are thousands of other Americans just like Duncan, and they are fueling a large spike in applications for Social Security Disability Insurance benefits.
Nationally, applications were up 17 percent from 2007 to 2009. In Georgia and Tennessee, applications are up more than 25 percent in the same time frame, Social Security Administration numbers show.
Claims have risen so much, Georgia requested another 100 federally funded staffers to sort and handle the paperwork. Starting in mid-November, 35 of those employees will staff a new Claims Adjudication Office in Dalton, Ga. This week, the employees were training and the downtown office was being readied.
Social Security Disability Insurance generally will provide early retirement income to anyone older than 18 and under 65 who has been in the workplace for two years or more. Applications are lengthy, and many applicants need legal representation to guide them through the process, which sometimes requires a hearing before an administrative law judge before approval.
Disability claims have been on the rise for years because of aging baby boomers whose ailments make work too difficult. But the latest spike, seen over the last three years, is fueled by both boomers and the economy, officials say.
"Many people, even though they had medical conditions, they were still able to go to work or to find work," said Georgia Labor Commissioner Michael Thurmond. "Many people can qualify for disability, but they continue to work anyway."
Employers sometimes accommodated a disabled employee, but when profits are pinched, the workers with less productivity, frequent absences or apparent disabilities are the first to go, national and local lawyers say.
"Many people have been with the same employer for decades and, because of that relationship, the employer makes accommodations beyond what's even required by law," said Dan Allsup, spokesman for Allsup Inc., a national group that helps applicants apply for disability.
Locally, lawyers are seeing a spike in inquiries about disability benefits and wait times for approval are increasing, they say. Spikes such as the recent one also track closely with up-and-down movements in the economy.
"When there is a significant downturn in the economy, there is a pool of people who are basically the working disabled, who are working in sheltered environments where their employer, simply by the goodness of their heart, are keeping them employed with significant accommodations for them," said Seth Holiday, a partner in the Chattanooga firm of Eric Buchanan and Associates, which specializes in disability applicants. "But when the economy goes badly, the employer has difficulty keeping them on the rolls."
Although disability claims seem to come out of the woodwork when the economy goes south, attorneys say the claims usually are legitimate.
"If you can work, Social Security is not going to pay your case," Holiday said. "If they come into our office, and there is nothing wrong with them, I'm not going to take their case. It would be a waste of everyone's time to represent them."
Attorneys typically do not collect fees unless the application is approved, and the long application and approval process weeds out anyone who might be faking.
"In the public, there is this misconception that it's easy to get approved," said Jay Kennamer, a lawyer in the McMahan Law firm of Chattanooga, which helped Duncan get approved. "Sometimes it can take 24 months to get approved, and most people can't go that long without income."
Lawyers say it's hard to fake a disability and gain benefits because the process is sometimes very long and requires multiple medical opinions, which is why many applicants turn to legal representation to guide them through the process.
In 2010, numbers suggest that applications may have subsided slightly. Though individual city data was not available, Georgia saw 4,000 fewer applications in the 2010 fiscal year than in 2009 and Tennessee saw an increase of only 4,000 applications.
"We've never experienced this type of recession," Thurmond said. "Typically recessions are much shorter in duration than this."
DISABILITY CLAIMS UP
Data shows applications for Social Security Disability have increased between 20 and 35 percent over the last three years.
FY2007 FY2008 FY2009
National 2,524,211 2,592,863 2,975,429
Georgia 82,526 86,973 104,251
Tennessee 65,114 66,094 83,016
Chattanooga 5,331 5,503 6,621
Cleveland 1,405 1,430 1,680
Dalton 1,528 1,705 2,056
SOURCE: Social Security Administration