State workers say chronic understaffing caused food stamp backlog

December 20, 2022 at an IGA Foodland grocery store in Juneau. (Photo by Paige Sparks/KTOO)

Thousands of Alaskans were waiting No food stamps for months Due to delinquency in the Public Assistance Division.

December, Health Commissioner Heidi Hedberg backlog said 2021 cyberattacks and heavy paperwork were to blame After the state ends the public health emergencyBut sources inside and outside the division say the problem goes back further. They blame chronic staffing shortages for the backlog, and say drastic job cuts in 2021 have thrown the division into turmoil.

Many of the thousands of Alaskans relying on aid say they desperately need help. Civil servants say they feel unsafe at work after being harassed or threatened with violence.

KTOO spoke with two employees in the Public Assistance Department. They say poor management and understaffing are behind months of unpaid food stamps. They say this is a systemic problem that hasn’t been addressed in years. Their testimony is corroborated by union officers, case managers and social workers at Providence Medical Center.

KTOO does not use his name because he fears he will lose his job by speaking out.

“We’ve been backlogged for years,” said one qualified worker in one state who agreed to the citation. Eligible workers do the paperwork for benefits like food stamps and public assistance sector Medicaid. “This is not just the end of COVID. We asked for help and they ignored us.”

Alaskans are paying the price for budget cuts

A qualified employee said the workload was too high The Dunleavy administration has cut more than 100 jobs from the public aid sector. In 2021, offices will be short-staffed.

But the state had been warned before it was a bad idea.

First, in 2018 the Office of the State Ombudsman Investigated the welfare division For a similar backlog issue, we recommended adding more staff. When the state followed that advice, complaints dropped significantly.

And in 2021 budget meetingAlaska’s food bank foresaw this very problem and asked the state to reconsider the cuts.

Food banker Cara Durr warned Congress that pandemic waivers would reduce the effort Alaskans need to make to benefit. When their exemption ends, the work will be returned.

“From September to December last year, we saw first-hand examples of a dramatic increase in application times as a result of choosing not to renew these key exemptions,” she wrote.

The state cut jobs anyway.

Health Commissioner Hedberg said there were no layoffs. Instead, posts were allowed to empty through attrition.

Union figures show the sector’s workforce has fallen by more than 60 people since the beginning of 2021.

“My supervisor said that was fine, but it doubled the workload. rice field.

Most recipients didn’t realize it right away, because the pandemic waivers no longer required states to re-verify people who received food stamps.That flexibility initially masked staffing issues in the department, but became apparent when the Alaskans then had to redo the paperwork. State public health emergency lifted this summer.

“It was straw that broke the camel’s back,” said a qualification official.

During the summer, the wait times ballooned, causing Alaskans dependent on food stamps to spend months without assistance.

The situation has gotten so bad that Alaskans in need of assistance are threatening them in grocery stores, finding out private cell phone numbers, and harassing them online, making it impossible for qualified labor say they are afraid of safety at work.

“They are desperate,” said the eligibility officer. “They’re crying on the phone because the kids are starving. This is the worst I’ve ever seen.”

Medical insurance at risk

Food stamps aren’t the only ones affected by the labor shortage. Medicaid recipients also struggle to get approval.

“Unfortunately, it is the elderly and marginalized who do not have a voice or significant representation in our communities,” said the owner of Island Health, a care center in Southeast Alaska. Heidi Young said she works to get Medicaid for clients statewide.

“I think it’s time for the federal government to step in and issue an emergency order for the people of Alaska,” she said, referring to the kind of waivers state governments granted during the pandemic. Waiting months for a case or food stamp case is unacceptable.”

Young said some of her clients are now faced with a choice between buying medicine and buying food. She said she’s stuck there because some people don’t get Medicaid form approval after they’re hospitalized: Without Medicaid approval, it’s impossible to be discharged to a lower level of care, such as a nursing home. you can’t.

“For 60 days, 90 days, no response,” Young said. “People who can’t get home from the hospital.”

Young said he doesn’t understand why the state isn’t expanding emergency benefits when it’s managing the backlog.

“Congress recognizes this, the Secretary of Health and Social Services has recognized this many times, and they continue to shift the blame,” said Young, referring to former Secretary Adam Crumb and the Secretary of Health. I made it clear that I meant both. Heidi Hedberg. “I think Alaska needs more than that.”

officials are struggling

Eligible workers and their unions described stress at public aid agencies that led to dozens of resignations.

“This is a revolving door,” said one worker. “We’re falling like flies. They’re not investing in retaining their employees.”

The Alaska State Employees Association Local 52 is the union representing 348 public aid sector workers.

“Employees didn’t create the backlog,” said Interim Executive Director MaryAnn Ganacias. “They are doing the best they can.”

Ganacias said her members complained that the department was understaffed and not paid enough. But her main concern these days is worker safety.

“It’s normal to get yelled at and harassed by clients, but it’s escalating,” she said. She said the union asked the Public Assistance Office for security guards and bulletproof glass as a precaution.

Suzan Hartlieb works for the union and is on the Ad Hoc Committee for Members of the Public Assistance Department.

“They’re overworked, they’re tired. They’re denied personal leave. You know, the workforce isn’t enough and they’re just overwhelmed,” she said.

Hartleeve said there was an incident last week at a public aid office in Juneau in which a client yelled at a qualified worker and threatened to bring him a gun. He was exiled from all state offices.

Hartleeve also said the attack on an employee at Anchorage’s University Center in October was serious enough to require emergency medical attention.

Commissioner Hedberg said some offices have security and the state is considering additional security measures, but Ganacias said the state has yet to meet union demands for improved safety. .

To ease the burden on current employees and get overdue benefits for Alaskans, the state said: We are hiring about 30 new employeesGanacias is skeptical that the Alaskan people will get the relief they need. She wondered how the state plans to keep these workers when so many have already retired due to problems she said the state hasn’t resolved. want to know

“If they don’t feel safe, are they going to stick around?” she asked.

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