Tuesday, August 31, 2010

State Social Workers Can’t Keep Up

From KHON: Channel 2, by Andrew Pereira

State social workers say staffing shortages have made working conditions unbearable and could jeopardize the health and safety of needy island residents.

About a half dozen Department of Human Services employees testified in front of Human Services Chairman Rep. John Mizuno Monday, decrying current working conditions an unbearable.

“The eligibility units on the Big Island, at least in West Hawaii, have reached a point of total desperation,” said Mary Crispi, who works within the Benefit, Employment & Support Services Division of DHS. “There are days when I sit at my desk and cry because I can't help people.”

From medical benefits to food stamps to Child Welfare Services, social workers say clients are not getting the resources they need because there simply aren’t enough employees to process applications. They say caseloads have more than doubled since the state laid off 235 DHS employees last year to help balance the budget.

“My caseload right now is over six hundred,” said Joyce Afalla, a Benefit, Employment & Support Services Division worker on Maui
. “People are getting short tempered and short on patience with us and with good reason.”

Under federal guidelines 95 percent of food stamp applicants are required to start receiving benefits within 30 days of submitting the required forms. As of January Hawaii’s timeliness level dropped to 80 percent, which could result in the state being penalized millions of dollars federal funds.

Although no DHS official testified at Monday’s hearing Director Lillian Koller wrote a letter to union officials in March, saying timeliness levels were already dropping prior to state mandated layoffs.

“Maui’s performance, hovering in the mid-80 percent range October 2007 to September 2008, began dropping precipitously well before the August 2009 RIF,” (Reduction in Force),” Koller wrote.

The DHS director stated the creation of two eligibility processing centers in Honolulu and Hilo would have helped address the growing backlog of cases, since most of the work would be done via phone or computer.

However lawmakers blocked the so-called EPOD plan from moving forward since thirty-one welfare assistance offices across the state would have shut down, resulting in an additional 230 DHS workers losing their jobs.

During Monday’s hearing food stamp program administrator Linda Tsark said modernizing certain data systems within DHS would help with caseload management, but she stopped short of endorsing the EPOD proposal.

“There were many, many problems with the concept,” said Tsark. “Most notably the lack of planning, no staff involvement and the fact that one shoe cannot fit all with such a diverse client population.”

Victor Geminiani, the executive director of Lawyers for Equal Justice, said his organization was prepared to file a lawsuit against the state if food stamps and other benefits were not offered to clients within federal timeliness guidelines.

“We are prepared and ready to litigate this issue in federal court if required,” said Geminiani. “Bottom line is courts will intervene if the system can't be corrected.”

Rep. John Mizuno, the chairman of the Human Services Committee, said the state could avoid litigation if it began filling positions within DHS that have gone vacant but are still funded by the state budget. He also called on the governor to restore furlough days at DHS.

“If you can do those two things I think we can avert a lawsuit and perhaps we can certainly get those essential services to our needy.”

Recently DHS sent a team of administrators to New Mexico to investigate how that state is handling its backlog of social services cases.

DHS spokeswoman Toni Schwartz said Hawaii hopes to implement similar strategies here at home.

“They don't assign cases to individuals,” Schwartz said of New Mexico’s Human Services Department. “They turned it into an assembly line using teams of people who handle specific parts of the cases. Basically, they were doing the EPOD.”

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