Thursday, September 2, 2010

Workers say cuts hurt poor: Services employees warn legislators about growing backlogs

By Mary Vorsino

State workers who process applications for government benefits say layoffs and furloughs have spurred bigger caseloads and growing backlogs, lengthening the amount of time it takes for low-income residents to get needed services.

At a legislative hearing yesterday, several Department of Human Services employees told lawmakers that something needs to be done - and soon - to avoid lawsuits, improve timeliness and boost morale among workers who say they are coming in to work for free on furlough days and weekends to tackle mountains of work.

"I am not only tired. I am exhausted," said Linda Tsark, statewide administrator for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, also known as food stamps. "I feel like I am being worked to death."

The department cut 235 jobs in September to meet budget restrictions. Workers have also taken two furlough days a month, like other state employees, at a time when residents are seeking government benefits.

The department could not immediately provide figures on its caseloads or backlogs, but says backlogs predate layoffs and that timeliness for processing food stamp applications worsened statewide by 88 percent from 2008 to 2009 (before the layoffs).

But the Hawaii Government Employees Association said timeliness has further declined since the layoffs and that caseloads are now unmanageable.

Eligibility workers say they are now tackling upward of 500 cases, up from 200 to 250 last year.

Nora Nomura, HGEA deputy executive director, said the backlogs persist though many vacancies are funded but go unfilled.

In a statement to the

Star-Advertiser yesterday afternoon, department Director Lillian Koller said work is being done to address backlogs, including looking at models from other states.

"The Hawaii Government Employees Association and certain legislators would have us spend more taxpayer dollars to prop up an antiquated and labor-intensive system. That is not the answer," she said. "Instead, the Department of Human Services is following the lead of New Mexico, which won national acclaim for turning around its public benefits delivery system in the midst of low staffing levels and mounting caseloads."

But workers say more needs to be done in the short term to address critical needs. They called on the department yesterday to hire more workers, end furlough days for the department and decrease the number of hours offices are open to the public so employees can deal with backlogged applications.

The concerns come as more residents are seeking state assistance, especially food stamps, amid the economic downturn and as the number of people applying for food stamps is expected to further grow next month, when the income eligibility limit for the program grows from 185 to 200 percent of the federal poverty level.

In May there were 139,816 people statewide on food stamps, up 18 percent from the year before.

Tsark, the food stamp administrator, said 79.8 percent of food stamp applications statewide are "timely," which means they are processed within 30 days, or seven days for emergency assistance. That is down from 87 percent in July 2009. Federal guidelines require a 95 percent timeliness rate.

About 25 eligibility workers and union members came out for the Human Services Committee hearing yesterday.

State Rep. John Mizuno, committee chairman, said the big backlogs and caseloads were "unconscionable."


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