State employees say chronic staff shortages have caused food stamps to pile up

An IGA Foodland grocery store in Juneau on December 20, 2022 (Photo by Paige Sparks/KTOO)

Thousands of Alaskans are waiting No food stamps for months Due to a backlog of work in the General Assistance Division.

In December, Health Commissioner Heidi Hedberg Accumulation said It resulted in a 2021 cyberattack and a massive influx of paperwork After the state ended the state of public health emergency. But sources inside and outside the department say the problem goes back much further. They blame the backlog on chronic staffing shortages and say deep workforce cuts in 2021 have left the division in disarray.

Many of the thousands of Alaskans who depend on the aid say they desperately need relief. State employees say they have been harassed and even threatened with violence, leaving them feeling unsafe at work.

KTOO spoke with two employees within the public assistance department who said that poor management and understaffing are behind the months-long accumulation of food stamps. They say this is a systemic problem that has not been addressed for years. Their accounts have been confirmed by union officials, case managers and social workers at Providence Medical Center.

KTOO is not using their names because they are afraid of losing their jobs for speaking out.

“We’ve had a backlog for years,” said one state eligibility officer, who agreed to be named. Eligible workers process paperwork for benefits such as food stamps and Medicaid for the Department of Public Assistance. “This is not just something that ends with COVID. We asked for help, and they ignored us.”

Alaskans are paying for budget cuts

The eligibility officer said the workload is now too high The Dunlevy administration cut more than 100 jobs from the General Assistance Department in 2021, resulting in a shortage of staff in the offices.

But the state has been warned before that this was a bad idea.

First, in 2018, when the State Board of Grievances Investigated in the General Assistance Division For similar backlog problems recommended to increase staff. When the state followed this advice, complaints dropped dramatically.

Then in 2021 budget meetingsThe Alaska Food Bank asked the state to reconsider the cuts because it anticipated this very problem.

Food Bank’s Kara Dorr warned the legislature that the pandemic-related waivers reduce the amount of work required to get benefits for Alaskans, but that The business will return when those concessions expire.

“We saw a first-hand example of how this could happen from September to December last year when we elected not to renew these major waivers, and the result was significant increases in application times,” she wrote.

The state cut jobs anyway.

There have been no layoffs, according to Hedberg, the health commissioner. Instead, posts were allowed to be emptied by decreasing.

According to union figures, the department’s workforce has shrunk by more than 60 employees since the start of 2021.

“The manager said it would be fine, but doubled my workload. I had to work a hundred hours of overtime a month,” said the anonymous eligibility worker.

Most recipients didn’t notice right away because the pandemic-related waivers meant the state didn’t have to recertify people who received food stamps. That flexibility hid the department’s staffing problems at first, but came to light when the Alaskans had to redraft their paperwork yet The state’s public health emergency was lifted this summer.

“It was the straw that broke the camel’s back,” said the civil servant.

Wait times swelled over the summer, and Alaskans who depended on food stamps began to go months without help.

The situation has gotten so bad that eligibility workers say Alaskans who need help have threatened them at grocery stores, found their personal cell phone numbers, and harassed them online. They say they fear for their safety at work.

“They are desperate,” said the eligibility worker. They are crying on the phone because their children are starving. This is the worst thing I’ve ever seen in my life.”

Medical insurance is also at risk

Food stamps aren’t just affected by staff shortages. Medicaid recipients have a hard time getting approval, too.

“Unfortunately, it’s the elderly and marginalized in our communities who don’t have a voice or great representation,” said Heidi Young, who owns Island Health, a nursing home in Southeast Alaska. Working to get Medicaid to clients across the state.

“I think it’s time for the Federal Reserve to step in and issue emergency orders to Alaskans,” she said, referring to the kind of exemptions the state government has allowed during the pandemic. “Waiting months for your Medicaid case, or food stamp issue—it’s just not acceptable.”

Young said some of her clients now have to choose between paying for medicines or buying food. She said some people can’t get approval for Medicaid forms after a hospital stay, so they’re stuck there — without Medicaid approval they can’t be discharged to lower levels of care, such as nursing homes.

“We didn’t get a response for 60 or 90 days,” Young said. “These are the people who can’t go home from the hospital.”

Young said she doesn’t understand why the state won’t extend emergency benefits while controlling the backlog.

“The legislature has been aware of this, and the Commissioner of Health and Social Services has been informed of this on multiple occasions, and they have continued to sidestep responsibility,” Young said, explaining that she meant both former Commissioner Adam Crum and Health Commissioner Heidi Hedberg. “I just think Alaskans need more support than that.”

State workers are struggling

Eligibility workers and their union describe stress at public assistance offices that has led to dozens of resignations.

“It’s a revolving door,” said one of the workers. “We’re dropping like flies. They don’t invest in employee retention.”

The Alaska State Employees Union Local 52 is the union that represents the 348 divisions of public assistance workers.

“It wasn’t the people there that caused the backlog,” said Interim Executive Director Mary Ann Ganassias. “They are doing everything they can.”

Ganassias said her members complain of understaffing in management and not receiving adequate compensation. But lately its primary concern has been worker safety.

“Having them get yelled at and harassed by customers is kind of normal, but it’s escalating,” she said. She said the union has required guards and bulletproof glass at public assistance offices as a precaution.

Susan Hartlib works for the union and sits on a special committee for members of the Department of Public Assistance.

“They’re exhausted, they’re tired. They’re denied personal leave. You know, there aren’t enough people in the workforce, and they’re exhausted.”

Hartlib said there was an incident at a public assistance office in Juneau last week in which a customer yelled at qualified staff and threatened to bring a gun. And according to Commissioner Heidi Hedberg, the state has banned that person from all state offices.

Hartlib also said that in October, an assault on a worker at the University Center in Anchorage was serious enough to require emergency medical attention.

Commissioner Hedberg said some offices have security and the state is considering additional safety measures, but Ganassias said the state has yet to meet union requests to improve safety.

The state said to ease the burden on existing employees and collect their Alaska back benefits It has about 30 new workers. Ganassias doubts it will bring Alaskans the relief they need. She wants to know how the state plans to retain these workers when many of them have already quit because of problems she said the state has not fixed.

“Will they continue if they don’t feel safe?” she asked.

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