Monday, March 24, 2008

Austin American Statesman Article

Texas struggles to retain caseworkers

Pay raises, faster promotions aim to combat rapid turnover.

Sunday, March 23, 2008
First thing Thursday morning, a dozen new state caseworkers arrived at a North Austin office building for a training class on enrolling Texans in the food stamp and Medicaid programs. Just a couple of months into their jobs, one after another said they're excited about helping people and confident they can handle the work. But if history is any guide, eight of them will be gone by fall.
Employees overwhelmed by their workload are leaving the Health and Human Services Commission in droves. With fewer experienced workers on staff, applications are piling up, and the state is failing to handle them as quickly as required by the federal government. Since September, Texas has hired 1,010 employees known as eligibility workers; 733 resigned in the same period.
Krystle Carr of Austin trains on the computer system known as TIERS. Complications with that system have been blamed for part of the state Health and Human Services Department's backlog of food stamp and Medicaid applications.
Jennifer DeLuna
Doug Bell
Mohammed Ali
"Right now, there's a very vicious cycle," said Mike Gross, vice president of the Texas State Employees Union. "New hires barely replace the people who are leaving, they're trained thinly, they're thrown into the work, the work is demoralizing because the workloads are so high ... and they leave."
The problems have plagued the agency for years and can be traced in large part to 2003 state budget cuts and a decision to hire a private contractor to enroll Texans in public benefits, a partnership that didn't work out.
In recent months, the problems have spiraled, and last month, Texas was forced by the federal agency that oversees food stamps to come up with a plan to correct poor performance. The state announced it will raise entry-level salaries (which now average $26,000), give current workers raises and promote workers more quickly.
Texas officials hope to attract more workers — and retain current employees — with the plan. Most of the raises are 5 percent, but the new promotion schedule means workers could see a larger raise than that within months.
Texas' 6,500 eligibility workers are especially struggling to quickly handle the 12 percent of cases that are in a controversial new computer system known as TIERS. This month, federal officials warned Texas that TIERS use should not be expanded as the state had planned.
Slightly fewer than half of Texas food stamp applications processed in December using TIERS were completed within the 30 days required by the federal government.
"It's been hard to get ahead," said Stephanie Goodman, a spokeswoman for the Health and Human Services Commission.
Such delays mean that some of the 3.7 million Texans on public assistance are struggling to make ends meet and straining resources of nonprofit organizations, according to local groups.
Austinite Doug Bell, who started as an eligibility worker in January, got a sense of the work ahead of him when, between training sessions, he was assigned to answer the phone at a South Austin office on Eberhart Lane.
"People were calling who had applied in November or December, saying, 'We still haven't gotten our benefits,' " said Bell, who attended a Medicaid training class Thursday. "Some of these people really needed it bad. They had medical issues; they needed food."
The stress of having applications piling up drove El Pasoan Sandra Blanco to quit her job this month. The 15-year veteran took another state job, saying the new raises weren't enough to keep her in a position where there were not enough hours in the day to do her work.
"It's just been horrible," Blanco said during one of her final days on the job. "I felt I was being forced out the door because I just couldn't handle the work anymore."
Blanco said she had never had problems completing cases on time, but as she was assigned more work, she recently slipped to the lowest rate of on-time application processing of her career.
Meanwhile, the state is replacing workers who leave and adding 600 more employees, spending $7,500 per worker to train them, Goodman said. That cost includes the worker's salary and the trainer's salary but not travel costs for employees who go to other towns for training.
At the Eberhart Lane office, about two-thirds of the 60 workers arrived in the past year, said program manager Susan Lozano.
So with three years' experience, caseworker Jennifer DeLuna is considered a veteran. Like her colleagues, she stays late many evenings, but she said she thrives on helping people and the workload doesn't get to her.
"Some people are overwhelmed here," said DeLuna, who meets with a different client about every 30 minutes in person or by phone. "I guess I'm good at multitasking."
But her colleague Mohammed Ali, an aspiring politician who said he likes having a job that's considered admirable, said he's thought of quitting many times. He said he's seen his workload triple in his year and a half on the job. Colleagues regularly call in sick because they can't handle the stress, he said, leaving more cases for those who show up.
Like many eligibility workers, he often works overtime, putting in an extra 12 to 15 hours a week, he said. Nearly 400 eligibility workers took home at least $10,000 last year in overtime pay — and some earned much more — according to records from the commission. The state spent $18.2 million on overtime last year for eligibility workers, who make up 68 percent of the commission's employees but 99 percent of its overtime spending, Goodman said.
Part of the problem, said Judy Lugo, a supervisor in Blanco's former office in El Paso, is that the state is pulling hundreds of employees to work on cases in TIERS, which stands for Texas Integrated Eligibility Redesign System, leaving the rest of the workers to handle the majority of cases still in the old system.
Employees "are on the verge of a nervous breakdown," said Lugo, who is also president of the employee union. "I find them in their offices in tears."
Goodman acknowledged that transferring workers to TIERS cases "is a bit of robbing Peter to pay Paul."
"No one thinks this is a perfect solution," she said, "but TIERS cases are growing faster" than those in the old system.
That growth is mostly because the state has added a women's health program to TIERS, Health and Human Services Executive Commissioner Albert Hawkins told William Ludwig of the U.S. Department of Agriculture in a letter. And, though there is no set timeline, Texas does plan to roll out TIERS to the entire state.
But Ludwig, whose agency oversees the food stamp program, cautioned Hawkins: "We are not convinced that a continued roll-out of TIERS is warranted unless accompanied by strong measures to improve timeliness and ensure customer service."
Some of the agency's staffing problems date to fall 2005, when Hawkins informed 2,900 eligibility workers that they would not have a job after the start of a privatization plan. The agency hired Accenture LLP to run call centers to enroll Texans in benefits. After a troubled pilot program in Central Texas in 2006, the state parted ways with Accenture and canceled layoff plans. But hundreds of state employees had already left.
Texas is in the early stages of selecting another private company to run call centers, though the new plan leaves more decision-making in the hands of state workers. Delays in food stamps have strained the resources of organizations such as Caritas, which provides rent, utilities and food in times of crisis, said Jo Kathryn Quinn, director of self sufficiency services.
"These families are utilizing our food pantry as a primary food source, and it's certainly not intended to be that way," she said.
After Bell, one of the new eligibility workers, spent time talking to such families by phone and watching others file in and out of caseworkers' offices, he said the chaotic situation didn't seem fair to clients or workers. "I don't know how they cope with it," he said of employees.
But when asked whether he'll be able to do it, Bell — who said he's "been very blessed" and wants to help make life easier for people in need — responded confidently: "I think so."

This post done through Yahoo! Mail. You can email me at Please know all emails are kept confidential, and your identity will never be disclosed.

Be a better friend, newshound, and know-it-all with Yahoo! Mobile. Try it now.


Anonymous said...

It would be interesting to do a survey on all the employees who now have new rx's for anti-anxiety, depression, insomnia & etc meds. I myself in the past yr have rx's for an upper, a downer and an all arounder (depression/anxiety med) At the age of 41 I was diagnosed w/ AdHd- because I was unable to stay focused and organized and became overwhelmed w/ my workload. hmmm now I can stay up longer and pull more ot, but need pill to sleep at night. I don't even feel like myself anymore.. Why do I stay? Can't find comparable wages and benefits in my area and I do enjoy helping others & assisting them in making a better life for themselves, just wish I could feel better about the quality of work that I produce.

Anonymous said...

Instead of surveying employees regarding their opinions of workload, training, supervisors; they should just take a survey of all the drugs we are on. I think that would give a bigger picture of what is going on.

Anonymous said...

Just call me Elvis

Anonymous said...

what's worse is being in a unit where overtime is strictly disallowed... but to keep up with the work it is absolutely necessary... so what do we do? ... we work it anyway and don't report the time.. it's either that or watch our performance evaluations go to hell

Anonymous said...

You're breaking federal law by not claiming your overtime - Let the cases go delinquent and your evaluation does suffer...but so does that of everyone above you
....note that the feds have stepped up and slapped Texas on the wrist for the untimely mess they have created. CLAIM ALL TIME you work because you may need those hours to regain your health from the current stress you are under. If you wanted to donate your time you would not have commented.