Thursday, November 05, 2009

Food stamp workers share frustrations

Corrie MacLaggan
Austin American-Statesman

When the new head of the agency responsible for the state's backlogged food stamp applications sent an e-mail to employees asking for feedback about the agency, he got it.

About 500 state workers replied to Health and Human Services Executive Commissioner Tom Suehs, telling him about low morale and low pay, poor management, technology problems, insufficient training, long hours away from their families. They wrote about feeling frazzled, crying on the drive to work and actively looking for other jobs.

"I have been with the agency 21 years and I have never seen it this bad," wrote Linda Perez, a supervisor in San Benito. "We can't work like this anymore. Morale is low but we come to work every day with the hope that things will get better."

The commission has struggled since experienced state employees started leaving in advance of a major privatization effort in 2005. And the current economic downturn has led to a sharp increase in applications, resulting in the longest wait times agency officials can remember - families routinely wait months - and drawing warnings from the federal government that if Texas doesn't start meeting 30-day processing deadlines, the state's food stamp aid will be in jeopardy.

To work through the backlog, many of the nearly 7,700 state employees known as eligibility workers are staying at the office into the evenings and coming in on weekends, putting in an average of 13 hours of overtime a week. In some cases, the overtime is mandatory.

"That is not sustainable," said state Sen. Judith Zaffirini, D-Laredo, who met with Suehs last week about the situation. Zaffirini, one of two senators tapped by Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst to monitor food stamps, added: "I didn't know that the eligibility staff are working 8 to 8 and on Saturdays. Well, of course there's a morale issue, and of course there's a turnover issue."

I'm sorry, but did she say she didn't know eligibility staff were working 8 to 8 and weekends? How can that BE? We've been doing that since jsap- 2005! This isn't new. Way to stay in touch.

Suehs spokeswoman Stephanie Goodman said the commissioner was aware of employees' concerns but that their e-mails "helped us really understand the human toll."

"We know we have to reduce the backlog; we know we have to deliver services faster," Goodman said. "But we cannot continue to do this to our employees."

No lie. It took someone other than ALBERT HAWKINS to actually care- but you can't say that no one knew the toll. You all see the overtime numbers, so it's not like you didn't know the amt of overtime that was being worked in the field. How do you THINK someone is working 20-30 hours in overtime PER WEEK? I know people who work from 7:30 a.m. until 8 p.m. (11.5 hours PER DAY) and then another 8-10 hours on Saturdays.

In his original message to employees, Suehs wrote that the agency is hiring 750 new workers by filling vacant positions, adding positions recently approved by state elected officials and hiring in advance of anticipated vacancies.

"Help is on the way, but you and I both know that it will take some time to get those new employees on board and trained," Suehs wrote in his Oct. 21 e-mail. "We're facing a crisis today, and I need your help. ... I welcome your ideas, and I need your suggestions."

Marni Chancellor of Athens replied to say she is averaging 85 hours a month of overtime and is "praying there is an end in sight."

In September, the state spent $2 million on overtime for eligibility workers, who earn an average salary of $30,321, according to Goodman. That month, eligibility staffers, including supervisors - who earn comp time, not paid overtime - put in an extra 227,000 hours, Goodman said.

Midland worker Kristin Davison told the commissioner that she spends several mornings a week crying on the way to work because she knows she won't see her 5-year-old until after the girl is in bed. Without full weekends off to eat dinner with family, do laundry and go to church, employees are "overworked, frazzled, tangled, frustrated, angry and guilt ridden."

This is what the public does not realize, and to some extent upper management. We don't work all these hours for the money...contrary to what those on the outside may think. We do it because we have an obligation not just to the agency, but to the clients we serve. The workers are in the middle of all this and have been the forgotten ones. Add to that when you are unable to take any decent time OFF- and it spirals. I just hope that the commissioner's email is not in vain, that the suggestions were asked for and still nothing gets done. Time will tell.

"Our clients are hurting because we cannot possibly handle the amount of work that is given to us daily," she wrote. Several employees in the Houston area told Suehs that they are not allowed to take any vacation this month or in December. Goodman said the agency is clarifying to Houston-area managers that there is no such ban.

Please, this isn't new either. Leave moratorium? We've had those much of the time. Not allowed more than 1-2 days off without "special permission"? Nothing new about that.

Goodman said the agency is considering changes, such as worker bonuses and temporarily hiring retired employees to help with the backlog. Also on the table, she said, is asking for a federal waiver that would allow workers to deny applications from families whose applications clearly show they don't qualify (now, employees have to schedule interviews for such families).

I have a newsflash for you- you can pay bonuses and hire back retirees all day long- but for longterm help- start training new workers the way us tenured were trained back in the "good old days"- 2 week trainings won't solve the problem. 3 week training won't solve the problem. You have to develop staff so that they know what they are doing and therefore STAY. All it seems is done now is new workers are just "thrown" out there, and they either stay and muddle through, or they quit from the sheer magnitude of what is expected of them. Ask any tenured worker if 2 weeks is enough, and see what they say.

Meanwhile, tens of thousands of families are waiting for decisions on past-due applications. "It's just unacceptable to be so far behind," Zaffirini said.


Anonymous said...

well i know i have posted this before but I really appreciate you creating this forum us hhsc employees to be able to read these news articles and also to be able to post a little of what is going on in our area - I personally have been putting in 11.5 and 12 hour days for months and working Saturdays. There is an unbelievable amount of work that is going on behind the scenes. This week the 3 advisors in my office worked the holiday and again this Saturday. I feel blessed that I have an understanding spouse but I do feel that the time away from my family has caused some hardships in relationships with my family. Just the other day without calling me - my son and husband took off to see a game. Later they said well we didnt want to bother you we figured we would be home before you anyway. So sad but I do feel an obligation to get as many cases completed as I can. We do have some appreciative clients out there.

Anonymous said...

we have new hires finally but bless them them are scared now. Looking at our schedules and sitting in the interviews 30 mins apart they are freaking out! Not to mention the work that we are trying to do on the cases we have verification. They are amazed and horrified at the amount of work we have completed each day. Of course they are leaving at 5:00 while the few of us stay until 8 or 9 at night and then they haul away the stacks of cases muttering under their breaths. I hope they stay but there is not much incentive at this time.

Anonymous said...

Does anyone know if anything has changed since the hiring of the new workers? I'm considering applying for a position as a Works advisor.