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State welfare workers are juggling an astronomical number of requests for help, causing delays in emergency benefits to families and in some cases kicking them erroneously off welfare, according to state employees and welfare recipients..

And in crowded welfare offices around the state, the frustration of families waiting for food, medical or cash assistance is reportedly boiling over, with threats and assaults against caseworkers.

“They’re just frustrated with us. We can’t get their work processed fast enough,” said Nancy Opatich, who works at the Michigan Department of Human Services office in Warren and who testified before a Michigan House subcommittee in the fall.

Since 2001, the welfare assistance caseload in Michigan has dramatically swelled to 2.4 million cases, triple that of 2002, raising per-worker caseloads to 740 from 320.

State budget cuts in field staff — a 10 percent reduction since 2002 — have made things worse. And state officials acknowledge their employees are managing more than they can handle, and some families are losing out.

“We’re trying to push too much water through a garden hose and stuff squirts to the side,” Terry Salacina, deputy of field operations with the Michigan Department of Human Services, told state legislators in November. He added the department needs an additional 700 workers to adequately manage the volume. The department administers federal welfare for food, Medicaid , disability, cash assistance and child care payments.

Benefits lost to error

Felicia Stewart, 49, of Detroit had been receiving $150 a month in food stamps, money she stretches to buy groceries for herself, her 13-year-old grandson and her 69-year-old mother. In October, those benefits were cut. She was later told that a computer error was to blame.

After multiple calls to her caseworker, her benefits were reinstated in December. But she had already fallen behind on her mortgage and cable bill.

“(The caseworker) said he could do nothing about the prior months that I lost,” she recalled. “I lost $300.”

There is no clear standard for what is considered a manageable number of welfare cases. Comparisons to other states are not indicative since states manage their caseloads differently.

But advocates for reform point to DHS’ new computer program, Bridges, which was rolled out statewide last year. It was built to work optimally at 450 cases per worker. The program has experienced frequent shutdowns and applicants have been inadvertently dropped from the rolls, some suspect least in part because caseloads far exceed that level.

“It means that many more people are trying to find other ways to make ends meet, whether it be (turning to) soup kitchens or food pantries or free clinics or emergency rooms,” said Jackie Doig, senior staff attorney at the Center for Civil Justice, a Saginaw-based agency that assists families determine welfare eligibility.

Wayne’s caseload heaviest

Wayne County has the heaviest caseloads in the state. Caseworkers there process about 45,000 requests for assistance a month, mostly for food stamps. In the last decade, budget cuts have drawn down caseworker ranks to 1,425 workers, from 3,000.

Though state workers have been coaxing clients to apply online and agree to phone, rather than in-person interviews with caseworkers — a requirement to determine eligibility — to eliminate crowds, dozens line up each day outside Wayne County buildings waiting for the doors to open.

“Some folks are a little uneasy over the phone or online so they come in anyway,” said Dwayne Haywood, a DHS director who oversees the county’s 15 offices.

Workers say some frustrated clients are resorting to violence and threats. Recently, a woman standing in line at a DHS office in Walled Lake got fed up and allegedly assaulted a manager and broke the manager’s finger. At many DHS offices, workers stand behind counters; there is no protective glass separating them from clients.

Last year, caseworker Nancy Opatich was sitting at her desk interviewing a woman who became irate and flung her car keys at the caseworker’s head. Opatich ducked.

“It’s a combination of a bad economy and perpetrators seeing workers as easy targets and frustrated clients who are waiting a long time,” said Ray Holman, spokesman for UAW Local 6000, which represents 17,000 state employees, about 5,000 of those DHS workers.

Last year, the department spent $18 million on staff overtime, many by field workers working weekends to process applications.

“My phone is constantly ringing,” said Sheila Taylor, a caseworker at the Greydale office in Detroit. “It’s a struggle on a daily basis.”

Sometimes it is a race against time. Federal guidelines stipulate guidelines for timely processing, which if not met for some programs, automatically force applicants to start all over again.

Workers demand more help

In the last several months, employees have held rallies around the state, demanding more hires, better security and improved computer technology.

“Almost everything we’re talking about takes dollars at this point,” Salacina said recently.

In February, Gov. Jennifer Granholm proposed hiring 856 workers for the department in the next fiscal year to handle child welfare matters as well as meet the increased welfare demand.

The House appropriations subcommittee is proposing a thinner increase: 514. Legislators are expected to resume discussion when they reconvene later this month.

“We want the governor’s proposal, and that’s what we’re hoping we will get,” said Edward Woods III, spokesman for DHS.

In August, Renee Unruh, 40, lost her Medicaid coverage and food stamps, though she insists she returned requested paperwork on time.

“I pretty much lived off of my student loans and child support, but that’s not enough,” said Unruh, a mother of four who earned her associate’s degree in December. “I had to buy food and gas for all the months.”

Unruh, who now works a few days a week as a home healthcare worker, turned to churches and food pantries for help. But she eventually fell behind on her monthly rent. After countless calls to her caseworker, and multiple visits to the DHS office, Unruh’s benefits were reinstated this month.

Source:The Detroit News/Catherine Jun

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