Suzette Strickland’s job helping people apply for food stamps sometimes includes explaining to clients why the state caseworkers handling their applications don’t return phone calls, even after 20 messages.

“It’s not that they won’t call you back. They can’t,” Strickland, the food stamp program manager for End Hunger Connecticut, said she and her colleagues tell people. “There’s just no way humanly possible for them to cover that many cases.”

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Rep. Peter A. Tercyak

The state Department of Social Services is struggling to get food stamps to poor residents, and much of it is the result of not having enough workers to keep up with applications at a time when demand for assistance is soaring.

The 586 workers currently doing intake and case management screen applicants for all of the department’s programs and are responsible for an average of 1,750 cases per month, according to DSS. That represents a 65 percent increase in caseloads in the past two years.

Some positions have remained vacant since 120 workers handling applications took early retirements in 2009 and then-Gov. M. Jodi Rell’s administration approved replacing only 58 of them. Another 21 eligibility workers have left the department since last fall.

DSS now has approval to refill 21 vacant positions. But whatever help that brings could be undercut at the end of March, when 19 temporary workers who had been assigned to the food stamp program are scheduled to leave the job. DSS spokesman David Dearborn said the department is still discussing staffing levels–through both refilled and extended temporary positions–for processing food stamps with the Office of Policy and Management, the governor’s budget office.

The performance of the food stamp program–known officially as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP–prompted a warning from federal officials that the state could face financial sanctions if it doesn’t improve significantly.

“Our record with SNAP is just too horrible to describe credibly,” said Rep. Peter A. Tercyak, D-New Britain, co-chairman of the Human Services Committee.

In one measure–the proportion of cases in which food stamps are denied or terminated wrongly–the state ranks 53rd, behind the other states, Washington D.C., Puerto Rico and Guam. The state ranks 52nd in its rate of providing inaccurate benefit levels. And it’s among the bottom in timeliness, processing fewer than 60 percent of applications within the required time frame.

Some lawmakers have proposed legislation that would require DSS to designate enough employees from its existing workforce to process food stamp applications to ensure that they are processed on time and accurately.

But others have warned that focusing staff on food stamps could mean shortchanging other programs.

“I think that’s what we have to be careful about is that we don’t focus just so much on SNAP that other things suffer too,” said Lucy Nolan, executive director of End Hunger Connecticut. “Clearly there needs to be an entire reorganization in what they’re doing at DSS.”

More than 336,000 state residents received food stamps last fiscal year, up 30 percent from the year before. The benefits–an average of $263 per month for each household–are funded by the federal government, which also pays for half of the state’s cost to administer the program.

It’s not just the caseloads that are problematic. The department’s eligibility management system is outdated. The phone system, which gets more than 879,000 calls a month, can’t direct callers to the appropriate staff. Commissioner Michael Starkowski said a new automated phone system should be in place this spring that will allow people to get information without taking up staff time. Gov. Dannel P. Malloy’s proposed budget calls for funding to develop plans for a new eligibility system, which is expected to be a lengthy process.

In the interim, Starkowski said the department is using several initiatives to improve the application processing and expects to expand any efforts that are successful. They include having teams handle only SNAP cases, designating supervisors to evaluate SNAP applications, and offering a call center to handle HUSKY and SNAP questions.

As for increasing the number of people handling applications, Starkowski said the department is working with the budget office.

Tercyak said he does not expect to see more workers hired to fill eligibility positions at DSS. Instead, he said the state should allow outside agencies that already help people apply for food stamps to play a larger role.

By law, the state must determine eligibility, but outside agencies could help with other parts of the process, which includes interviewing applicants and determining eligibility based on income, housing costs, immigration status and other factors.

“We’re so far behind, how many interviews do they think these poor DSS workers can do in a day?” Tercyak said.

Starkowski said the department is interested in expanding the role of outside agencies and intends to apply for a federal waiver to allow them to do more, which could include interviews with applicants. But Starkowski warned legislators that outside agencies asked to play a larger role might ask the state for money to do it.

Leaders of community agencies are already seeking a larger role in SNAP.

End Hunger Connecticut already helps people prepare applications, and, along with the Hispanic Health Council and the Connecticut Association for Human Services, can transmit applications to the department’s Hartford region office. The information arrives as a computer file at DSS, eliminating the possibility of paperwork getting lost. The agencies plan to use a federal grant to expand the system to the other DSS offices this year.

One thing that doesn’t work, Nolan said, is helping people fill out applications and sending them to DSS on their own. Some people end up waiting in line at an office for hours before being told to come back the next day, and don’t, she said. Other people’s paperwork gets lost and they never hear from the department. Recently, some people received notices telling them when they were scheduled for interviews, but the notices only arrived after the interview date had passed. At one point, she said, people coming to End Hunger Connecticut for help with the applications said they had been sent by DSS workers.

Nolan noted that End Hunger Connecticut has an advantage the department doesn’t: Its workers can develop expertise because they work only on SNAP, while DSS eligibility workers deal with all of the agency’s programs and screen every applicant for each one. The workers at End Hunger Connecticut learn about glitches people face because applicants come to them, while individual DSS workers might not see such problems often.

The Connecticut Association for Community Action is also seeking to expand the role community action agencies can play in helping people get food stamps. An online benefits calculator allows people to see whether they qualify for SNAP and other programs. People can then meet with a caseworker to determine their potential eligibility.

When people ultimately apply for benefits from DSS, the process happens again, said Derek Haviland, the association’s communications and outreach director. The association is seeking to have its work considered more absolute, so it wouldn’t have to be repeated.

“What we’re trying to do is avoid that redundancy that’s occurring right now,” he said.

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Arielle Levin Becker covered health care for The Connecticut Mirror. She previously worked for The Hartford Courant, most recently as its health reporter, and has also covered small towns, courts and education in Connecticut and New Jersey. She was a finalist in 2009 for the prestigious Livingston Award for Young Journalists, a recipient of a Knight Science Journalism Fellowship and the third-place winner in 2013 for an in-depth piece on caregivers from the National Association of Health Journalists. She is a 2004 graduate of Yale University.

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