The state Department of Social Services has received approval to hire 26 retired workers on a temporary basis to process food stamp applications.

The food stamp program has come under fire after federal officials warned that the state could face financial sanctions if it does not improve its performance significantly. Connecticut has one of the nation’s worst records for processing food stamp applications on time and providing accurate benefits levels, and the worst rate of wrongly denying or terminating food stamps.

DSS officials have said the problems stem in part from the loss of staff to process applications while demand for assistance increased, leaving workers with massive caseloads. The number of residents receiving food stamps–known officially as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP–rose by 30 percent from the 2009 to 2010 fiscal years, and is now more than 345,000.

The department had 648 workers handling eligibility for state programs in 2009, but lost 120 workers to early retirements that year, and was only permitted to hire 58 replacements. The 586 workers currently doing intake and case management–which involves screening applicants for all department programs, not just food stamps–are responsible for an average of 1,750 cases per month, according to DSS.

Last month, the department received approval to refill 21 vacant eligibility positions. The department is still discussing other possible resources with the governor’s budget office, spokesman David Dearborn said.

The 26 retirees can work up to 120 days per year at up to 75 percent of their old salaries. Because they know the eligibility system–which uses an outdated mainframe computer system–they won’t need training. Commissioner Michael P. Starkowski told legislators that it can take three to six months to train staff.

Twenty-four of the retirees will work solely on food stamp applications and two will work on pilot projects involving processing applications.

Last year, the department used 24 temporary retired workers to handle SNAP applications, but their work ended in December.

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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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