As aid requests pour in, DSS seeks temporary help

Published 12:00 am Tuesday, December 1, 2009

By Kathy Chaffin
Confronted with an overwhelming increase in applications for public assistance, the Rowan Board of Social Services voted unanimously Tuesday night to ask county commissioners to fund three temporary positions to help handle the load.
Social Services Director Sandra Wilkes said it would cost $31,248 to fund three temporary income-maintenance worker positions from March through June. They would be paid $14.23 an hour, which is the beginning rate for the position.
Two of the temporary positions would be for the food stamp program, and one for Medicaid. Wilkes said she would put the request in writing today for the county Board of Commissioners as well as County Manager Gary Page.
Carl Ford, who chairs the Rowan County commission and serves as its representative on the Board of Social Services, said, “We need to do this as quickly as we can.”
Though the county has a freeze on hiring and travel expenses, he said this is a situation that warrants an exception.
Board member John Blair said the positions would probably be needed beyond June, but that could be addressed in the department’s budget request for the 2009-2010 fiscal year.
Blair, reporting on the income-maintenance program, said existing employees worked 475 hours of overtime from October through December trying to handle the increased paperwork. Based on the county’s time-and-a-half comp-time policy, this means those employees are due 713 hours of comp time.
This creates even more of a problem, Blair said, in that they’re too pushed trying to take and process food stamp and Medicaid applications to take any of their comp time.
Pat Spears, income-maintenance program administrator, said employees must use all comp time before they can take any vacation. Depending on their years of service, she said, employees also receive between two and six weeks of vacation a year.
Spears said comp time is meant to be used for occasional situations, not ongoing cases of increased workloads.
Board member Jim Sides agreed. “We need to get away from using comp time,” he said.
Even with as much overtime as the income maintenance workers have accrued, Spears said they’re still running three weeks behind on processing applications.
“Staff can’t work six days out of seven and not see progress at what we’re doing,” she said. “We’ve not seen anything like the numbers we’re seeing now.”
Spears predicted the workload will continue to increase. “We’re not feeling the impact of the Freightliner layoffs yet,” she said.
Applicants having to wait for assistance have made complaints to Wilkes, county commissioners and other county officials.
Another problem with employees working continuous overtime is that they get tired and start making costly mistakes, Spears said, some of which could end up hurting the people applying for help. If an income maintenance worker, for example, makes a mistake on an application for the federally funded food stamp program (now known as the Food and Nutrition Service Program) resulting in the applicant receiving more assistance than that person qualifies for, he or she will have to pay back the difference.
“We don’t want that,” Spears said. “None of us agree with that policy, but we don’t have a choice.”
When employees are asked to work overtime long term, she said they eventually get burned out and leave.
Spears and Wilkes thanked the board for voting to request the temporary positions.
“It is wonderful knowing we have a DSS board that realizes our needs and supports us even in hard times,” Spears said.
Contact Kathy Chaffin at 704-797-4249.