By CHRISTINE HOMAN
Capital News Service
LANSING – Long lines and wait times are now common-place as the Department of Human Services (DHS) faces growing numbers of people seeking assistance.
Michigan has a record-high 1.8 million people on Medicaid and 1.7 million on food assistance, according to Edward Woods, director of communications for DHS.
The largest increase has been in food stamp recipients, indicating more people are having trouble meeting basic needs. Since 2008 there has been a 24.6 percent jump in the monthly average number of households receiving food assistance per month
That’s why DHS employees are facing increasing caseloads.
According to Woods, the average caseworker handles more than 700 cases, more than double the number in 2002.
Even so, DHS hasn’t added significantly to its staff.
“They know people are going without and that affects workers emotionally, because they know there’s suffering out in the community,” said Ray Holman, legislative liason for the United Auto Workers Local 6000, said., which represents the caseoworkers.
Holman also said that workers frequently deal with threats from clients. In November, seven workers testified before the House Appropriations Subcommittee on Human Service that they had been threatened or assaulted.
But, Holman said there have been several instances of workers being attacked with guns and knives.
Meanwhile, the department has responded to the demand by allowing more people to sign up for services through its online program known as MiBridges.
“Our main concern is making sure we’re serving these vulnerable citizens during these challenging economic times,” Woods said.
But, Holman says the system that workers use to help clients, known as Bridges, actually slows them down because it wasn’t designed to deal with so many cases.
Woods said that DHS has taken steps to ease the burden on its staff, they are still working long hours.
Holman says it needs to hire an additional 700 people to deal with the caseload.
Tim Kelly, director of the Lenawee County DHS, said caseworkers in his office are busy from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m.
“It’s really is a monumental task to keep people’s benefits going, given today’s economy and that information changes so rapidly,” Kelly said.
The Lenawee office will soon add four workers but will still confront a high number of cases, he said.
It’s also possible that the department will lose staff due to Gov. Jennifer Granholm’s proposal to encourage state workers to retire.
Judy Putnam, director of communications for the Michigan League for Human Services, expressed concern that not only would the state lose experienced people, but that retirees might not be replaced, leading to increased strain on those who remain.
“That means a lot of people with experience will be leaving state government, and these are really complicated programs and tough to administer,” said Putnam. “In the past, when we’ve had early-out provisions and there’s been a lot of expertise lost, we’ve seen error rates go up.”
The expected impact of the proposed retirement incentives won’t be known until Feb. 11 when the Granholm administration propose it’s budget to a joint meeting of the House and Senate Appropriation committees.
Kelly said, “I have to wait and see how that’s going to impact people further as far as getting their jobs done. It’s way too premature to even speculate about that.”
In contrast to DHS, the Department of Energy, Labor and Economic Growth has taken more aggressive steps to deal with the 6.3 percent increase in unemployment cases in the last year, according to Norm Isotalo, a department specialist.
The department has opened two temporary problem resolution offices and hired 500 new staff members. The Unemployment Insurance Agency has extended hours, expanded online services, and increased phone capacity by 40 percent.
According to Woods, DHS plans to expand online services to ease some of the workload and make it easier for clients to get assistance. The specifics of the change are expected to be announced in April.
Until then, Kelly says his employees are working around the clock to meet demand.
“More things are asked of them and they just find a way to get them all done,” said Kelly. ”Maybe as not as fast as they could before, but they’re still getting them done.”
© 2010, Capital News Service, Michigan State University School of Journalism. Not to be reproduced without permission.