Despite notifying the state several times that she was now working a second job -- which could impact her food stamp benefit eligibility -- Tammy Toth said she never heard from her caseworker.
Never, that is, until she was contacted by the Department of Public Welfare and told her benefits had been overpaid by $1,800, which she must repay.
"[It] hangs over my head," she said, speaking Wednesday to state Department of Public Welfare Secretary Beverly Mackereth. "I have no way to pay it."
Ms. Toth was one of a number of people who shared stories with Ms. Mackereth of lost paperwork, numerous unreturned phone calls and generally poor customer service when trying to sign up for or renew food stamp benefits.
"I'm here today to ask you to help increase customer service, so that what happened to me will not happen to others," Ms. Toth said.
The meeting was organized by anti-hunger nonprofit Just Harvest. A report released by the group Wednesday said the department is failing to provide consumers with basic services needed to maintain their benefits -- such as not processing paperwork, subjecting callers to long hold times or disconnections, and always-full caseworker voice mail boxes.
The problems are "widespread and systemic," the report noted. Among the organization's findings: 85 percent of test phone calls could not reach a human being, and 66 percent of consumers surveyed reported disconnects and high call volume messages from the state's call center.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture, which oversees the food stamp program, has told the DPW it must improve the "timeliness" of its food stamp eligibility processing.
Ms. Mackereth pledged she would have Ms. Toth's case reviewed.
"That's great, but I want to make sure we highlight the systemic problem here," said Rochelle Jackson, public policy advocate for Just Harvest.
The report recommended a complete overhaul of the agency's phone system; increasing voice mail capacity on worker's phones; confirming receipt of documents from consumers; document scanning for consumers delivering paperwork in person; transparent data on the numbers of dropped calls, hold times, voice mail full frequency and lost verification documents; and substantially increased staffing for county assistance offices in the governor's proposed budget for 2014-15.
The report also asked for a little dignity for the beneficiaries, saying employees should treat all clients with respect.
"We do need to do better, and we know we need to do better," Ms. Mackereth said. "I'm not here to say we're doing great."
Test calls and surveys for the report were conducted by volunteers from the University of Pittsburgh School of Social Work.
Other concerns voiced Wednesday included rude case workers who belittle clients, several consumers testified.
"They profile everybody as being uneducated," said one woman, who asked to be identified only as Jennifer, who had tried unsuccessfully to enroll her son in Medicaid. "I'm 38 years old, I worked every day since I was 16 years old."
More than 1.8 million people receive food stamp benefits in Pennsylvania.
Federal funding for the food stamp program will be reduced Friday, due to the expiration of stimulus funds that had temporarily increased, starting in 2009. The 5.4 percent reduction is expected to translate into cuts of about $29 per household per month for a family of three, or $36 per household per month for a family of four.
The DPW began notifying recipients of the reduction beginning last week; in 2012, the average monthly benefit per household in Pennsylvania was $265.86.
Kate Giammarise: firstname.lastname@example.org, 1-717-787-4254 or on Twitter @KateGiammarise.