HARRISBURG -- The state is "chronically understaffed" in terms of caseworkers who process benefits like food stamps and Medicaid at local county assistance offices, according to a report issued last week by the union that represents those employees.
Ten years ago, the Pennsylvania Department of Public Welfare employed far more caseworkers -- about 8,000 -- to serve about 850,000 food stamp clients and 1.5 million Medicaid recipients.
Today, there are about 4,400 caseworkers, and the rolls of those receiving assistance have swelled to 1.8 million food stamp recipients and more than 2.1 million Pennsylvanians on Medicaid.
Each caseworker is responsible for the eligibility of about 660 people, in addition to helping new applicants, according to the report from the Service Employees International Union, Local 668, which represents caseworkers in offices in all 67 counties.
The DPW "is committed to finding solutions to reduce workload and improve customer service," said a statement from the agency in response to the report.
The report was issued last week in response to a study released in October that found DPW was failing to provide basic customer service in many instances, and many clients had experienced lost paperwork, or could not reach a person by phone, sometimes resulting in lost benefits. For instance, 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, according to a study released in October by Pittsburgh anti-hunger nonprofit Just Harvest.
The union's report is not intended to contradict any of Just Harvest's findings, it said.
Caseworkers are frustrated by the understaffing and lack of support, said Beth Mikus a supervisor in the DPW's Liberty District office Downtown and chapter chair of SEIU Local 668 for Allegheny County.
Not having the time or resources to properly deal with clients makes the job more challenging for caseworkers and more frustrating for those seeking assistance, she said.
"When you are dealing with livelihoods -- when you are dealing with feeding children and making sure people can go to the doctor's, [clients] want a name, they want a face," she said.
"When you begin to know your clients, it makes life a lot easier ... You can pick up the phone and say, 'Hey, I'm looking for your paperwork.' "
The DPW said it is advocating for additional county assistance office positions as part of the budget process. In the current fiscal year budget, it added over 200 additional positions in county assistance offices, it said.
"We strive to do the best we can with limited resources, are always looking for ways to improve and will take all of the suggestions from the report into consideration," said a statement from Kait Gillis, an agency spokeswoman.
The union's report also recommended replacing current software programs with ones that are faster and more effective at weeding out clearly ineligible applications, and better software for scanning client documents.
"The scanners used for most ATMs are more sophisticated than what is used in [county assistance offices]," the report stated.
A Just Harvest official said the organization hopes to work with the union to push Gov. Tom Corbett for improved staffing in the department, which its own report also recommended.
"DPW is not operating as intended -- as a safety net for those fallen on hard times -- but as the worst stereotype of an underfunded, overburdened and inefficient bureaucracy," said a statement from Maria Muzzie, an organizer with Just Harvest.
Kate Giammarise: email@example.com, 1-717-787-4254 or on Twitter @KateGiammarise.