By Megan Poinski
As state dollars got tighter and average incomes got lower, the state’s social services offices were nearly 1,100 employees and $50 million short of what was needed to meet demand according to a new study from the Maryland Budget and Tax Policy Institute.
Institute Director Neil Bergsman said that his institute has looked at the staffing levels of social services offices for years. But at the beginning of this year, after the economy started improving and the University of Baltimore’s Schaefer Center for Public Policy released some numbers on caseloads and staffing levels for assistance programs, Bergsman felt the institute should take a close look at it.
He found the numbers staggering. By the institute’s calculations, the state needs 640 more case managers and 241 more clerks, along with 94 more supervisors. Many of these missing employees would work for the state in local offices, and they are most likely to work for the Department of Human Resources.
As employee numbers went down, the economy drove the need for assistance programs up.
“Human Resources have received a double hit,” Bergsman said. “They were losing positions while their workload was going up. …Social Services is definitely in the running for the department that was hit the worst in the recession.”
‘The waiting room was horrific’
The numbers revealed in the study are not news to people working in local social services offices. Instead, they are proof of what employees called a nightmare.
Baltimore County had the second most short-staffed department, according to the study. Researchers estimated that county aid offices needed about 54% more staff – or 189 more people working there.
Maureen Robinson, spokeswoman for the Baltimore County Social Services Department, said that hiring freezes dating back nearly a decade had already depleted staffing levels. Before the recession hit, each employee had been handling 600 to 700 cases.
Then employees left, the economy worsened, and more people found themselves applying for government assistance. In 2009 and 2010, Robinson said, the average employee’s caseload nearly doubled to about 1,200 cases. Employees worked all hours to finish paperwork. Deadlines for federally funded programs were missed. People had to wait longer to receive services. And employees’ stress levels went through the roof.
“The waiting room was horrific for most of 2010,” Robinson said. “It was full all the time, and we had lines going out the door of people waiting for service.”
With the increased need for service and the reduction in staff members to provide it, calls complaining to the director also dramatically increased. And then a woman named Miraclye Thompson sued the state because she was not receiving the assistance she applied for in a timely fashion.
The state reassessed its level of service, allowed more employees to be hired, and moved to a position where it was processing claims more quickly. The office in Baltimore County got between 12 and 20 new employees, Robinson said.
Now, things are not quite as stressed and slammed, Robinson said, but the offices are still busy.
Solving the problem
While the lawsuit – and the reshuffling of priorities – did solve some of the problems, Bergsman said that it doesn’t solve everything.
In 2002, the University of Baltimore’s Schaefer Center for Public Policy analyzed the staffing levels needed by local social services departments, which is where the number of missing-but-necessary employees and the $50 million figure come from.
The study also mentions the need for more technology in the department to make it easier and faster to process paperwork, claims and applications. Some funds to do this were included in the fiscal 2012 budget.
Bergsman said that the state needs to start figuring out ways to raise revenues in order to continue to provide services in all sectors of government – not just social services.
“We can’t keep balancing the budget with a steady diet of cuts,” he said. “We need a balanced approach.”