In the thick of America’s economic downturn (2008-2009), then-Vermont Gov. Jim Douglas (R) proposed deep cuts to Vermont’s public services and to the workers delivering them on a daily basis. Protest as VSEA members did, many of the cuts were adopted and, to make matters worse, they were coupled with the State making a retirement option available to qualifying state employees—and many accepted the offer.
One state agency that suffered especially hard because of the cuts/retirements was the Department for Children and Families’ Economic Services Division, a part of which delivers 3SquaresVT food benefits to Vermonters in need. For years, workers in this division had consistently been near the top in terms of not making errors when providing 3SquaresVT benefits, but, today Vermont now pays hefty fines to the federal government because our error rate is so high.
So what happened?
For background about some of the highlights since 2009 concerning Vermont’s 3Squares’ program and how and why it went from top-ten to bottom five in less than a decade, please reference this timeline of 3squaresVT snippets pulled since 2009 from VSEA’s in-house news bulletin, the VSEA Week In Action.
- Through a public records request, VSEA obtains documents showing demand for assistance through Vermont’s 3SquaresVT Program (formerly the Food Stamps Program) has risen to its highest levels EVER, primarily due to Vermont’s rocky economy.
- Data indicates a 25 percent increase in program applications in just the past few months.
- In addition to helping Vermonters in need, the 3SquaresVT Program also brings millions of federal dollars to Vermont to help the State administer the critically important program. VSEA members fear a lot of that money, however, could dry up if frontline employees are cut (as is the plan) and the program’s effectiveness will suffer as a result.
- VSEA member comments: “We won’t be able to deliver the same level of service with fewer employees. And with demand increasing like it is, I can’t believe cuts are even being considered.”
- September 20 Times Argus story reports an uptick in the number of Vermonters seeking to use state services—especially AHS programs and services.
- Story highlights the increase of calls for help coming into Vermont 2-1-1, an independent program which connects Vermonters in need to specific state services, such as hunger assistance, child and family welfare, employment assistance, etc.
- “The numbers are reflective of what is going on not only in Vermont, but in the country,” Vermont 2-1-1 Director MaryEllen Mendl tells the paper.
- DCF Commissioner Steve Dale confirms the growing need as well, telling the paper “[Need for food services] numbers went up dramatically last year and they have remained at that higher level. We have seen a continued high demand for services.” The paper reports increases in demand for the State’s 3SquaresVt Program (55,752 individuals to 73,035), the ReachUp Program (12,295 to 13,752) and General Assistance (1,459 households to 2,107).
- Gov. Jim Douglas warns: “The actual peak in requests for public programs is likely to be later.”
- October 19 Free Press story confirms that there really are serious issues with the new automated 3Squares system and Vermonters are suffering as a result.
- According to story, DCF was historically processing 82 to 85 percent of the food stamp applications it received within 30 days, but this fall, says DCF Commissioner Steve Dale, the department was only able to process 62 to 63 percent. This has led to never-before- experienced delays for thousands of new clients seeking entry into 3SquaresVT; most due to the nation’s and Vermont’s horrible economy.
- Story also reports that DCF has been sending clients it cannot service on time a letter stating “The department could not process your application on time due to a temporary increase in our workload.” This “temporary increase” is another issue VSEA is hearing about from its 3Squares members. Dale says in the story that DCF had to cut 11 benefit- eligibility specialists, but employees say that number is much higher when you factor in retirements (most as a result of the recent incentive) and personnel moves out of District offices to the new processing and call centers.
- Employees also complain that the temporary employees hired to help with the workload are receiving superficial training, which means seasoned employees often have to stop what they are doing in order to assist a temp having problems answering questions. In addition, employees are complaining to VSEA that they were trained recently on a system that isn’t yet functional and that the training was at a hotel where employees were housed at peak-season rates and paid mileage to attend (“How is that saving money?” asked one employee).
- Some 3Squares employees say that because the workload has grown so quickly, they are now picking up cases for other employees across Vermont (e.g. Newport employees may be dealing with applicants in Chittenden, etc.) and that when they make phone calls to these clients, the calls are long distance and employees wonder how much DCF’s phone bill has gone up.
- Other employees say they have been working a lot of overtime in order to try and keep up with the demand, some logging as much as 20+ hours of OT a pay period, which employees perceive (correctly!) as another added cost when the State is supposedly trying to save money.
- Nearly all the 3Squares employees VSEA talked with say they are working hard to try and reduce delays from 90 days back to 30 days—but they admit it is not going to get easier any time soon without better planning and functioning systems.
- Some community groups working with needy Vermonters are also quoted in the Free Press story, talking about their dissatisfaction with the way 3Squares is being administered.
- Beth Stern, executive director of the Central Vermont Council on Aging, says the State’s failure to respond in a timely fashion to its clients is causing their employees to have to rectify issues with 3Squares. “It feels like the State’s lack of planning and foresight has negatively affected both our staff and our clients” she says.
- Article concludes with Dale lamenting 3Squares’ current state of affairs and hoping the new system can be launched soon and without errors. “Whether the department will be able to again process 85 percent of its food-stamp applications within 30 days depends on the success of the system—and the overall caseload.”
- VTDigger posts its own account of the many issues hindering the timely delivery of food stamps to a growing population of Vermonters in need.
- Digger explains in detail how the Washington County Hunger Council and the Vermont Campaign to End Childhood Hunger were forced to send out a press release in order to draw attention to the “thousands” of Vermonters are being adversely impacted by the current flaws in DCF’s streamlined delivery service. In fact, the delays and snafus are so bad that Hunger Council Policy Specialist Angela Smith-Dieng is quoted saying the situation has become “a crisis.”
- Digger also reminds how top State officials convened a press conference in March 2010 to showcase AHS’ new “central intake system,” which they proclaimed would make it easier for Vermonters in need to apply for food stamps, government housing assistance or medical care. One official even remarked that the center will be a model for the Challenges for Change government restructuring plan.
- That was March. In November, the center is still plagued with a host of problems and no State official is willing to venture a guess at when all the issues will be addressed adequately. This leaves a lot of frontline DCF employees struggling to effectively perform their duties and having to answer to an increasingly angry public.
- DCF Commissioner Steve Dale e-mails ESD staff on December 2 to inform that the scheduled December 6 full implementation of the department’s ON BASE computer system is being delayed until mid-January, 2011. The ON BASE system is a huge component of the ESD’s ongoing modernization efforts.
- VSEA Director Jes Kraus says, “VSEA recently met with a small group of ESD employees and many in the room had real concerns about the already existing volume of work confronting them, a perceived lack of adequately trained staff and the time it might take to pick up the new computer system—and that’s presuming there are no issues with the computer system itself, which, as we know, has already been a road bump in the recent past.”
- In his e-mail, Dale seems to agree with Kraus, attributing the delay, not to potential ON BASE issues, but primarily to the need for ESD’s thinly stretched workforce to deal with existing backlogs without having the extra headache of having to learn a new computer system.
- Dale also attributes the delay to the State hiring a consultant who will be in Vermont soon to a review ESD’s modernization progress to date and offer his/her opinion, and to the need for additional staff training on the new system.
- Just a day after informing ESD employees of the ON BASE roll-out delay, DCF’s Steve Dale sends another e-mail informing employees that: “We have been authorized to recruit for–and hire up to–20 additional new BPS staff to help us respond to the ever- increasing caseload. We are finalizing the actual decisions about assignment of positions to work stations and hope to begin recruiting next week.
- June 1 Addison Independent features a story about the struggles Economic Services Division (ESD) employees at the Addison office (and nearly every other ESD office statewide, according to what VSEA is hearing from members) are facing due to a huge spike in the number of Vermonters seeking food assistance through the state’s 3SquaresVT Program.
- While the piece acknowledges the spike is largely attributable to the nation’s economic downturn and its ongoing negative impact on working families, it also acknowledges that the State’s 2009 position cuts and early retirement package offer have only exacerbated the current crisis.
- “The recession didn’t just hit our population in general, it hit the state (government) of Vermont as well,” explains Renee Richardson, who directed the 3SquaresVT Program until leaving recently to work in the private sector. “Our budget was strapped and we had to be conscious of staffing. Because we suddenly had so many people participating, caseloads went up. And when caseloads go up, you have a little less time to manage the caseloads if you don’t have a subsequent increase in staff.” But, as the paper notes, “the number of state workers handling 3SquaresVT cases didn’t increase — it decreased.
- Richard Giddings, who currently runs ESD as deputy commissioner of DCF, says the division lost more than 100 employees after early retirement incentives were offered in 2009 to seasoned workers; the incentives were aimed at reducing department costs. But another obstacle arose, adds Giddings. “Not only was the division short-staffed, it also lost experience. The problem with many of our programs is that when somebody retires and you hire somebody new, yes you’re paying them less money, but it takes a couple years to become fully trained. So you lose that expertise and knowledge and the ability to manage a full caseload.”
- Here are some of the 3SquaresVT numbers from the story:
- From March 2002 to March of this year, the number of individual Vermonters receiving 3SquaresVT benefits grew from 40,507 to 96,080;
- The bulk of new recipients joined the program between 2008 and 2011;
- In 1994, a worker’s average caseload was about 300 families. Since then, the average caseload per worker has swelled to 700; and
- In the last decade, the number of Vermonters receiving federal aid through the 3SquaresVT program has exploded, with the statewide caseload 237 percent of what it was 10 years ago.
- Paper quotes Rutland/Addison ESD Regional Manager Karl Felkl on how his office is addressing the demand crisis. He says they are the first to implement a new way of processing applications. Rather than a single caseworker dealing with all programs and every step of a program, workers will now focus their energies by specializing on a particular task. And there will always be workers at the greeting window whose job it is to help people begin their applications or connect with the right specialist. Phone calls pass through a central switchboard and the division often experiences high call volumes. Therefore, the Middlebury and Rutland offices are encouraging applicants of their programs to come directly to one of the two district offices. The goal is to have applicants come to the office with an application, which can also be filed online, and leave that day with 3SquaresVT benefits.“I just want people to know that they can come in here and they will be seen, even if they’re a resident of another county,” said Felkl. “And I don’t see any reason why people wouldn’t be seen within 10 minutes.”
- VTDigger posts story on September 30, detailing the adverse impact staff and training cuts continue to have on the Economic Services Division’s ability to properly dispense 3Squares benefits to Vermonters enrolled in the state’s supplemental nutrition assistance program.
- According to story, in 2011, Vermont had the nation’s second highest error rate (8.53%) when it came to properly dispensing 3Squares’ benefits. The average error rate nationwide is 3.8 % and is determined by the number of program recipients found to be receiving either too many or too little benefits. Vermont’s 2011 error rate prompted the federal government to impose a $341,000 fine on the State and mandate that ESD put half the fine ($170,500) into making improvements to lower the error rate. If, in 2012, ESD is unable to lower its error rate to under 6%, the State will be on the hook to pay the remaining $170,500 fine to the feds. Vermont’s fully calculated 2012 error rate will not be known until January 2013, but through the first quarter of 2012, ESD’s error rate had been reduced to 7.34%
- As the Digger story highlights, the primary reasons cited for ESD’s high error rate are the deep position and training cuts made in recent years throughout the Division.
- “The caseloads continue to grow, and when you reduce your infrastructure you eventually get problems, and that’s what we’ve got,” explained ESD’s Chief of Quality Control Rick Smith. “People are working faster, they’re working harder and they’re working above their sustainable potential, and people make mistakes. In the midst of all that, we have to reestablish our training protocols and reestablish our infrastructure and put whatever efficiencies we can in place to make limited staff resources more effective while still providing good customer service.” With respect to training cuts, Smith said, “Quite frankly, the training should have been ongoing for the years it was postponed in order to save money, and you eventually have to pay for these things. It’s like not keeping up with road maintenance. If you don’t fill the pot holes for three years then you’ve eventually got to replace the whole roadbed.”
- Smith and SNAP Chief Bonnie Brathwaite tell Digger they are confident the error rates can be returned to federal standards by 2013. That’s encouraging and optimistic, but it certainly can’t help that current 3Squares Director James Arena-DeRosa will soon leave his post after just five months on the job.
- Ever since the “cutting exercises” that devastated services and eliminated positions across the state, the many challenges facing workers in the Economic Services Division (ESD) have been well-documented. The demand for ESD services continues to rise rapidly, but the number of employees has been significantly reduced, which has caused ESD to lose federal funding due to a rocketing error rate across the system. In response, VSEA’s new Organizing arm, namely Organizer Robyn Freedner-Maguire, is working closely with the labor team of the ESD Labor/Management Committee to ensure employees’ concerns are being addressed during the meetings and that information from the meetings is being disseminated in a timely fashion to all VSEA ESD members. In the latest ESD employee communique, the labor team reports:
- ESD management has submitted a request to the DCF Commissioner and AHS Secretary, requesting the addition of 41 new positions, to include 22 Benefit Programs’ Specialists, 5 Regional Managers, 1 Long-Term Care Supervisor and a mix of remaining positions;
- Planning for a new intensive 3Squares’ Program training is underway, and it could commence as soon as April 2013;
- Individual ESD employee tracking numbers are not being monitored, only the trends that need attention. ESD employees have told management that the use of a tracker is a source of low employee morale; and
- Reach-Up is asking for additional positions and relaxed standards on the amount of required paperwork, especially given employees’ current caseloads.
- The front page of the September 11 Times Argus features a story about the Department for Children and Families’ 3SquaresVT food program being on the brink of losing federal funds again due to the program’s ongoing (and rising) error rate when administering this critical benefit to Vermonters in need.
- According to the story, in the past two years, DCF has been penalized more than $400,000 because of its error rate, which continues to grow due to accounting problems that have led to overpayments to recipients, wrongful denial of benefits and sometimes cutting eligible recipients off the benefit completely. DCF’s error rate in 2012 was 6.96, or more than twice the national average, but the group Hunger Free Vermont is already predicting that Vermont’s 2013 error rate will be about 9.6 percent, which will lead to even more penalties in the form of lost federal dollars.
- DCF Commissioner David Yacovone tells the paper that 3Squares problems can be traced back to our previous Governor’s infamous “Challenges for Change” cutting exercise, which resulted in the elimination of five trainer positions from the 3Squares program.“If ever there were an example of what happens when you cut budgets indiscriminately, this is a good one,” Yacovone says. “I’m not pointing fingers, but when people cut positions … well, those people are working hard, and there are consequences when that happens.”
- Yacovone—reminding that a spike in Vermonters enrolling in the program coincided with the cuts—does say that DCF will be hiring three new trainers, and he’s hopeful that move should help alleviate some of the problems. Because of the trainer cuts, explains Yacovone, “[DCF was] forced to rely on a buddy system for training. And a buddy system in some places works just fine. But if your buddy doesn’t know his job, he passes on his mistakes. And if you eliminate the training unit for what are rather technical transactions, your error rates are going to go up, and that’s what happened.”
- Hunger Free Vermont’s Executive Director Marissa Parisi tells the paper that something needs to happen fast, saying, “We are concerned that error rates persist which lead to inaccurate benefits and financial hardships for needy families and seniors. We think it is essential the Department for Children and Families make as many interventions as immediately as possible to lessen errors.”
- VSEA Communications Coordinator Doug Gibson says that while Commissioner Yacovone’s analysis of the initial cause of the 3Squares’ error rate spike is correct, VSEA members continue to question when a fix with some real teeth is coming. “It’s been more than three years since the Challenges for Change cuts, but we continue to see a rise in the 3Squares’ error rate. VSEA DCF members have been aware of the program’s problems for years and have repeatedly lobbied for more positions to help remedy the error-rate issue, but, to date, the fix has been kind of patchwork. At some point, State officials, leaders and lawmakers are going to have to make some real and concrete moves to adequately repair this broken system. I’m sure we’ll hear it’s a funding issue, but, working this way, we are losing money, which just deepens the funding hole. VSEA’s 3Squares employees are definitely not happy about the situation, but they are doing the best they possibly can with the limited resources they are currently being provided. The three trainer positions are certainly welcome, but VSEA members are hopeful Commissioner Yacovone can now do a lot more.”
- According to a November 15 story in the Times Argus, DCF Commissioner David Yacovone informed lawmakers that “Vermont will almost certainly its federal benchmarks for the third straight year” and he is “bracing for an additional $370,000 penalty in June 2014. Couple that figure with past penalties, and DCF will have paid nearly $800,000 in penalties due to its high error rate.
- Note: Finally, after years of waiting, lawmakers did recently decide to provide DCF with the necessary funds to re-establish its “training unit,” which Yacovone says will go a long way toward solving the problems that “gave rise to the high error rates.” VSEA DCF members had identified the training issue as a major problem and impediment years ago.
- DCF sends e-mail to 24 employees, informing them they are being singled out for 3Squares’ errors.
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