Sacramento residents who need help buying food or accessing health care may be getting caught in a frustrating phone loop.
Since the pandemic began in March, many new applicants for CalFresh “food stamps” or Medi-Cal have experienced long hold times over the phone and processing times of up to a month, as a result of both a backlog of new cases and a lack of county workers, according to recent data from the Sacramento County Department of Human Assistance.
“There’s a lot of desperate people out there, and the welfare department is essentially closed,” said Grace Galligher, an attorney with the Coalition for California Welfare Rights Organizations. “The major problem is that, for whatever reason, Sacramento County does not deem the welfare department to be essential.”
For people like Alice Luna, an unhoused trans woman, securing CalFresh food benefits during the pandemic has been a process. Luna applied for them in March but said she didn’t receive her CalFresh until August.
“I had a caseworker sign up for me online, and then I got a call for an interview within a day or two, so I thought everything was going OK,” Luna said. Because of her housing status, she qualified for expedited electronic benefits. “And then didn’t hear anything, didn’t have anyone to call really, and then I couldn’t even get online. I pretty much gave up.”
In the meantime, she stayed on friends’ couches and got money for food through doing favors or sex work. But she was upset that it was so hard to get a basic necessity.
According to the county's most recent data from June, less than a third of expedited food stamp benefits were being processed within the legally required time of three days or less. The average processing time for CalFresh applications ranges from 24 to 30 days.
Gallagher says her organization started to track CalFresh delays after they heard complaints.
“We started getting calls, saying, ‘I can’t get a hold of my worker, I can’t get this done,’” Galligher said.
A spokesperson with the Department of Human Assistance said that, between February and April, the amount of people applying for CalFresh benefits more than doubled. At this same time, the Department also experienced a 50% decrease in staff, according to an email from a county spokesperson.
M.T., a former employee at the Department of Human Assistance, processed CalFresh and Medi-Cal benefits during the pandemic. (CapRadio is using his initials only because he fears losing his current job by speaking out.) He says it was already understaffed before the pandemic.
In March, many employees over 65 or with underlying health conditions were sent home to prevent the spread of COVID-19, according to a county spokesperson. They were also given four extra weeks of paid time off. But M.T. said these employees could not process and approve benefits applications remotely.
“They didn’t provide us with the tools, or they claimed they didn’t have the capacity to provide us with that,” M.T. said.
He also saw phone wait times increase dramatically once the pandemic hit, simply because there were fewer people to take calls. At some point over the summer, he says the department started shortening the hours they allowed calls because call volume was so high.
A county spokesperson says the department is currently working on giving more staff the ability to work remotely, and also on ways to help staff who haven’t been able to return because of childcare issues.
About 80 percent of the DHA’s workforce has now returned, the spokesperson said, and is working either from their offices or remotely, though they couldn’t say how many of those working from home were able to approve new applications.
The spokesperson also says current wait times are around an hour.
Meanwhile, applications for benefits are still piling up.
“Even now, as it has been through COVID, it can take up to an hour or an hour-and-a-half to get a worker on the phone,” said Amy Dierlam, CalFresh Outreach Coordinator for River City Food Bank. “I was on wait today for 50 minutes, and then I got hung up on, which does happen, as well.”
In the most recent budget proposal being considered by the county board of supervisors, health services is slated to see a $6 million reduction, with Child and Adult Services possibly losing $300,000.
CapRadio provides a trusted source of news because of you. As a nonprofit organization, donations from people like you sustain the journalism that allows us to discover stories that are important to our audience. If you believe in what we do and support our mission, please donate today.