Caseworkers: Fewer face-to-face interviews for food stamp applicants

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by Diana Zoga / News 4

KMOV.com

Posted on November 19, 2013 at 7:56 PM

Updated Tuesday, Nov 19 at 8:00 PM

 (KMOV) -- At the Department of Social Services Family Support Division Office on Chouteau Avenue, several people who were there to apply for benefits like food stamps told News 4 that they were told they didn’t have to show up in person. 

“You used to have to come down here.  You don’t anymore,” said one woman who did not want to go on camera.

Eligibility Specialist Holly Roe told News 4 that caseworkers were told to “strongly encourage” people to fill out applications on their own and leave them in a drop box in the lobby.  Caseworkers would then follow up with a phone interview, instead of a face-to-face interaction.

“Most of us no longer know our caseloads; we don’t know our clients anymore. Our clients no longer know us.  It’s a huge wedge,” said Roe.

She says she’s concerned people are discouraged from getting help in person.  Some, she said, may not be comfortable filling out the application on their own or may not understand what other benefits they may be eligible for.

Still others say that fewer face-to-face interviews could open the door to fraud.

“One of the ironies is if you are somebody who is not genuinely in need, we think it’s probably easier for someone to commit fraud, for somebody to get onto a program if they don’t ever have to sit down with somebody face to face and sit down and explain to them why they need help,” said Bradley Harmon, President of Communications Workers of America Local 6355.  The union represents Family Support Division “front line” staff.

Glenn Koenen, Chairman of the non-profit Hunger Task Force for the Missouri Association for Social Welfare says the state is trying to reorganize and streamline its workload.  The Department of Social Services has faced ongoing budget cuts and Koenen acknowledges that it could save money for the state.  But he says it has been a “bumpy road”.

“The state needs to modernize.  There’s no doubt about that.  Their computers are obsolete, their business models are obsolete.  And, it could work out.   The problem is they’re using families here in the St. Louis area as guinea pigs,” said Koenen.

“My fear is that thousands of families that should be getting food stamps right now aren’t getting them because they can’t navigate the new process.  It puts a lot more emphasis on what the person does themselves.  And, the food stamp forms are very complicated, the information is very complex, and a lot of people are falling through the cracks right now,” Koenen added.

The spokesperson for the Department of Social Services wouldn’t return phone calls for comment on Tuesday, only responding by email. 

Spokesperson Rebecca Woelfel didn’t directly address whether the state is asking workers to avoid face to face interactions in some offices. 

In an email Woelfel wrote, “To apply for Food Stamps, an individual must complete the Food Stamp application form and return it to any Family Support Division (FSD) office.  The Family Support Division has offices in every county and in the City of St. Louis.  Individuals can also return the application in-person, by mail, or by fax. To determine if an individual is eligible to receive Food Stamps, federal law requires the Family Support Division to conduct an interview with the applicant. The interview can done be in-person or by phone.”

On the Department of Social Services own website, the instructions for applying for SNAP (food stamp benefits) state that a face to face interview must be completed unless the applicant asked for a waiver due to a hardship. 

Phone interviews aren’t a novel concept.  In reviewing other states procedures, it’s clear in person interviews aren’t always required.

But Roe says it wasn’t the norm at her office and the switch has created confusion.

“This is a problem created, not by the workers.  It’s a problem created by other individuals - specifically in Jeff City,” she said.

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