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Processing delays at Essex welfare office highlight 'frailty' of system, employees say

By Jessica Mazzola | NJ Advance Media for
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on January 26, 2015 at 7:30 AM, updated January 26, 2015 at 7:34 AM

Residents line up outside Newark's welfare office in this file photo (Warren S.Westura)Jessica Mazzola | NJ Advance Media for

NEWARK — Employees of the Essex County Division of Welfare say the office is riddled with issues, ranging from an increasing caseload and backlogs to an ineffective computer system. But a group of state and county officials who gathered at the office last week for a meeting said a state monitor of the facility should lead to improvements.

“Its not just the boost in the number of clients (the office has experienced over the last several years), it’s how (the system) reacted to it,” said David Weiner, president of CWA Local 1081, the union representing non-supervisory employees of the Essex County Division of Welfare. Over the past several months, Weiner has filed nearly a dozen grievances with the department, many alleging poor or inadequate work conditions and an increased workload.

According to Weiner, the economic downturn combined with the increased eligibility for Medicaid and food stamps after the passage of the Affordable Care Act has led to a steady increase in the number of clients serviced at the center every year since about 2007.

“Many workers have had the number of caseloads they handle double,” since then, he said. But, employees maintain that staffing levels remain the same.

Workers are also dealing with a statewide computer failure that has left welfare office employees across New Jersey processing the state-expanded Medicaid access under Obamacare using an antiquated computer mainframe, or partly by hand. The Essex County office is filled with boxes of files that employees say they often must rifle through to work on each case.

“You literally walk through a maze of boxes and boxes. Try finding a case,” Tatiana Horton, on the staff of the Essex County Board of Social Services, told NJ Advance Media last month.

The state Department of Human Services’ Division of Family Development’s Director Jeanette Page-Hawkins met with county officials at the Essex office Thursday morning, a spokesperson for the Division confirmed. Page-Hawkins “regularly visits the county welfare offices to talk with the administration and staff about programming and operations,” the spokesperson, Nicole Brossoie, said.

Essex County is one of 10 N.J. counties that is being monitored by the state “for compliance with the timely processing of SNAP applications,” Brossoie said. SNAP was formerly known as the state’s food stamps program.

As part of the monitor, the DFD developed a corrective action plan for the county to follow, she said. The state did not comment on specific details of the plan, but Brossoie said “Essex is following its corrective action plan and improvements are underway.”

Atlantic, Bergen, Camden, Middlesex, Monmouth, Ocean, Somerset, Passaic, and Union Counties are also under a state monitor, officials said.

A spokesperson for Essex County declined to comment on the meeting, saying it was a “regular working session,” that considered a “variety of issues.” Anibal Ramos, the Director of Essex County Department of Citizen Services, called the gathering “a routine meeting with the state,” through a statement from his spokesperson. “Nothing out of the ordinary,” he said.

But, current and former employees of the welfare office on Rector Street say the issues are more severe than officials have let on. Though Weiner was not a part of the meeting Thursday, he said he was glad state officials visited the site.

On the 10th floor of the Essex County Division of Welfare Office of Medicaid Services, unboxed clients personal files were stacked up along heating radiators and taking over the hallways. (Photo Courtesy of Communication Workers of America Local 1081)Jessica Mazzola | NJ Advance Media for

“They got to see the crowds (of people waiting), and they got to see the frailty of their system.”

Essex has historically had the highest number of welfare recipients in the state.

In October of 2014 – the most recent statistics available from the state – Essex County reported 66,955 households in the county received SNAP benefits, which represents just under 15 percent of the total number of households receiving SNAP across the state.

Across New Jersey, the number of households receiving SNAP benefits jumped 4.9 percent, with Essex having the highest concentration of recipients of any county in the state, the data shows.

However, Essex County did not report the highest percentage increase in SNAP recipients over that time period, and the statewide rates of many other types of assistance, including general and emergency assistance, decreased from Oct. 2013 to Oct. 2014, the state report says.

Statistics for the number of Medicaid recipients – which Weiner says represents one of the largest increases in the county – are not tracked in the state’s monthly reports.

Last year, the union hired Bruce Nigro, a consultant and former director of the department in Essex County, to conduct a study of its employees and caseload increases from 2007 to 2013, a period that Weiner identified as one of “extreme growth” in terms of the number of cases and eligible applicants at the welfare office.

“When the recession first hit, that’s when we started to see the number of cases increase tremendously,” Nigro, who said he retired nearly five years ago, said in a phone interview. He also cited the Affordable Care Act as helping increase the number of cases.

Nigro’s report, he said, also showed increases in the number of pending, or unprocessed, cases, and in the average length of time cases stay pending. Staffing levels at the facility have remained stagnant, he said.

“Without a good computer system, I don’t see any hope,” Nigro said. “But even with a better system, staffing would still be an issue. Plus, with (a potential new computer system), there is an (employee) learning curve…which will just lead to more backlogs.”

Nigro said an increase in staffing could help compensate for the higher number of cases.

“I spent my career trying to help people,” he said. “What I see happening now is very disappointing.”

Jessica Mazzola may be reached at Follow her on Twitter @JessMazzola. Find on Facebook.