Lost paperwork, benefit delays, being hung up on or treated rudely – those are just some of the problems faced by some residents of Allegheny County as they try to navigate through the Pennsylvania Department of Public Welfare for either food assistance or health benefits. On Wednesday, Just Harvest, an agency which helps connect people to services, held a meeting with DPW Secretary Beverly Mackareth and concerned residents who outlined problems they’ve had and some of what they’d like to see going forward.
“They need to update their phone system,” said Brian Cura, a Mt. Washington resident who was denied food stamp benefits because of lost documents, then spent time navigating the phone system. “I kept getting dropped, dropped calls. When I got somebody they were very rude, and even when they call me they’re very rude. So we need to either improve customer service training or get better people in there.”
Secretary Mackareth said the phone system was recently updated, and improvements should be noticeable, though it will still take some time for everyone to get used to the system and iron out the bugs. Overall, Mackareth said there is a systemic problem and therefore the entire DPW system is being re-evaluated. With about 17,000 employees and a budget of $28.4 billion, change will not come fast.
“We do need to do better and we know we need to better,” said Mackareth. “I’m not coming in here and saying, ‘we’re doing everything great.’ A lot of the realities are that for some of the things that we want to do, we don’t have the dollars to do it. It sounds like we have lots of dollars, right? But all those dollars have to go to services.”
Speakers at the forum included a woman with three children who has been trying to get medical assistance for one of them who is seriously ill. She has been denied due to lack of paperwork, though she said she has sent in all requested documentation. She said she’s also been treated rudely by multiple people, echoing what many others said – that there is a cultural problem at the DPW.
“I think what the problem is in the office, it’s not the civil service test, it’s that they profile everybody as being uneducated,” said Brown. “I don’t believe that this system was put into place as a lifestyle, it’s a stepping stone to help people get on their feet.”
“It’s a safety net,” replied Mackareth, but Brown said you’re not treated that way when trying to obtain services. As another woman outlined her plight and pointed out that she has a master’s degree, Mackareth said she understands the larger problem.
“I know some of it is systemic, I get that,” she said. “Some of it is also cultural. It’s based on the fact that you have offices that tend to believe the worst of people sometimes, or that everybody doesn’t want to work or everybody’s here to get what they can get, and that’s not true.”
Mackareth said the civil service test, which public employees must take prior to being hired should be re-examined, and she said she believes workers in county offices should make it a priority to meet people face to face to understand the diverse clientele for which they are working.
Just Harvest and several residents also presented the secretary with a formal list of demands:
- Revamp the Department of Public Welfare's phone system
- Increase voicemail capacity on caseworkers' phones
- Send out computer-generated notices to consumers to confirm their verification documents have been received and alert them to what documents are still needed
- When consumers deliver documents in person at CAO, scan verification documents on site immediately and give receipt to consumers
- Caseworks must treat all consumers with dignity and respect
- Data should be transparent
- Secretary Mackareth should include substantially increased staffing of CAOs in DPW's departmental budget request and fight for inclusion in the governor's proposed budget for 2014-15
Makareth listened to the demands and addressed each one, but reiterated that change will take time in the large system.