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Richmond social services workers beg for help amid staffing woes, high caseloads: 'Why can't we be heard?'

Posted at 6:38 PM, Feb 27, 2023

RICHMOND, Va. -- Some workers with the City of Richmond's Department of Social Services said they're struggling to get out of bed each morning and frequently finish their shifts in tears due to the mounting stress and pressure of their jobs.

They believe at the center of the challenges are significant staffing shortages, which have taken a toll on their mental, emotional, and physical health.

“You do have some people that have walked out that door with nowhere else to go. They just couldn't take it anymore," they said. “A lot of us have established migraines. We have established mental situations where you just feel like nothing we do is enough.”

After the CBS 6 Problem Solvers aired a report in mid-February about how the staffing issues have caused residents to face delays in benefits including SNAP and Medicaid, two employees, who wished to remain anonymous, are sharing what it's like on the inside.

“We’re still processing applications from the beginning of January. We just finished some from December," they said. "In the meantime, they have not gotten food stamps or Medicaid depending on what they're applying for."

They said they receive between 3,200 to 3,500 applications for services every month, a number that has doubled since the pandemic. Before COVID-19 hit, they said they received about 1,500 applications monthly.

Currently, they said there are only nine full-time staff members handling intake, with a handful of part-time workers and supervisors.

The staffing dilemma had led to a months-long backlog in processing requests while families potentially in need of food or healthcare wait in limbo.

"Our hands are kind of tied because we just don't have the bodies," they said. “We really are struggling, and we are sorry for the wait. We're sorry for the delays. We're doing the absolute best that we can do.”

Richmond City spokesperson Petula Burks said Social Services currently has 74 vacancies and 120 unfunded positions out of 481 total employees. Specifically, in the benefits program, Burks said there are currently 165 total positions, but 25 are vacant. 74 positions are not funded.

"Our caseloads are outpacing our staffing levels. We continually applaud our staff who are giving their all under challenging circumstances," Burks previously told CBS 6.

The workers said they're sometimes pulling seven-day work weeks and hours in daily overtime to meet the needs of Richmonders, but they're pleading for help.

“A lot of workers, a lot of people are saying, why won't they come rescue? Why can't we be heard?” they said. “We're fighting. We're fighting to continue. We're fighting to push forward.”

Their request is for management and city leaders to "actively listen" to the needs of staff and present solutions.

"The words come out, but there's no action behind the words," they said.

They added, "This is the time that you notify your city councilman. This is the time that you notify your mayor. This is the time that you say, 'What is going on over there?'"

What keeps them showing up to work every day, despite the challenges, is their passion for helping others.

"I love to be able to be of help to the citizens," they said. "The people that say, 'thank you, I was just trying to figure out how I was going to feed my kids,' or 'my grandma needs her medication,' or 'we're trying to figure out how the hospital is going to get paid.' So when you hear that, it gives you that extra 'mmph' to keep going."

But they said, unless something changes, they believe the department will continue to lose workers.

"It starts from the top. Richmond City is not a bad place to work. It's not, but you see the news. Every day, there's something about a division within the City of Richmond. The entire city is struggling, so it's not just social services. It's not just the police department. It's not just the jail. It's not just the school system. It's as a whole. So, we need to be able to come together and talk to the ones that are doing it to figure out what tools we can use."

Social services departments in surrounding localities are also facing staffing shortages.

HENRICO:

Henrico County Social Services currently has 28 vacancies out of 222 positions. Director Ty Parr said all vacancies are in the process of recruitment and hiring, and all positions are funded by the county.

"As far as staffing issues, I would say that we used to get hundreds of applications pre-pandemic. Now, we see maybe 20-30 in recruitments, and many of them do not have experience or transferable skills," Parr said.

CHESTERFIELD-COLONIAL HEIGHTS:

Chesterfield-Colonial Heights Social Services currently has 43 vacancies out of 249 positions department-wide. In the benefits program, there are 10 vacancies out of 113 positions.

"All of Chesterfield-Colonial Heights Social Services positions are funded through the county’s budget. None of the positions are frozen and the county’s budget department sees DSS positions as critical given the impact the pandemic has had on workloads," Director Kiva Rogers said.

Rogers added the department has seen an "unprecedented" increase in workloads, particularly in SNAP and child care. She said there's also been an increase in customer calls due to the implications of the public health emergency ending.

PETERSBURG:

Petersburg Social Services currently has 28 vacancies out of 83 positions. In the benefits program, there are 12 vacancies.

Despite staffing issues, Director Norris Stevenson said there haven't been significant delays in serving benefits. He said the department is meeting the standard of 97% timeliness for processing cases.

"As far as difficulty in reaching workers, we have heard and attempted to address the situation with a change in our phone system not relying on the switchboard operator as the first contact. Responsiveness is still predicated on the worker addressing calls amidst their case processing. Some delays are customer driven as documents are often processed based upon receipt," Stevenson said.

He added turnover in the agency has been exasperated by an "inconsistent compensation scale" throughout the Commonwealth.

"Employees utilize PDSS as a point of entry (especially entry-level positions), upon completion of training, other LDSS's offer greater compensation to staff who are caseload ready," Stevenson said.

HANOVER:

Hanover Social Services has three vacancies out of 64 total positions.