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Residents frustrated as skyrocketing caseloads, staffing shortages ‘wreak havoc’ on Richmond Social Services

Posted at 6:36 PM, Feb 15, 2023

RICHMOND, Va. -- The City of Richmond is grappling with a shortage of workers in its Department of Social Services, coupled with a significant increase in caseloads, causing employees to feel "exhausted" and residents to feel "frustrated."

Latisha Carson, a care coordinator with a local home healthcare group, works with hundreds of senior citizens across Central Virginia. A big part of her job is to connect people to resources, including Medicaid, SNAP benefits and health assessments, through social services.

But when it comes to dealing with Richmond's Department of Social Services, she said it can take up to weeks or months to get benefits approved or even talk to a case worker.

"It's frustrating, especially with our seniors and disabled people who are trying to navigate the system," Carson said. "It should definitely be easier for them to get the services and the benefits that they need."

Carson said reaching a real person through the city's customer service number has proven to be an ongoing challenge.

“The first time I ran into this situation, I ran across the street and sat in my car and cried with the client, because I was disappointed," Carson said.

On Wednesday, Carson met with CBS 6 outside the DSS building to show reporter Tyler Layne the process of trying to get assistance.

Carson was unable to reach an operator by calling the provided phone number and was also unable to talk with a case worker in person when she went inside the DSS building. She was told a supervisor would contact her at a later time.

“When you go here, they turn you right away. We didn’t see anyone when I just went in," Carson said.

“What do you do next if you can’t get in contact with this case worker or the general number? Where do you go from there?” Layne asked.

“Exactly. Where do we go? It’s a circle. Imagine being 70, 80, 90 years old going through this," Carson said.

Explaining challenges that DSS is currently facing, City of Richmond spokesperson Petula Burks said COVID-19 "wreaked havoc" on social services employees, doubling and even tripling their number of cases.

"Our caseloads are outpacing our staffing levels. We continually applaud our staff who are giving their all under challenging circumstances," Burks said, adding that similar organizations across the nation are also struggling.

One DSS employee, who wished to remain anonymous, said the staffing shortage has led to delays in benefits for residents.

"We are so drained and exhausted. How can we get this out there? Clients are very upset benefits are delayed, but we just don't have the bodies to do the work," the worker said.

Burks said out of 481 total positions across the department, 74 are currently vacant. She said an additional 120 positions are not funded. Specifically, in the benefits program, Burks said there are currently 165 total positions, but 25 are vacant. An additional 74 positions are not funded.

“They are angels on earth," Councilwoman Stephanie Lynch said about the city's DSS employees. "These are frontline workers that are there for people doing very hard work."

Lynch said the department's human services technicians, who are dealing with tasks such as processing applications, are doing their best to meet the needs of residents, but they're stretched thin.

"It is absolutely critical that those applications get processed in the shortest time that we can, but when you're on the other end of that processing eligibility, you may have a thousand other cases. That person may call in several times to try to check in on their application, rightfully so, and they also have a myriad of other needs," Lynch said.

Lynch, a social worker herself, said human services technicians make about $17 to $26 per hour, which she recognized is not a high wage. However, she said there's "a great deal of support" around raising those wages.

"Part of the reason why I think you saw such a push for collective bargaining, for me in my heart and the reason why I really was championing that, is we want to see our workers not only have a seat at the table but be able to push for those higher wages," Lynch said.

Burks and Lynch said recruitment efforts are a top priority.

“So, the best thing that we can do, of course, have to make a shameless plug, come work for the City of Richmond," Lynch said.

Burks said the city recently extended offers to 11 candidates who could start as early as March if they accept.

Additionally, she said the city brought on 16 temporary staff from other localities to work part-time after hours and on weekends. Eight supervisors have also been assigned to work after hours and on weekends to process cases.

Burks said the community can do the following to help with the timely processing of applications:

  1. Make sure to include all documentation when they turn in their paperwork
  2. Make sure their contact information is up to date
  3. If you know someone who wants to be a public servant, Richmond social services is hiring

While Carson said she understands the staffing dilemma, she said the city's most vulnerable populations cannot afford to wait when they are struggling with housing and food insecurity.

"We cannot allow our seniors and disabled community to fall by the wayside. We see that there is an issue. What are we going to do to fix it?" Carson said.