Delayed benefits, lack of case workers: Social services leader cites 'substantial challenges' on system

Posted at 8:19 PM, Apr 13, 2023

RICHMOND, Va. -- A top leader with the Virginia Department of Social Services sat down with CBS 6 reporter Tyler Layne to explain the challenges the agency is facing amid a dramatic increase in caseloads, yet a shrinking workforce, factors that are impacting people in need of help across the state.

Richmond resident William Squier reached out to the CBS 6 Problem Solvers following a report revealing that Richmond Social Services is noncompliant with nearly every state and federal standard for the timely processing of applications.

Some Richmonders have also complained that they're dealing with several months of delays in receiving their benefits and said they consistently cannot get in touch with a case worker when they have questions or concerns.

“The whole reason I’m sitting here with you is because I saw your last piece and [thought], 'I’m not alone. It’s not just me,'” Squier said.

 William Squier
William Squier

Squier said he moved from California to Richmond about six months ago, and he's had many troubles getting set up for Medicaid in Richmond-- from his coverage not being secured in time for his first medical appointment to Medicaid not covering his latest dental appointment, which he then paid out of pocket.

Squier said he's been trying to get answers or assistance from a case worker, but he can't get help.

"It's not been easy at all," he said. "I've been trying to get through to my worker and through calling Richmond 311, and I'm just getting no response. The thing that is most is important is I have a medical condition that causes cognitive challenges and emotional issues, and it's really, really impacted those things, and I've kind of given up now."

Asked for his message to those in charge, Squier said, "It may sound simple, but I just want him to know that we are humans. This is really important what you’re doing because people are seeing the personal stories.”

Virginia Department of Social Services Deputy Commissioner of Human Services Carl Ayers
Virginia Department of Social Services Deputy Commissioner of Human Services Carl Ayers

CBS 6 brought his message to Carl Ayers, the Deputy Commissioner of Human Services at the Virginia Department of Social Services.

“That’s a real person that's behind each one of those stories. That person has a need, and so our job and responsibility is to get that need met," Ayers said.

Currently, VDSS serves more than 2.2 million Virginians through its program. The state oversees 120 localities, and the localities are responsible for administering the services.

Virginia is one of eight states in the nation in which localities, not the state, administer benefits and one of 11 states in which localities administer family services.

Since the pandemic, Ayers said the need has soared. For example, the number of Virginians enrolled in Medicaid grew by 700,000 from 1.5 million in 2020 to 2.2 million in 2023. The number of people receiving SNAP grew by 230,000 from 683,000 in 2020 to 913,000 in 2023.

But the system isn't keeping up.

“When you look at our capacity, as our system hasn't grown any larger, so you've got all the new Virginians that we're serving, but we don't have the increased capacity," Ayers said.

And staffing levels are shrinking.

"We have a decreased workforce capacity, so when you have an increased caseload capacity and a decreased workforce capacity, it's really put substantial challenges on our system," Ayers said.

Plus, he said turnover is high, and the salary base sits at a low $36,000.

Richmond, Virginia -- generic drone
Richmond, Virginia

On average, localities are facing vacancy rates between 15-20%.

Here's a look at vacancy rates in Central Virginia, according to data provided by departments in February:

  • Richmond: 20% vacancy rate
  • Chesterfield-Colonial Heights: 17% vacancy rate
  • Henrico: 12% vacancy rate
  • Hanover: 4% vacancy rate
  • Petersburg: 34% vacancy rate

In a previous statement, VDSS said localities were not allocating positions to keep up with the increased pace in caseloads.
"Even if you're allocating positions, how do you make up for the vacancies you're already facing, and plus, the pay is not really going to draw in too many candidates, right?" Layne asked.

"Well, that's the real-life challenge as government employees. What is a market rate salary? What are the supports, where do we put resources, how do we look at those that we're trying to bring into our company?" Ayers responded.

He added, "If we're looking to recruit staff, salary has to be part of that conversation, but the work environment, what we're asking them to do, the challenges that we're putting them into, the trauma they experienced and what they're exposed to and the work they do every day, there's a lot that goes into that that is not just a financial conversation."

Poster image - 2023-04-13T202650.009.jpg

The post-pandemic challenges are taking a toll on localities, including Richmond where performance rates are falling behind.

Richmond is processing overall SNAP applications in a timely manner 66% of the time. Online Medicaid applications are being processed on time 79% of the time.

Those numbers are well below state averages of timely processing and the target of 97% set by the state and federal governments.

“Are those numbers acceptable?” Layne asked.

“It's not about acceptable. It's about a child and family that has a need, and it's about getting that need met, and so for a department that's struggling like the City of Richmond, for the state, we want to support them," Ayers said.

Problem Solvers Stories Richmond DSS

After CBS 6's stories, Ayers said the state reached out to the city to offer assistance.

“We went and had a meeting with the director of Richmond City after the news articles started to come out to talk about what additional supports we could provide from the state level," he said. "Because we are concerned as everyone is when those numbers come out."

Ayers said the state's role in offering assistance, as a supervising body, is limited to providing guidance, technical assistance and support.

"It's important to understand that our local departments are entities of those local jurisdictions," he said.

Ayers said locality challenges are not unique to Richmond and that solutions need to involve collaboration from the federal government and local governments. Funding for localities, he said, comes 85% from the state and federal government, and localities cover the other 15%.

Richmond Department of Social Services
Richmond Department of Social Services

As far as how the state is funded, the General Assembly is responsible for setting the budget for VDSS.

"What do you think needs to change to meet the need?" Layne asked.

"You cannot walk away from this conversation and not talk about workforce, so we have to address our workforce capacity, and so that includes things like salaries and benefits, the culture and those pieces," Ayers responded.

"There just aren't enough people that are out there in order to feel all the jobs," he said.

He added, "We have to look at the tools that we're providing the staff, how is our technology supporting them?"

General Assembly -- Virginia State Capitol Generic Virginia Politics
General Assembly -- Virginia State Capitol.

Some of the technology is outdated or nonexistent.

For example, Ayers said Virginia is the only state in the country to run its $200 million Title IV-E program, which provides assistance to children in the foster care system, by hand.

"The General Assembly gave us funding last year to begin replacing that system because they understand that you can't keep running those type of programs by hand in 2023," he said.

Ayers said the state also needs to look at policies and procedures to make sure they are giving clear guidance and not getting in the way of localities.

CBS 6 has requested an interview with the Richmond Director of Social Services Shunda Giles and is still waiting to schedule one.

Depend on CBS 6 News and for in-depth coverage of this important local story. Anyone with more information can email to send a tip.