Social Services Workers Straining Under Caseload

Understaffing And Weak Economy Keep Pressure On

September 22, 1991|By Jackie Powder | Jackie Powder,Staff Writer

Cheryl Cogdell, a caseworker in the county's Department of Social Services, arrives at work at 8:30 a.m., interviews clients until 2 p.m., takes a half-hour lunch break and processes emergency applications for food stamps or gas and electric service until she leaves for the day at 4:30 p.m.

"When do you have time to do the work?" asked Cogdell. "We need six additional people to handle the job effectively and give clients the services they want."

Increased caseloads and understaffing are making the lives of social services caseworkers more difficult. Clients seeking public assistance are complaining about caseworkers' bad attitudes and spending all day waiting for help from a caseworker to apply for public assistance.

"I'm afraid to go to the car to change my child's diaper, in case I miss my appointment," said Michele Henkel, who sat in the waiting room with her two young children last week while waiting to applyfor food stamps.

The problem of too few caseworkers and too many clients surfaced last week when County Council Chairman C. Vernon Gray criticized the department after receiving three anonymous letters from clients who said that some workers were rude and uncaring.

Caseworkers don't deny that there are problems in the department. But they point out that increased caseloads, understaffing and harsh economic conditions have made their lives and their clients' lives more difficult.

"I don't think it was fair to all the workers," said caseworker Karen Topper, of Gray's comments. "The economy's bad, caseloadsare large and a lot of people are coming to the office.

"We're hearing our jobs are going to be cut; everyone can have a bad day," Topper said. "I feel the majority of people that come here are treated fairly."

In the packed waiting room of the Social Services office last week, clients talked about unpleasant experiences with caseworkers and long waits for help.

Jacquetta Richardson said that some of the workers she has dealt with expressed "nasty attitudes."

"It's a desperate situation when people become unemployed or disabled," Richardson said. "It's not right for them to talk to them in the manner they do."

Other clients complained about the long waits they facedwhen they came to apply for public assistance. Some said they had been there for four hours that morning.

Betty Eggleston, assistant social services director for income maintenance, acknowledged there may be some workers who have demonstrated bad attitudes, but said that clients frequently become upset because they don't understand the paperwork and time involved in applying for public assistance.

"We might have had a couple with bad attitudes and there really is no excuse for that," Eggleston said. "Sometimes I don't think they really mean to be nasty, but it's picked up that way. When people walk in here,they're upset anyway and any little snag will make them snap.

"These are hard times," Eggleston said. "People come in here who have never been on welfare before. They're thinking, 'I'm a taxpayer, I wantit now,' and maybe it can't be done right away."

The agency is monitoring workers who have been identified as not dealing with clientsappropriately and will require them to participate in customer service training before the department takes punitive measures, Eggleston said.

State budget cuts have placed more work on caseworkers and increased the waiting time for clients.

The 12-member staff in the county's income maintenance division, which processes application forAid to Families with Dependent Children and emergency grants, is short by six caseworkers.

Currently three AFDC workers handle 440 cases each. When one worker goes on maternity leave soon, the others will have to pick up her cases, said Cheryl Cogdell, an intake caseworker in the income maintenance division.

"There's no excuse for a worker being nasty to a client," said Cogdell, "But a lot of times, clients don't realize all that's involved in being understaffed."

Cogdell is one of four intake workers who take AFDC and emergency grant applications. She interviews seven clients four days a week, with eachinterview lasting an hour. Her fifth workday is reserved for paperwork.

She said the department used to have a screener who would conduct the initial client interviews and handle emergency cases.

The man, a retired social services caseworker, worked undercontract, but when the contract expired, the state didn't renew it.

"We tried; if we could have kept him, we would have," Eggleston said. "But when the money runs out, it runs out."

Some clients have complained about the agency's policy of seeing clients on a walk-in basis, saying they end up sitting all day in the waiting room. But workers say that clients would sometimes cancel appointments as many as six times, and at one point the waiting period for an appointment was three weeks.

"The walk-in policy provides services to clients more rapidly," Topper said.

Eggleston said that emergency cases of evictions or gas and electric cut-offs always take priority, which occasionally causesother clients to wait.

"The workers stop and jump at an emergency," Eggleston said. "Who wants to see somebody sit in the street and be homeless or foodless?"

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