Workers Blame Low Pay and Understaffing for New York’s Benefits Backlog

Some counties pay social services workers so little, the people who administer benefits end up applying themselves.

Alex Lubben   ·   June 5, 2023
Photo of benefit workers' protest outside their office building in Syracuse
Benefit workers protested outside their office building in Syracuse last month, holding signs that read “More than praise we need a raise” and “We support the vulnerable. Who supports us?” | Courtesy of Sara Fuller

New Yorkers are struggling to get public benefits — and the workers tasked with helping them say they’re mistreated by the same system.

“When I first got here, I’d say to my clients, ‘There’s no difference between you and me except the desk and the phone.’ They’re treated like shit by the government and so am I,” said one social services worker.

Another heads to the local pizzeria each day after he leaves his desk, to work nights as a delivery driver. “Most of the people that I work with have second jobs,” a colleague of his said.

Statewide, poor working conditions are driving social services staff out of their jobs — and worsening public assistance backlogs. Counties across New York routinely blow past deadlines to process applications for benefits like food stamps. County offices and the state agency that oversees them attribute the delays to the pandemic. Employees have another explanation: cuts to their own workplace benefits and pay.

Five workers across the state, most of whom have been granted anonymity to avoid retaliation at work, told New York Focus that their pay had not kept pace with inflation, and that their offices have been unable to replace workers leaving for the private sector. Several said new employees haven’t been granted the benefits that were on offer when more senior staffers started decades ago. Some said that health care and retirement benefits have been pared back, and that their colleagues apply themselves for the public benefits they give out.

And while the pandemic did increase the number of applications, total caseloads aren’t unprecedented. More New Yorkers received food stamps in 2015 than in 2020, 2021, or 2022.

“There’s this narrative that Covid really caused this. And I will say in my department, that’s not correct at all,” said Sara Fuller, an employee in the Onondaga County Department of Children and Family Services and a volunteer union officer. “Poor management caused this. That’s it.”

Workers described a vicious cycle in which understaffing leads to overwork, which in turn leads to resignations and slow recruitment.

“It’s like a snowball effect,” said a worker in Oswego County. “Applications are coming in but they’re not getting processed in a timely manner. Then the applicants call in, so that makes more work for the frontline people that answer the phones.”

“People get angry,” she continued. “The mental exhaustion is crazy. You go home and you just don’t want to talk to anybody.”

In Broome County, home of Binghamton, a quarter of social services jobs are unfilled. The local department has funding to hire about 375 workers, but documents obtained by New York Focus show there were 91 vacancies as of March.

The department’s staff say it’s hardly a mystery why the department can’t find recruits.

“You can go and you can work at Dunkin’ Donuts or McDonald’s or Target and you can make more money than you can working entry-level [here],” one Broome County worker said.

Broome County executive Jason Garnar said the county is acutely aware of staffing shortages and has increased entry-level pay. The offices are overwhelmed with calls from applicants, he noted, so “we’re trying to lighten the load.”

The county’s social services examiners, who review applications for programs like food stamps and temporary assistance, start at $18.03 an hour as of January. They made $15 an hour in December 2020, during the depths of the pandemic. Clerical staff still make just above minimum wage, workers said.

McDonalds is currently advertising for entry-level crew team members in Binghamton for $16 to $35 an hour.

“We were there when our state, our county, our community needed us,” the Broome County worker said. “We don’t understand why they’re not there for us now.”

A 2016 union contract shifted new social services workers in the county to a healthcare plan that would charge them a higher share of the premium. The state has gradually pared back its retirement benefits over the last 30 years, too.

Compensation and working conditions vary across the state, since New York is one of only 10 states that delegates public benefits administration to individual counties rather than administering it at the state level, leaving each county’s employees to bargain for their own contract.

In Onondaga County last month, workers protested outside their office building in Syracuse to call for better working conditions. They held signs that read, “More than praise we need a raise,” and “We support the vulnerable. Who supports us?”

The effects of these working conditions don’t end with the workers. As New York Focus previously reported, tens of thousands of New Yorkers who have applied for food stamps have had their benefits delayed for more than 30 days, in violation of federal law.

Additional data reveals that not only are counties missing that 30-day deadline, they are doing so by wide margins. In December of last year, Broome County took 59 days to process the average application for Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) benefits, commonly known as food stamps. In Orange County, the average was 58 days. In Dutchess County, it was 41 days.

Statewide, delays are beginning to improve: The share of SNAP applications approved within 30 days rose from 68 percent in January to 80 percent in April, according to the Office of Temporary and Disability Assistance (OTDA), the state agency tasked with overseeing county social service departments.

“We continue to work with the counties to improve case processing timeliness,” said OTDA spokesperson Anthony Farmer. “While challenges remain, these efforts are already showing positive results.”

But the agency acknowledges there’s not much it can do to crack down on counties that flout guidelines beyond cutting funding — which would risk lengthening delays even more. And it doesn’t monitor staffing levels in counties.

Some workers predicted that delays may be about to get worse. The federal debt ceiling deal adds new work requirements for food stamps, which could add to administrative burden. And paperwork is picking up for other benefits handled by the same staff. Legislation passed by Congress in March 2020 allowed millions of low-income New Yorkers on Medicaid to keep their coverage without renewing. Workers were therefore reassigned from Medicaid to SNAP, said Paul Brady, who headed the Department of Social Services in Schenectady County until last year.

“You can work at Dunkin’ Donuts or McDonald’s or Target and make more money than you can working entry-level here.”

—Broome County social services worker

“Now you’re sending those workers back to Medicaid,” said Brady, who now runs the New York Public Welfare Association, a nonprofit that advocates for New York social services workers. “Essentially, you’re robbing Peter to pay Paul.”

The consequences go well beyond SNAP. Fuller, the family services worker in Onondaga County, said understaffing can leave children in perilous living conditions. Last year, the state Department of Children and Family Services launched an investigation into the county’s handling of a case in which a mother was alleged to have handcuffed her 11-year-old son to a bed frame every night, forcing him to sleep on the floor.

“If it wasn’t for the work that we do, your mother or father is not going to get that surgery they need. Your grandchildren aren’t going to get the food they need. Their house isn’t going to be heated,” said a worker in Oswego County. “These kids that are being abused in households, they’re not being taken care of.”

Working in these offices, day in and day out, has made some staff deeply cynical about the politics behind their jobs.

“We serve the poor,” a worker in Broome County said, explaining why politicians don’t prioritize her clients and her colleagues. “And as a majority, the poor are not the registered voters.”

Alex Lubben is a reporter whose work focuses on climate change. He previously worked for VICE News.
Also filed in New York State

You haven’t heard of it, and your state senator might not have either. The Working Rules group helps determine the fate of hundreds of bills at the end of each legislative session.

The Senate will consider Daniel Martuscello III’s bid to run New York’s prison and parole agency. His supporters point to his decades of experience. His opponents say that’s the problem.

After New York’s top court overturned Harvey Weinstein’s conviction, state lawmakers want to let prosecutors bring evidence from past uncharged sexual assaults.

Also filed in Labor

New Yorkers for Local Businesses has spent half a million dollars trying to kill a bill to help workers recover stolen wages. Almost all its backers appear to own McDonald’s franchises.

In New York, unemployment recipients can be found guilty of fraud even if they thought their information was true. The state demands repayment at the highest rate in the country.

Low-wage manual laborers can sue to make their bosses pay them weekly. Hochul’s late-breaking budget addition may undermine that right.