Social Services workers cramped as caseloads keep rising
When Jennifer Keranen needs to meet with a client, she has to go on a treasure hunt to find a vacant office first.
Or a closet where she can assure that client confidential communications.
Trouble is, the closets are being converted to office space. The conference room - the small one - was recently converted into offices.
Keranen, a Hubbard County social worker, has four office mates within feet of her.
She uses a drawstring curtain to cover up confidential client files when a non-staff member enters the office. If she rolls her office chair back a foot, it makes track marks on her coat, which lies in a heap on the floor.
If you are claustrophobic, you need not apply.
The caseloads are rising that dramatically in Hubbard County, squeezing office workers into cramped quarters. Requests for income maintenance rose 59 cases last month, to 2,398 cases.
A decade ago eligibility caseworkers had an average caseload of 146 files.
Two extra financial workers (soon to be called eligibility workers) and ten years later, that caseload per employee has ballooned nearly 100 cases.
"I shared with staff this morning that we just can't keep this up," Social Services Director Daryl Bessler said Thursday morning.
"If this continues we're just going to have to bite the bullet and see if the board will grant us more help or we'll have to have people understand that it's gonna take longer than we would like it to take to get them an answer," Bessler fretted.
"We've been trying to provide information (to the board) hoping that it (the workload) would go the other way but we're going into the months now where it's not going the other way, it's just going to go up and up and up," he added.
Bessler's department actually tried to expand into the hallways on the third floor of the county office building until building maintenance supervisor Lee Gwiazdon put the kibosh on that plan.
It was too unsafe in an emergency, Gwiazdon told Bessler.
And that's Bessler's second dilemma. Assuming the Hubbard County board allows him to hire additional staff, where will they be squeezed in? Every nook and cranny is full.
"We thought we could have gotten another office or two in the hallway," Bessler said. "We could have put up walls. That was not doable."
Aside from the overwork, stress and working conditions, Bessler worries about customer service.
He's starting to hear complaints and doesn't normally. Caseworkers cannot process the paperwork fast enough.
Desperate people out of work need answers as to whether they'll get help.
Why haven't they heard back? Bessler said he agonizes when he hears this.
"We're going to make more errors," he told the board Wednesday. "We have to be concerned about quality on this because we have the federal government. If we exceed certain (error) levels there's penalties imposed." He said when workers are rushed, there's a tendency to make "bad decisions, bad actions, errors."
November intakes and requests are complicated by the fact that the month has three holidays, three fewer workdays to process applications or even take them.
"People have asked if we could look at working from home and there are some positions it's conceivable" to do, Bessler said. "But when you deal with people you don't want them coming to your home.
"There are privacy issues, security issues, workers comp, a whole raft of issues," he said. "So I'm pretty apprehensive about that."
And the department would have to provide office equipment for the at-home employee.
"I have pretty seasoned workers but supervisors are telling me people are feeling stressed," Bessler admitted.
The department is one of those being considered for a move above the jail in the new law enforcement building. Either Social Services or the courts would move.
But either move carries a $2 million price tag and commissioners have been reluctant to commit or borrow those funds.
Meanwhile clients continue to come seeking benefits.
"If it still goes up it tells me we have a more serious problem than I believe to be the case," Bessler said.
One positive affect of the workload is that caseworkers will generate around $800,000 in revenues processing federal applications this year. But Bessler said much of that money comes from the federal stimulus and those funds ran out Sept. 30.