Food Stamp shuffle
Published 1:37 pm Monday, February 2, 2009
By By MaryClaire Foster
Frustration was evident Tuesday morning in the conference room at City Hall as discussions commenced about ending the availability of caseworkers in Atmore with the Food Assistance Program.
The financial services department of DHR, located in Brewton, handles the Food Assistance Program also known as food stamps and has five full-time case workers, two of which travel to Atmore twice a week to interview people for the program.
Atmore Mayor Howard Shell along with county commissioners Brandon Smith and Wiley Tait met with Escambia County DHR Director Lynn Barnes to discuss the removal of the two caseworkers from Atmore.
As of December 2008, 7,767 people in 3,055 households in Escambia County were receiving assistance and per numbers from early fall of 2008, Atmore had approximately 100 more cases than Brewton and Flomaton combined.
Due to the nationwide economic woes and job lay-offs being seen around the country, the program has seen a huge increase in participants across the country and Escambia County is no exception.
An increase in participants also means an increase in cases for the five certified workers and a state government hiring freeze means no extra help is available. The five caseworkers are currently handling between 500 and 650 cases a person, well above the 350 to 400 the state recommends for a worker’s caseload.
Because of this, as well as the cut in funding that paid for travel to Atmore from Brewton, Barnes sees it best to keep the two caseworkers permanently in Brewton.
Barnes said that having the workers stay in Brewton will be a fix for the increased workload, it will be a way for operations to run more smoothly.
According to Barnes, the state has taken some action to help alleviate the increased work load by allowing telephone interviews for initial and recertification interviews for the program.
Regardless of the availability of telephone interviews Shell, along with Tait and Smith, expressed concern over pulling the caseworkers from Atmore and asked for suggestions on how to remedy the situation.
Shell also said it was the lack of having a physical presence that concerned him.
Barnes said she understood the importance of having in person interaction, but still had to make the concessions to best serve the entire county.
Shell and Tait both expressed their frustrations with their view that Atmore and the west end of the county seemingly continually have funding and other resources cut short.
Barnes stated that because of the lack of resources a simple solution was not possible, but was willing to listen to the city’s and county’s suggestions.
The three men suggested finding a way to hire another worker, but because of certification issues and the hiring freeze it was not feasible.
The group came to an agreement after Smith suggested a part-time worker to act as a liaison between Atmore and the office in Brewton.
Shell suggested finding someone who was familiar with practices of the office and who could offer support such as preparing them for the phone interview or checking their identification to alleviate one of the concerns of phone interviews.
Barnes was receptive and enthusiastic about the idea.
The transition of the caseworkers permanently back to Brewton is not scheduled to occur until the end of March, and in the meantime Barnes will work with the city to find a suitable liaison.