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CalFresh Struggles With High Vacancies as Demand Increases

The state’s food assistance program’s Fresno County office experienced a 23 percent staff vacancy rate last month while applications for the food benefits increased by 18 percent from 2019 to 2021.

(TNS) — California’s food assistance program is coping with high staff vacancy rates and struggling to retain workers even as demand rises for the help it offers, advocates and county employees say.

As a result, county assistance offices are experiencing casework backlogs, delays in service and employee burnout, the workers say. The crunch comes as the state expands the program this year, becoming the first in the nation to offer subsidized food benefits to undocumented seniors.

The complaints center on CalFresh, a $2.1 billion program administered by county social services offices that provides food benefits for about 4.6 million Californians, ranging from college students to working families.

The program received a budget boost from the Newsom administration this year, but county leaders say more needs to change to fund the services the state has promised.

In Fresno, the CalFresh county social services office maintains a vacancy rate of 18% for this year. In the last month, the office has seen the rate jump up to 23%.

Meanwhile, applications for food benefits increased by 18% from 2019 to 2021.

“I’ve been doing this for over 30 years, and I’ve never seen this exodus of people,” said Maria Villapudua Herrera, Social Services Program Manager for Fresno County. “The current situation is really new for all of us, but it’s becoming the norm.”

Herrera said the biggest challenge stems from retention, with new hires only showing up for a few months and then quitting. That leads to the remaining workers feeling “overwhelmed” and “burnt out.”

With demand surging for CalFresh, some county offices are setting aside work on applications for other benefits. Workers must prioritize CalFresh cases over the state’s Medi-Cal program because of federal rules requiring those eligible to receive food within three days.

For Fresno, 85% of CalFresh cases meet the expedited requirement.

Herrera said her office is meeting the requirement, but “other programs have suffered.” Federal guidelines give workers 45 days to process Medi-Cal applications.

“They are going to prioritize the three-day expedited application over other programs,” Herrera said. “That’s how we’ve been functioning. However, I don’t know how long we’re going to be able to sustain that.”

California Benefits for Undocumented Seniors

Marin County is experiencing the same stress, said Suzie Aceves, the county’s CalFresh department analyst. The county has an annual vacancy rate of around 15%, with applications for CalFresh increasing by 38% since the COVID-19 pandemic began in March 2020.

“It does have an impact on the process of application processing,” Aceves said. “And counties have had to just adjust workflow processes to meet federal and state timelines.”

Aceves and Herrera both attributed some of the rises in applications to recent legislation that required agencies to promote the CalFresh and expanded benefits to undocumented seniors.

The expansion of eligibility for undocumented residents 55 and older is estimated to benefit an additional 75,000 Californians each year, according to a report by the Legislative Analyst’s Office. It’s the first step in what many progressives hope will be the expansion of food assistance for all undocumented residents.

Workers praise broadening the eligible population for benefits, but say they’re not in position to process the applications in a timely manner.

“We’re waiting,” Herrera said. “We’re looking at it closely because that’s going to increase our numbers.”

More Funding Is On the Way

Counties are poised to begin receiving more funding within the next two months as part of the new state budget deal. But advocates say it’s not enough and does not address the central issue.

Earlier this year, the County Welfare Directors Association of California asked the state to supply $60 million to address staffing shortages. Gov. Gavin Newsom signed the budget in June with an additional $35 million for the program.

“It’s a good amount but it’s well short of what we originally asked for just to fill the gap of what we’re currently spending,” said Cathy Senderling-McDonald, executive director of the association.

Senderling-McDonald said CalFresh funding has remained static over the years, with current funding resembling “2001” levels.

The $35 million is intended to be a temporary solution until state officials tackle their broader goal of overhauling the funding model.

The state and individual counties fund half of CalFresh costs, with the remaining money coming from the federal government.

The welfare directors group hopes that a new funding system better reflects caseload increases and takes into account “extraordinary” instances like the pandemic and legislation aimed at increasing eligibility. Senderling-McDonald also pointed to a need for cost-of-living adjustments that keep pace with the value of having “a worker behind a desk.”

“We were so far away from the reality of what it costs to really run the program properly…How do we make sure we don’t get 20 years behind again?,” said Senderling-McDonald.

©2022 The Sacramento Bee. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.
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