“If you get cash assistance, you are caught up in really significant delays, in a way that you would not be if you were only receiving SNAP,” said Katie Kelleher of the Legal Aid Society, a lead attorney on a federal lawsuit compelling the city to improve its processing times.


Adi Talwar

For New Yorkers struggling to afford life’s necessities, a tale of two bureaucracies is emerging.

The city’s Human Resources Administration (HRA) has recently made strides toward promptly processing applications for the majority of people receiving federally-funded SNAP benefits, or food stamps.

But tens of thousands of New Yorkers who receive cash assistance to cover rent and other needs have watched the deadline for timely processing come and go. Most of them also receive SNAP, but have not seen the same improvements there as households in the city’s “SNAP-only” system.

“If you get cash assistance, you are caught up in really significant delays, in a way that you would not be if you were only receiving SNAP,” said Katie Kelleher of the Legal Aid Society, a lead attorney on a federal lawsuit compelling the city to improve its processing times. 

Families that receive cash assistance in addition to SNAP tend to be under serious financial strain, Kelleher noted, as they must meet stricter income requirements than if they were only seeking food assistance.

Under federal and state law, all SNAP and cash assistance applications and recertifications must be processed by HRA, part of the Department of Social Services (DSS), within 30 days. Currently, about 1.7 million New Yorkers rely on SNAP. A minority of them—north of 480,000—also receive cash, according to June data.

The city is now under orders to eliminate its application and recertification backlogs for both SNAP and cash assistance by March 2024, per a July injunction signed by Manhattan Federal Court Judge Jennifer Rearden. It’s part of the class action lawsuit filed in January by Kelleher’s team and New York Legal Assistance Group, alleging that city officials were leaving New Yorkers without benefits to which they were entitled.

City Limits first reported on the mounting delays last November, for the fiscal year ending that June.

In January the city revealed that it had promptly processed less than half, 42.3 percent, of SNAP applications (including SNAP-only and those associated with a cash assistance case) between July and October of last year—down from around 92 percent of applications in fiscal year 2021—and just over half of cash applications in the same period. SNAP timeliness was 49.8 percent for the month of April, according to HRA.

The public won’t know until September if the city has met its first court-ordered benchmark for SNAP-only processing: no more than 800 overdue applications and recertifications as of July 31. But the city appeared to be on track as of the end of May, when Jill Berry, Deputy Commissioner of DSS/HRA, reported just 768 overdue applications and 42 overdue recertifications.

By contrast, there were nearly 38,000 overdue cash cases at that time, including those with affiliated SNAP. The city has set a much more gradual timeline for improvement for these cases, according to an August court update—27,800 overdue by the end of September, up to 29,700 by the end of November, and down to 4,200 by the end of February.

“They are anticipating significant delays throughout this calendar year,” Kelleher said. This is disappointing, she added, despite the broader win of forcing zero delays by the end of March.

Why the discrepancy?

HRA has two distinct systems for processing benefits, advocates explained. SNAP-only cases are processed at SNAP Centers, while Benefits Access Centers handle joint cases involving cash assistance, SNAP and Medicaid.

“If you apply for [cash assistance], you are automatically going to be screened for SNAP and Medicaid and you’re likely going to get SNAP and Medicaid,” said Deborah Berkman, a supervising attorney with the Public Benefits Unit at New York Legal Assistance Group. There are certain exceptions for people with private insurance, or who are not U.S. citizens, she noted.

According to Berry of HRA, the discrepancy between the number of delayed SNAP-only and cash cases is in part because it is easier to recruit eligibility specialists, employees who work on the former, than job opportunity specialists, who focus on the latter.

Her court declaration also cited a “large number” of duplicates in the cash assistance queue, noting that the city is developing a computer program to root them out.

There are other contributing factors. Elderly and disabled New Yorkers who receive Supplemental Security Income (SSI) as their only form of income and live alone, for example, submit their SNAP recertifications less frequently than other benefits recipients. Their cases, which fall into the SNAP-only category, require less time and labor from HRA employees.

Processing rates for SNAP-only applications and recertifications began accelerating in the spring and have remained consistent since, said Zac Hall, the senior vice president of programs for Food Bank for NYC, a community based organization (CBO) that assisted over 8,000 clients in enrolling for benefits in the past year. He emphasized, however, that the issue has been improved—not resolved.

Too many New Yorkers still remain in the cold, without SNAP benefits or any updates about when they might receive them, said Denise Fernandez, the director of benefits access for Hunger Free NYC, another CBO. “Sometimes it can be two months or even longer for clients to receive the approval and the benefits, which is really shameful,” she said.

At the Safety Net Project, a CBO that assists both SNAP-only and cash assistance clients, advocates say they are seeing the same elevated numbers struggling with wait times that they did in the winter, according to Adriana Mendoza, the group’s benefits supervisor.

“It’s always frustrating to see our clients not getting the benefits that they should be getting. Of course, we do our best to try to get the issue resolved and get whatever retroactive benefits are owed—but people cannot eat retroactively,” Mendoza said.

The Safety Net Project is grateful for Judge Rearden’s order, she added, but disappointed in the timeline it sets forth. “To say that HRA has until March 2024 to figure this out—it’s just not good enough, given the severity and impact on clients.” 

HRA Job Center 1365 Jerome Avenue in the Bronx

Adi Talwar

An HRA office on Jerome Avenue in the Bronx, which includes a SNAP center.

Pandemic shadow 

Chronic delays have arisen largely because of the COVID-19 pandemic, according to HRA. The federal government provided extensions for recertifications throughout the pandemic, ensuring that recipients could maintain access to crucial benefits and that HRA could focus its efforts on processing record numbers of new applications. 

In April 2020, for example, the agency received 84,000 SNAP applications, representing more than a 200 percent increase from April 2019. But now, with its waivers dried up, HRA must simultaneously process recertifications and still-soaring numbers of first-time applications.

A serious staff shortage hasn’t helped. One in five budgeted positions remained empty at HRA in December, according to a report from the city comptroller. Currently, the number of full-time positions totals 10,930—an increase from the 10,468 workers there at the end of 2022, according to the city’s Independent Budget Office, though not one large enough to offset the city’s needs. 

The comptroller’s report recommended that agencies facing shortages expedite hiring for approved positions and consider providing new hires with increased salaries, and that the city develop a program for agencies to “lend” employees to one another, among other suggestions. 

“I think what the comptroller rightly pointed out is that every phase of the hiring process is broken,” Kelleher said, adding that Legal Aid plans to pressure HRA for more concrete actions regarding improved hiring and onboarding processes. 

In court documents, Berry of HRA wrote that the agency has recently taken an “aggressive” approach to hiring by increasing the entry-level salary for certain positions, removing unnecessary job qualifications, and hosting numerous jobs fairs. 

Between March and May, the agency hired 127 people to assist with the SNAP-only program and 299 for the cash assistance track. In June, it was in the process of onboarding another 201 and 130 employees respectively, Berry added. HRA also redeployed approximately 300 staff members from other areas of the agency to assist with the caseloads. 

Phone woes 

Along with general processing delays, HRA’s phone lines have been a source of anxiety and frustration. After submitting an application or recertification form, candidates have 30 days to submit verification documents and complete a phone interview with an HRA representative. 

Though the three-step process may sound simple, reaching HRA has proved immensely difficult for some, Fernandez of Hunger Free NYC said. “We hear back constantly from clients that they are waiting long periods of time—over an hour at times—and also being disconnected, and that is very frustrating.” 

At the beginning of the pandemic, HRA representatives would call applicants for cash assistance to interview them—a system that was “more of a headache,” since clients were never informed about when to expect the calls, Fernandez explained. 

This also exacerbated the backlog of cases in the cash track, Berry of HRA acknowledged in court papers, because staff had to make several calls to reach clients, and those who saw their benefits cut off due to missed interview calls had to reapply. 

SNAP-only applicants have had an on-demand phone line for interviews since 2015, allowing them to call at their convenience. In April, HRA began slowly phasing in on-demand interviews for cash applicants. However, people with questions about the new process were urged to call the agency’s Infoline, or One Number—a catch-all that launched in January as a streamlining initiative but has been associated with lengthy delays. 

“Before, they were really powerless,” Kelleher said. “Technically, now, they’re not powerless—but if you can’t get through on the phone, how much of an improvement is that?”

Beatriz, a Bronx mother of two who asked to be identified by first name only, submitted the documentation necessary to recertify her SNAP and cash assistance in May, far ahead of her July 31 deadline. A message on HRA’s website informed her that within 10 business days, a representative would reach out to conduct the phone interview with her. But no one ever called, Beatriz said.

Then, at the beginning of August, Beatriz received a letter in the mail that her SNAP and cash assistance had been discontinued. She had to scramble, calling One Number and waiting on hold for more than six hours without resolution. She ultimately did her own Google search to find the new on-demand number and complete her interview.  

“That day, I’m not going to lie, I almost had a mental breakdown,” Beatriz said. “I was waiting on the phone, my kids were driving me crazy, they were screaming, they needed my attention.” 

“I was freaking out,” she continued. “I bank on that cash assistance to help me with diapers, wipes—anything that my kids need—because my income is just not enough.” 

According to Berry of HRA, the new on-demand system offers “a tremendously improved client experience”—but its implementation also contributed to recent delays in the processing of cash and associated SNAP cases, as many applicants would call seeking general information.

On the day it launched, the system took 4,725 calls, according to HRA. The agency stated plans in June to add a feature that would identify callers seeking general information—and direct them back to One Number. 

“We ensure that we are honoring any interview requests from clients who are calling within business hours,” Neha Sharma, a spokesperson for HRA, told City Limits. “We are also working on building staffing efficiencies across the board and making it easier for staff and new agents we are bringing on to be available for interviews,” she added. 

If HRA fails to reach any of its court-mandated targets to reduce overdue cases, the city must issue a letter within 15 days detailing a corrective action plan. 

Additionally, HRA must provide monthly reporting on the number of outstanding cases, broken down by the type of case and the date of submission. The next report is expected in September. 

“We wanted them to be responsible for telling us if they’re off track and if they are, how they are going to get back on track,” said Kelleher of Legal Aid. “That gives me some comfort—that they do have to do that.”

To reach the reporter behind this story, contact Emma@citylimits.org. To reach the editor, email Jeanmarie@citylimits.org.