The interrogation from councilmembers came on the heels of new data showing public benefit processing delays the likes of which New Yorkers haven’t seen in at least a decade. 

Councilmembers questions DSS-HRA officials at a hearing

Gerardo Romo / NYC Council Media Unit

Councilmembers questions DSS-HRA officials at a hearing on public assistance processing delays on Sept. 27, 2023.

If an increased demand for food and cash assistance has made it difficult for New York City to process applications on time, how many staff would it take to keep up?

Members of the New York City Council asked this question repeatedly during a lengthy hearing Wednesday, dissatisfied with a lack of detail or historical context from Department of Social Services (DSS) officials.

The interrogation came on the heels of new data showing processing delays the likes of which New Yorkers haven’t seen in at least a decade—39.7 percent of Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) applications processed on time, and just 28.8 percent of applications for cash assistance, which can cover necessities including rent.

Under federal and state law, all SNAP and cash assistance applications and recertifications must be processed by the Human Resources Administration (HRA), part of DSS, within 30 days.

“While the [Mayor’s Management Report] did not call this a crisis, it absolutely is a crisis,” said General Welfare Committee Chair Diana Ayala. 

Marricka Scott-McFadden, deputy commissioner for intergovernmental and legislative affairs with DSS, testified that the agency had made 728 new hires since Dec. 22 and is shuffling staff internally to help process applications, as well as offering overtime on evenings and weekends. 

“Unprecedented need has outpaced our resources and we are using every tool and strategy at our disposal to meet the demand,” Scott-McFadden said. 

But she could not provide specifics on how many new hires DSS has been able to retain in that period, or how many staff would be needed to eliminate delays. “In terms of specific numbers we don’t know what that would look like,” she said. 

Rebecca Chew, chief program officer for HRA, emphasized an uptick in application volumes since 2019. “There is an incredible need that has started in the pandemic and has not abated,” she said. 

Cash assistance applications averaged about 23,000 per month in Fiscal Year 2019, compared to 40,000 in Fiscal Year 2023, according to Chew. SNAP applications increased from a monthly average of 25,000 to about 40,000 over that period.

But HRA could not offer a comparison on staffing. “We can obviously get back to you with a comparison of 2019 positions as opposed to now,” Scott-McFadden said.

Bronx Councilmember Althea Stevens drilled down on the lack of staffing data during questioning: “It kind of sounds like you guys don’t know how to get out of this crisis.” 

There is a general lack of clarity on staff who specifically administer SNAP and cash assistance programs, according to a committee report produced for Wednesday’s hearing. However, HRA as a whole had a 10.9 percent vacancy rate as of August, with 1,321 unfilled positions. 

HRA’s “Food Stamp Operations” area had a 3.1 percent vacancy rate at the time, according to the report, while the “Public Assistance and Employment Administration” area, which includes cash assistance, had a 19.2 percent vacancy rate. 

Meanwhile, all city agencies are under pressure from Mayor Eric Adams to tighten their belts. On Sept. 9, he announced that all agencies would have to submit a plan for 5 percent cuts to their city-funded budgets, citing the cost of sheltering asylum seekers.

On Wednesday, the Council heard testimony from a group of HRA eligibility specialists—unionized staffers who help process applications for people who receive SNAP but not cash assistance, a category known as “SNAP-only.” 

The workers described issues including low pay and a glitchy operations system called ANGIE, which was introduced in 2019 and, they say, slows down their pace of work. 

“We went from doing anywhere from 30-plus cases, or maybe less, to now maybe five to eight cases, maybe 10, on a day-to-day basis,” said specialist Helen Chandler. 

“We need many more eligibility specialists, but the pay is not high enough to attract and retain, because the cost of living in New York City is so expensive,” added her colleague Lucy Perez. 

HRA did not comment on salaries for eligibility specialists Wednesday, but said the starting salary for job opportunity specialists—their counterparts who work on the cash assistance track—is $53,000. 

“It’s considerably higher than it was a few years ago,” said Chew of HRA. 

Faced with SNAP delays, families can go hungry, while cash assistance delays can put them at risk of eviction. 

Emily Lundgren, a staff attorney with the Legal Aid Society, explained that applicants for cash assistance can indicate on their paperwork that they are in rental arrears, and need help in the form of a Family Eviction Prevention Supplement (FHEPS) rental subsidy or “one shot deal,” an emergency infusion to cover their rent debt. 

“You need your application processed in a timely manner,” she told City Limits outside of the Council chambers Wednesday. “You’re getting pressure from housing court judges, from landlords.” 

The annual cash assistance application volume is at its highest since at least 2008, according to HRA. Historical data pulled from prior Mayor’s Management Reports going back to Fiscal Year 2013 show a 30 percent year-over-year increase—from 374,600 in the year ending in June 2022, to 489,700 in the year ending this June.

The jump may be due, in part, to the expiration of pandemic-era policies that paused most eviction cases until January 2022, according to Katie Kelleher, Lundgren’s colleague at Legal Aid. But she said that the city could have planned better for this policy change. 

“This is not a natural disaster. They knew this was coming,” Kelleher told City Limits. “It behooved them to staff adequately and set up systems to give people the benefit they need—so that they can eat, and so they’re not at risk of eviction.” 

Kelleher is part of the legal team suing the city in federal court over benefits processing delays. HRA is currently under orders to eliminate its entire application and recertification backlog by March of 2024.  

According to new numbers submitted in court this week, the volume of overdue SNAP-only applications and recertifications is down to 1,574 cases. But the system that serves households with cash assistance—most of which also receive SNAP—is much more bogged down, with 30,722 delayed applications and recertifications. 

Will Woods, an advocate with the organization Urban Pathways and benefits recipient himself, testified Wednesday about how it feels to constantly struggle with a delayed system—waiting for hours on the phone, or in long lines at a benefits center. 

In addition to rent arrears and skipped meals, he described the emotional toll. 

“It’s hard enough as an adult to have to reach out and ask for help. It’s much more difficult to need that help, and have to grovel to get it,” he said. “And that’s what a lot of us are down to right now—groveling. And we’re still not getting the help we need.” 

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