Just as Marylanders have been applying for unemployment assistance in droves during the coronavirus pandemic, they’ve also turned in a record number of applications for food stamps — and lawmakers are concerned that the state isn’t doing everything possible to process those applications.
In April alone, nearly 70,000 Maryland residents applied for food stamps, well more than double the number of applications in a typical month.
The state Department of Human Services, which oversees the program, revamped its workflow and bought more than 2,700 laptops so employees can process applications at home.
Still, nearly 300 state workers are at home with no computers and no ability to process applications. In response to questions from The Baltimore Sun, department officials said the laptops would be issued by the end of the week.
“The cumulative actions taken by our agency since March have provided timely reassurance to our most vulnerable citizens that their needs will continue to be met,” Department of Human Resources Secretary Lourdes R. Padilla said in the statement.
But state lawmakers are frustrated by what they say is aslow response to thousands of residents who are in desperate need of help to keep their families fed.
“This is a major, major problem,” said Del. Talmadge Branch, a Baltimore Democrat. “They are way behind.”
Branch is among House of Delegates leaders who have pressed the Department of Human Services on their response to the surge in applications. He’s particularly frustrated that several weeks into the pandemic, state employees are being paid but are still unable to review applications from home.
“That, to me, is galling,” said Del. Stephanie Smith, a Democrat who chairs Baltimore’s House delegation. “When we talk about fiscal waste, we have people designated to help people get these benefits sitting at home getting paid doing nothing, and someone in dire straits can’t get closer to a benefit.”
Smith has been pressing for approval to use SNAP benefits for online grocery delivery. In response to posts about that issue on social media, she said she’s heard from many people who have been waiting to get approved for benefits.
After a private conference call with the department more than a week ago, the delegates are following up with a public hearing before a subcommittee of the House Appropriations Committee on Thursday.
“There are a lot of problems,” said Del. Maggie McIntosh, a Baltimore Democrat.
McIntosh said she gives the department the benefit of the doubt that “nobody saw this coming to the extent that it was.” But she said the department could have acted faster to handle the flood of applicants.
“What you had was this incredible influx of people who had lost their jobs, were applying for unemployment insurance, were applying for food stamps to help feed their families,” McIntosh said. “In my view, both agencies were crippled by the influx and were not prepared to deal with what we have seen.”
The state’s unemployment insurance program, run by the state Department of Labor, also has been flooded with record numbers of applicants. Out-of-work Marylanders have been consistently frustrated with a buggy online application system and the inability to get help over the phone or by email.
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McIntosh, who chairs the House Appropriations Committee, said food stamps are especially crucial in Baltimore, where large numbers of residents already faced issues with access to food before the pandemic.
The school system, city government and nonprofit groups have put together various efforts to distribute meals and groceries in the city. Schools are serving thousands of meals to adults — even though they don’t expect to get help from the federal government in paying for that food — rather than turn away hungry residents.
In its statement, the Department of Human Resources said it is trying to accommodate the crush of applications.
Previously, SNAP applications were handled from start to finish by local social services offices in each county. Starting in April, the state moved to a “statewide process management model” where each office is assigned one step of the process, such as screening or verifying eligibility.
“The transition to this model has allowed the Department to improve efficiencies,” the department wrote.
Applications for expedited benefits are processed within one week and regular SNAP applications are processed within 30 days, according to the department. New applicants get a card loaded with benefits 10 days after that.
“There is no backlog,” the department said in its statement.