Alaskans again wait months for food stamps, workers union blames policy choices

After initial progress, public assistance backlog doubles over a few months

By: Claire Stremple, Alaska Beacon

Bulk food in Food Bank of Alaska’s Anchorage warehouse on April 21, 2023. (Photo by Claire Stremple/Alaska Beacon)

Nikita Chase doesn’t have a Christmas tree yet this year. She said she is more worried about staving off an electricity shutoff notice than getting into the holiday spirit. Her food stamps, known as Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program benefits, were nearly two months late.

“I am pretty much tapped out going into Christmas. That’s not a great place to be,” she said.

She ran up debt on her credit card to pay for heat and electricity after she spent all her cash to feed her family. She paid significantly higher prices for piecemeal groceries in her remote home of Tenakee Springs instead of taking the ferry to Juneau to do a big shopping trip while she waited for the state check.

So Chase found herself in the same situation as she was in this time last year — waiting on hold with Alaska’s Division of Public Assistance to get her overdue benefits. By the time she got them, nearly two months later, she was roughly $2,500 in debt.

“I was on the phone in tears, saying, ‘I have to go into town to do my shopping,’” she said.

The state is again in a food stamp backlog of crisis proportions, leaving thousands of Alaskans hungry or indebted as they scramble to pay for food and keep up with bills. State employees say they cannot keep up with the work and the director of these workers’ union said the state has not adequately addressed how to hire and retain enough employees to end the backlog.

Last winter federal administrators said 15,000 Alaskans were waiting in a backlog. This August the state reduced the backlog to 6,000 people, but it has swollen to more than 12,000 in the last few months.

For Chase, that meant missing a rare ferry from Tenakee Springs to Juneau and paying more for groceries. “In the end, you’re paying three times as much as you would have if you had just gotten your benefits,” she said. “That puts you in a hole where you’re trying to dig yourself out.”

‘The result of years of cuts’

Heidi Drygas, director of the union that represents DPA employees, said Gov. Dunleavy’s administration could largely solve the problem and get needy Alaskans food aid if it hired and retained more DPA workers. She said the state has not done enough to improve conditions at the division of public assistance.

“We advocated to the department to increase pay and benefits, work on improving recruitment and retention strategies and just generally trying to treat employees with more respect,” she said. “What the department and the division ended up doing is something that seems to be this administration’s playbook: They contracted out 75 positions outside of Alaska.”

Last year, eligibility employees said workloads got too high after the Dunleavy administration cut more than 100 jobs from the Division of Public Assistance in 2021, leaving offices short-staffed, despite warnings from a state watchdog agency and the Food Bank of Alaska that it could result in a backlog.

Drygas said the backlog was the result of a “manufactured” budget crisis. She ran unsuccessfully for lieutenant governor last year on an independent ticket with former Gov. Bill Walker. Drygas said the state has not made enough of an effort to justly compensate employees, which is why it cannot retain them for crucial roles like eligibility technicians.

“This is the result of years of cuts, the Dunleavy administration’s preferred tool to try to fix their budget woes to serve their policy aim, and this is the result,” she said. “You’re not going to keep people around when they know they can find an easier job where they don’t have to work, you know, ridiculous hours of overtime and feel underappreciated and underpaid.”

Jeff Turner, a spokesperson for the Dunleavy Administration, said in an emailed statement that the “Dunleavy administration remains committed to clearing up the backlog of SNAP applications and is taking aggressive steps to make sure eligible Alaskans receive the SNAP benefits as quickly as possible,” and that policy changes within the division will “build a more resilient public assistance process and minimize future delays.”

In a hole

Since September, when the state reported it had reduced the food stamp backlog to 6,000 applications, the number of people waiting on critical food aid has doubled.  Division of Public Assistance Director Deb Etheridge said the division is taking the “growing crisis” very seriously.

“I know this is not good news,” she said. “It’s an unfortunate situation, but I want you to know that our team is doing the best we can to innovate and find solutions.”

Etheridge said the backlog began to balloon in October, when the federal government required the state to begin interviewing clients again after a pause due to the pandemic. Eligibility workers within the division said this slowed them down considerably. There were other factors, too: Weather-related office closures in some areas and a weekend where workers could not put in overtime while information in the state’s computer system was transferred to the cloud — part of $54 million in tech fixes announced by the governor in February.

State data on this graph shows that the Division of Public Assistance improved its timeliness rate from a low in the winter of 2023 until that summer. Officials say a series of setbacks put the division behind again in September.

When she saw the backlog growing, Etheridge said she asked the federal government to give her workers another six-month break from interviews, but the request was declined. Etheridge immediately asked state Health Commissioner Heidi Hedberg for permission to break the rules, which she granted the day before Thanksgiving.

“We really needed to take those dramatic steps in order to ensure that Alaskans can have access to food,” she said. While the backlog is still growing, Etheridge said she thinks it is close to stabilizing.

There are currently 143 division workers who process food stamp applications, called eligibility technicians. Etheridge said she would need 200 of them working full time on cases to clear the backlog this month — a roughly 60-person staff increase. She has 30 new eligibility technicians in training now, she said, and another dozen or so jobs posted.

Etheridge took over as director of the DPA at the height of the backlog, when some applicants had been waiting for benefits for up to 10 months. She said this time the backlog is different: Alaskans have been waiting up to six months and there are technology upgrades on the way, including an online application that Etheridge said should be live by the end of the year. Other technology fixes will be completed over the next two years, she said.

“We’re driving for change and success. It just — it takes time. And I think that’s the one thing that’s been very hard,” she said. “But know that I love this work and I am very committed.”

Etheridge said staff overtime has been a critical part of solving the backlog. A number of former employees who now work in other state agencies have agreed to work on food stamp cases in their overtime hours and she has asked division workers in leadership roles to pitch in, too, even though their workload does not usually include working cases.

Staff say they just can’t keep up

One of the first DPA employees to speak out about the backlog and dysfunction within the division said they were frustrated by the new backlog, but felt more confidence in leadership this time. They spoke with the Alaska Beacon on the condition of anonymity because they were concerned that doing so would jeopardize their job.

“I just feel like the work itself is just so overwhelming, that we’re just not able to keep up,” they said. They likened it to the scene in the Disney movie Fantasia, where Mickey Mouse cannot keep up with buckets of water and nearly drowns in a flood.

The eligibility worker said it feels “crazy” to be dealing with the same thing again: “People are without food again. And now the threats are starting to come again, because they’re like, ‘We’re so sick of this, you just did this to us.’”

They said one man didn’t get his senior benefits for an entire year, another woman’s paperwork got improperly filed and she threatened to kill herself in a division office.

“She told me she was going to kill herself, because she did everything she was supposed to do and she was still not getting her benefits,” the worker said, and added that they got permission to quickly fix a simple error that had delayed the case. “I can’t have somebody threaten to kill themselves.”

“We’re getting desperate,” they said of the division. “And we’re pushing people through training too quickly, so that they’re not able to grasp the concept of certain policies and they’re screwing up on cases… people are going without benefits because of it.”

Some DPA employees have been critical of the solutions proposed by the administration. In March, longtime employee Fred Rapp said the state needs to figure out how to recruit and retain employees rather than spending millions on software that he likened to a Ferrari with a lawnmower motor.

This February, union workers rallied in Juneau to ask for better compensation and for the division to be fully staffed. Etheridge said it has not been fully staffed since she took on her role, but that the division is actively recruiting.

Food stamps, senior benefits, Medicaid

In Cordova, the director of community programs for the local hospital said her clients are waiting up to five months for food stamps. Barbara Jewell works with people who access Cordova Community Medical Center for behavioral health and senior services. She said those who are seeking food stamps and Medicaid are “really vulnerable” and make up at least 35% of her clientele.

“They’re scared. They call our office and say: ‘I don’t have food, what do I do?’ And sometimes we’re able to come back with one-time assistance, but sometimes there’s not anything we can do,” she said. “It’s not really a hospital’s job to feed people, right? That’s not what hospitals are set up for.”

Jewell said local food banks are running out of food and she is frustrated to see severely backlogged applications after the state said it had worked through the backlog.

“The state acted as if they’ve taken care of it. And they put out all of these big press releases about how they fixed it. And it’s not true,” she said. “I was furious.”

She said the delay in food stamps is the most acute problem, but the delay in processing Medicaid hurts communities, too.

“Medical providers don’t get paid, which either drives them out of the business or raises the cost for all of us,” she said. “When providers and hospitals have to wait three to six months to get paid, because it takes that long for a person’s applications to get processed — that hurts everybody.”

Legal recourse

In January, the Northern Justice Project filed what they hope will be a class action lawsuit against Department of Health Commissioner Hedberg on behalf of 10 Alaskans not receiving food stamp benefits in a timely manner.

Under federal law, the Department of Health must provide ongoing Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program benefits to eligible applicants no later than 30 days after the date of application, but some families have been waiting months. The complaint said the delay is due to the “immense delays and chaos of the Alaska Department of Health.”

Lawyers and the state agreed to put the lawsuit on hold for six months while they worked on the issue. In May, the state asked for six more months, bringing the delay to a year. Just last month, the state asked for another six-month delay, but Northern Justice Project lead attorney Saima Akhtar said they are opposing the request.

“Nobody eats retroactively. You do not make up for having gone hungry and having gone without those benefits,” she said. “That is why we felt strongly that the case needs to go back on an active litigation docket and we need to move forward.”

Akhtar has worked on food stamp delay cases nationwide, and said this is one of the most severe backlogs she has seen because it affected such a significant percentage of beneficiaries.

She said the state has been communicative, but she is ready for a remedy.

“The delays have actually gotten worse, right? The numbers now are as bad, if not worse, than they were in May,” she said. In May, attorneys granted the state’s request for a hold on the case under the condition that the state would cut the backlog in half.

“We are not at that place,” Akhtar said. “There are continuing problems that are not being resolved.”

Alaskans who are waiting on food stamps used to be able to seek help at the ombudsman’s office, the agency that investigates complaints against state government and departments. However, the pending lawsuit now prohibits that office from intervening, according to state Ombudsman Kate Burkhart.

“We continue to receive complaints about delayed SNAP benefits,” she said in an email. “Since we cannot assist these complainants, we refer them to Alaska Legal Services Corporation for assistance in filing for an administrative fair hearing.”

Leigh Dickey, the advocacy director for Alaska Legal Services Canter, said the number of complaints has been “crazy.” From January to July of this year, ALSC attorneys helped get food stamps for nearly 2,000 Alaskans. Since then, the number of complaints has doubled. Dickey said there were more than 600 requests for help in November.

Etheridge said she doesn’t know yet how long it will take her staff to work through the backlog, but said in two weeks she should have a better idea of the timeframe and if she needs additional resources to get the job done.