Nobody likes having their coworkers all up in their business – and that fact has lead to a kerfuffle with some employees of the Division of Social Services (DSS) of the Guilford County Department of Health and Human Services.

Social services workers in Guilford County not only administer benefits such as food stamps, daycare assistance and others – in some cases they also receive them. And those DSS workers who are getting government aid don’t want that fact publicized to their coworkers.

So some employees were upset recently when they got a memo that was sent to all DSS employees instructing them to inform the department’s program managers if they were receiving benefits through Guilford County social services.

DSS employees – who are generally easily excitable in ordinary circumstances – wanted to know why management was combing the social services workforce to find those employees who were on the receiving end of benefits.

Guilford County Social Services Division Director Heather Skeens – along with other DSS administrators – said the move was actually done to protect the department’s employees and to keep their information private, but that didn’t keep employees from voicing their discontent to the county commissioners.

Guilford County Commissioner Carolyn Coleman said that, right after the memo went out last month, her phone lit up with calls from DSS employees who called to inform her they were being asked to tell program managers that they were getting benefits through the department.

“I received at least six calls from employees of social services who indicated that they were asked to make the program manager aware of all those who were receiving [benefits],” she said.

Coleman said social services administrators already have access to information about benefits so it wasn’t clear to her why employees needed to report that fact to DSS program heads.

“If you have access, why would they have to tell you,” she asked.

The answer to the question, said Skeens and other DSS officials, is that DSS administrators want to know which employees are getting department benefits precisely so that DSS can block that information from other social services employees. Otherwise, most DSS workers will have the ability to pull up, at the touch of a button, the most intimate details about their coworkers receiving benefits.

In the past, DSS workers who receive benefits have been handled in a special way. However, social services has been transitioning all of its major services over to the infamous NC FAST computing system – so now food stamps, and many other benefits distributed by DSS, must be processed through that system. Every DSS caseworker can pull up information on any client – including their Guilford County DSS co-workers – which means that, if no precautions are taken, employees could snoop through the information and find out everything about their coworkers’ financial situation and family life, their history of benefits and their Social Security number, as well as a vast amount of other sensitive data that no one would want their coworkers knowing.

The NC FAST system keeps a record of which DSS worker has made a change on a file whenever there is an alteration, but the system doesn’t note who has only opened the file and viewed the information.

Though the purpose of the memo may have been to protect the employees, those getting the benefits were upset by it.

That memo, sent out in the mid-September, stated, “If you are an employee receiving Guilford County Social Services benefits, please inform the following Program Manager according to the received benefit by September 23rd.”

Skeens said the department will upgrade the “sensitivity level” of the files.   Unless pulled from the computer system, benefit recipient files have a sensitivity level of 1, which all employees can view. Changing that to a level 2 sensitivity classification means that if another DSS worker tries to access that account, he or she would only see a screen with stars on it rather than the usual screen containing the personal data and benefit information they can usually access.

The memo also stated, “We are trying to insure confidentiality in regards to employee cases. All identified employee cases will have limited access and be assigned to the Lead Caseworkers in each program area.”

When the Rhino Times asked Skeens how many Guilford County workers currently receive social services benefits, as well as how many employees were protected by a level 2 classification, Skeens responded in an email: “Unfortunately I don’t have the answer to your questions. NCFast does not have the capability to run a query on how many employees are receiving benefits and how many are secured. This information is not tracked at the local or state level.”

Right after the memo went out, Coleman raised the issue at a Guilford County Board of Commissioners meeting. At the Thursday, Sept. 15 meeting, Coleman talked about the numerous complaints she had gotten and Coleman had questions for Skeens and for Guilford County DHHS Economic Services Division Director Elizabeth White.

Coleman asked which employees have access to applications for benefits.

White replied, “All eligibility caseworkers, supervisors, program managers, myself, business officers – we all have access because they are entered into NC FAST now. So if you have NC FAST access – and everybody in eligibility does – you have access to those applications.”

Coleman asked, “So, could you help me understand why an employee of social services would have to divulge to you all that they are receiving food stamps?”

White and Skeens told Coleman that the purpose of the directive was to protect the information of DSS employees and they also said that employees were not required to inform program managers if they chose not to. They reiterated that it was for the DSS workers’ protection.

“It’s not locked in the system if we don’t know about it,” Skeens said of the personal information in the files. “It really is to benefit the employee.”

Skeens added that the plan was to protect the employees by not asking them to tell their direct supervisor but instead inform the program manager.

The only ones who can see level 2 sensitivity files are Skeens, White, program managers and the workers assigned to the case.

At the meeting, Coleman said coworkers could still find out a fellow employee was receiving benefits because the file could not be accessed.

“If you were trying to find out information about this person, and you went to their file, you would see stars and you would automatically know, as an employee, that they are receiving some benefits,” Coleman said.

White responded that that information would only tell a snooper that at some point the person had received benefits, but that it didn’t not mean that they’re currently receiving them.   On the other hand, White said, if they had complete access, it would be clear to everyone viewing the file exactly what benefits they were receiving along with other sensitive information.

Coleman, who has been a fairly constant critic of social services said, “Somehow there has got to be some more communication with employees. I mean there are too many things that are happening that they are not understanding.”   She said employees were already unhappy because they had to provide their driving histories to the department even if they never drive a county vehicle or drive their own cars for business.

Other commissioners say that Skeens really has to keep extra tight reigns on that department because, under the previous director, DSS was rocked with a giant scandal that revealed the department was being run about as poorly as a department can be.

After the commissioners meeting last month, the department sent out another email to employees.

Skeens said that, after re-reading the first email, “we realized we may not have been as clear as we thought we were,” and they sent this revised email request that said in bold, “This request is not mandatory; this is being completed to protect the employee’s personal information.”

Guilford County Human Services Director John Dean said that this type of privacy concern over sensitive information doesn’t generally affect other county departments since those employees don’t have the same type of client relationship some DSS employees have with their department.

Dean wrote in an email that these issues with sensitive information appear primarily in social services. He stated, “One of our County Regulations is Ethical Standards (Regulation 9) and it states, ‘Guilford County employees shall not disclose sensitive, confidential or proprietary information.’”