What happens when an irresistible force meets an immovable object?

Guilford County may find out the answer as caseloads for the Division of Social Services (DSS) continue to rise but the Board of Commissioners appears dead set against adding more staff. Guilford County DSS has complained about a lack of adequate staff since roughly the beginning of time; however, those requests began to escalate in 2016 and continue in the new year due to changes in procedures, rising caseloads, less outsourcing by DSS and other issues.

At a Thursday, Dec. 5, Guilford County Board of Commissioners meeting, the board heard tales of overworked DSS staff and news of how they are putting in lots of overtime, but the commissioners refused to believe that throwing more new DSS positions at the problem was the solution. Some comments commissioners made during the meeting demonstrated that, after continually adding DSS case workers in recent years, their frustration level is very high.

“The caseload, you said, continues to grow,” Guilford County Commissioner Alan Branson said to Social Services Director Heather Skeens and other DSS staff who made a presentation at the meeting. “I have a little bit of a hard time figuring out why the case load continues to grow when we’re coming out of a recession. We’re starting to see more people back at work – I just don’t understand it. Is there any way you can explain that to me: We’re coming out of a recession and the unemployment rate is dropping and the caseloads continue to rise. I appreciate everything that you do, but I’m having a hard time understanding.”

Guilford County has not shown a significant increase in population that would account for the increased demand.

Commissioner Alan Perdue also said some other solution was needed rather than hiring more DSS staff. He called for a fundamental reevaluation of the issue from a new perspective. He said that if the problem is the NC FAST computing system used to track cases, or is state legislation regulating DSS or something else – perhaps the board could help.

“A few weeks ago,” Perdue said, “I asked the question, ‘Is the problem the software or the individuals working there?’ and my understanding was, your people are doing a great job – but the software isn’t performing as fast as the people. It seems like the more you drill down into this issue, we’re being held hostage by NC FAST in many situations. That needs to be fixed. That’s not just impacting Guilford County – that’s impacting 100 counties across the state.”

Perdue said one thing he had learned in his training in Emergency Services is that you need to challenge your assumptions, and he said he felt that was needed to help fix this situation.

A report on the economic services section of DSS compiled in July 2016 shows that, in 2010, there were 35,952 family and child Medicaid cases, and that number grew to 43,013 in 2013 – and to 49,465 at the time of the report. Adult Medicaid cases in the county grew from 10,546 cases in 2010 to 15,778 in July. Food and nutrition service caseloads were at 34,261 in 2010 and increased to 46,697.   Those are increases of 37 percent, 50 percent and 36 percent respectively, over a period when Guilford County’s population only increased about 6 percent.

The Economic Services Division – just one part of DSS – has added 30 positions since 2013. At the Dec. 5 meeting, the DSS presentation revealed that 42 workers had left economic services voluntarily. That was something Commissioner Carolyn Coleman said she found astounding and unacceptable.

“This isn’t normal; this isn’t a sweat factory,” she said. “Obviously, this is difficult work. Until Guilford County gets to a point where it doesn’t feel like people are burned out, I think we’re going to continue to have a high level of turnover and it’s not benefiting us if we are continually having to train new people over and over again.”

Coleman said she didn’t know whether studying the situation or some other strategy was needed, but she pointed out that Guilford County had paid over $300,000 in overtime for DSS.

“That’s just too much,” she said. “Maybe somebody can tell us what kind of study has to be done – but something has to be done.”

DSS administrators told the commissioners that the additional work for the department was a result of the Affordable Care Act, changes in eligibility rules and the implementation of new practices as the department transitions all of its services to NC FAST. That computer system is considered by many to be one of the worst systems in the history of modern computing.

At the meeting, Economic Services Division Director Elizabeth White said one reason for the increasing caseloads in food and nutrition is that income eligibility limits for recipients continue to rise. She also said she couldn’t comment on the state of the economy, but she does know that the number of people seeking benefits hasn’t decreased.

“The reason for that? I don’t know the answer,” she said.

Guilford County Manager Marty Lawing told the board that one part of the problems may be that, while more people are finding jobs, many of those workers end up “underemployed.”

“They may not be receiving the compensation that they should be based on their skill level, so even though they are working, they may apply for more benefits,” he said.

Commissioner Ray Trapp, a Democrat who’s made helping the working poor his primary goal for this year, said the supposed economic recovery was an illusion.

“I for one don’t believe some of the numbers that we see,” Trapp said.

He said many people lost top-tier jobs and took new ones for less pay.

“Now they make so little,” Trapp said. “So people are working, but they are not making the wage that they need to make.”

Trapp also said that, interestingly, one of the employers in question is the Guilford County school system, which in some cases offers very low pay for employees. Trapp said people are working in the school system but many of those workers are eligible for social services benefits because of low pay.

“So we have to talk about this,” Trapp said.

Skeens pointed out that was also true of some employees in her department.

“Our eligibility workers qualify based on their income,” Skeens said. “So even part of our staff qualify for food and nutrition and Medicaid services.”

Skeens added that she didn’t know how many DSS employees were receiving benefits because the tracking system isn’t set up to provide that type of information.

In Guilford County, the minimum starting salary for a DSS food and nutrition eligibility caseworker is $33,963 – though starting pay can be higher based on experience, education and other factors. The maximum pay for that position tops out at $57,737. Currently, the average salary for an eligibility caseworker in Guilford County DSS is $36,635.

In North Carolina, the maximum income a family of four can make and still be eligible for food stamps is $48,600.

The maximum amount a family of eight can make and still be eligible for food stamps is $81,792. The maximum an individual living alone can make and still get food stamps is $23,760.

No one knows how to address the issues but it will no doubt be a center of attention for the Board of Commissioners in 2017. After the Jan. 5 meeting, Commissioner Hank Henning said there are a lot of parts to the current disturbing situation.

“I hear both sides of the debate when we are debating Dodd-Frank and Obamacare and the disastrous policies that have come out of the Obama administration,” Henning said. “I hear we’re coming out of the recession and we’ve turned the corner and everything else we talk about in regard to DSS. There’s a great admission that everyone is underemployed and that the recovery has been nothing but fictitious and the numbers have been nothing but a complete lie.”

Henning said the increase in people seeking benefits from DSS shows the reality of economic damage done under Obama. He said that Trapp’s statements were a good reflection on what has really happened under Obama.

“I think that’s all the truth, and we need to be honest about it,” he said. “Frankly, the number of cases is on the rise because there isn’t the proper type of work out there. I hope the Trump administration will help us turn the corner back the other way or in the right way so we can actually bring real employment to our community.”