By Erica C. Barnett
When the pandemic shut down in-person offices across the state in March 2020, the state Department of Social and Health Services (DSHS) was no exception; the department, which administers state benefits ranging from direct cash assistance to food stamps, shuttered all 181 of its local offices and began offering services only online or over the phone.
In the two years since, many state, regional, and local government offices that serve the public have reopened, including public libraries, city customer service centers, and many local courts. But DSHS still requires anyone seeking assistance to use their online portal or call a telephone hotline, where waits can be as long as several hours. People who are unsheltered, those without reliable cell phone service, and those who don’t speak English (who are instructed to “leave a voicemail with your phone number and the language you speak”) are especially ill-served by this patchwork system.
“Essentially, if you have internet service, and unlimited minutes, and time to wait on hold for two or three hours or longer, you can access services, but if you don’t… you cannot,” said Alison Eisinger, director of the Seattle/King County Coalition on Homelessness, which is backing a bill that would require DSHS to either provide better customer service or stop penalizing people who can’t access their system.
For social service providers seeking services on behalf of homeless clients, Eisinger said, “it does no good to stay on hold for three hours, only to be told, ‘We’ll give you a call back next week,’ because when the call comes, the outreach worker is one place and the person they’re trying to help is who knows where.”
“It’s pretty straightforward: They literally can’t sit on a phone for three or four hours. They don’t have a place that’s warm and safe and dry to do that, they don’t have a phone charger that allows them to do that, they don’t have a space that works—and even if it did work, so many are in states of mental health crisis or have other barriers that a phone interview is just not gonna do it.”—HB 2075 sponsor Rep. Strom Peterson
State Rep. Strom Peterson (D-21, Edmonds), who is sponsoring the legislation, said that while he was initially reluctant to support a bill penalizing a short-staffed agency for poor customer service, “the issue came in focus more and more” as he heard from homeless service providers and other advocates for people who rely on basic services and can’t easily access them online or over the phone.
Nightmare stories abound. “One of the advocates told me about a Nigerian immigrant who was almost entirely deaf… so between his accent and his inability to hear somebody on the phone, it was clear that there was no way he could get the services that he so desperately needed” using DSHS’ current system, Peterson said. Other advocates highlighted additional barriers for people suffering from PTSD or traumatic brain injuries, who can have difficulty processing complex information over the phone.
“It’s pretty straightforward: They literally can’t sit on a phone for three or four hours. They don’t have a place that’s warm and safe and dry to do that, they don’t have a phone charger that allows them to do that, they don’t have a space that works—and even if it did work, so many are in states of mental health crisis or have other barriers that a phone interview is just not gonna do it,” Peterson said.
If DSHS is unable to meet any of the new standards—a distinct possibility, since the bill doesn’t include any additional funding—the legislation would bar the agency from reducing or eliminating any client’s benefits.
The bill would impose several new mandates. First, it would require DSHS to “ensure that clients may apply for and receive services in a manner that is suited to the clients’ needs, [including] needs related to technology, language, and ability.” Second, it would require DSHS to reopen all its in-person service centers for all services, not just the current limited menu. (Somewhat perversely, people can show up at service centers in person to call DSHS on a designated land line or access online services on a DSHS computer.) Third, it would require the department to reduce call times to no more than 30 minutes.
Finally, if DSHS is unable to meet any of the new standards—a distinct possibility, since the bill doesn’t include any additional funding (which could make it untenable during the 60-day “short” session)—the legislation would bar the agency from reducing or eliminating any client’s benefits.
A DSHS spokesperson told PubliCola on Monday that the agency was just starting to analyze the bill and would have more detailed comments about its impacts later this week.
State Rep. Nicole Macri (D-43, Seattle), who is co-sponsoring Peterson’s bill, acknowledged that DSHS, like many government and nonprofit agencies that serve vulnerable clients, has been understaffed since the beginning of the pandemic, a situation that was exacerbated by a yearlong hiring freeze between May 2020 and April 2021.
But, she added, the agency has not asked for more resources to help them recruit more workers; nor have they suggested solutions to address the barriers that are causing the state’s most vulnerable people to lose access to basic services, including disability benefits, Housing and Essential Needs (HEN) payments, food stamps, and Temporary Assistance to Needy Families, which provides cash assistance for families with children.
After enhanced federal unemployment benefits ran out last summer, “many folks started reaching out to DSHS for support that they weren’t eligible for previously,” Macri said. “In some cases, people were totally cut off from income.” In other cases, people have reported losing benefits because they were required to check in with DSHS periodically but couldn’t reach anyone on the phone.
And, of course, there are people who are eligible for benefits but never receive them because of barriers to signing up online or over the phone. “It’s kind of denial by omission,” Peterson said. “If people can’t get through and become so frustrated they give up, then they have [still] been denied benefits.”
Eisinger, with the Coalition on Homelessness, said her organization proposed the bill—the first bill the group has ever “run”—as a last resort after DSHS rejected every other option advocates put on the table.
“They could do things like making it easier to get on benefits before having to provide documentation. They could dedicate a phone line for folks who are working with people who are unsheltered. We think they need to consider ways to accelerate their training process and support their own staff better,” Eisinger said.
“We believe that they don’t have enough staff, but that is not actually an acceptable response when the effect on the people who have the hardest time accessing these benefits and entitlements is that they simply aren’t able to access the programs.”
Peterson’s bill will be heard next Tuesday in the Housing, Human Services, and Veterans committee, which he chairs. The deadline for bills to pass out of committee in their house of origin is next Tuesday, February 3.