DFCS caseworkers in Georgia: ‘It’s like being in an emergency room’

Turnover is starting to ease, but it hasn’t returned to pre-pandemic levels
In December alone, about 28,000 people were not given their benefits, including food stamps and Medicaid, in a timely manner.

In December alone, about 28,000 people were not given their benefits, including food stamps and Medicaid, in a timely manner.

On any given day before 2020, the workload of one veteran Division of Family & Children Services caseworker was busy, yet manageable.

But as the coronavirus pandemic tore through Georgia, her team started hemorrhaging employees. The caseworker and her co-workers, who administer benefits to some of the most vulnerable Georgians, are now operating with a skeleton crew. The consequences are tangible: This caseworker estimates that she gets dozens of voicemails on an average day that she is unable to answer.

“The clients are right; they’re not lying when you say they can’t get ahold of anybody,” said the caseworker, speaking on the condition of anonymity. “The populations we serve are not being served.”

This caseworker’s experience is representative of a pattern within Georgia’s safety net services: Phone calls are unreturned, benefits are not always paid on time, and the workloads are mounting.

Georgia has always had problems retaining caseworkers, who are responsible for the welfare of children and manage benefits for countless vulnerable residents. The pandemic accelerated that turnover, as workers started trading in their grueling jobs for higher paying, less-stressful positions. Gov. Brian Kemp and state officials acknowledge the issue and are working to implement policies to stave off turnover. So far, the rates within the Division of Family & Children Services, or DFCS, have started to improve.

Two caseworkers — one who administers benefits and another who works in child welfare — spoke to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution on the condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak to the media and they fear doing so could cost them their jobs. They both described a system that is strained and under-resourced.

The benefits caseworker, who has been with the department for years, worries they will lose more workers after additional pay from a federal pandemic-relief program ended in December. She says she is the only person on her team who hasn’t yet interviewed for another job.

State public records show the impact of a diminished workforce:

  • In December alone, about 28,000 people were not given their benefits, including food stamps and Medicaid, in a timely manner, according to public records The Atlanta Journal-Constitution obtained from DFCS. That’s nearly 12% of applicants for all benefits programs.
  • Within that population of late payments: The Medicaid program for the “Aged, Blind and Disabled” showed 2,495 people, or nearly 30% of applicants, were not approved on time for December. These are people in nursing homes, long term care facilities, or people who stay in hospitals for more than 30 days.
  • Child welfare workers are now responsible for more kids, thus reducing the amount of time they can spend on any individual case. That’s according to a court monitor overseeing the child welfare system in Fulton and DeKalb counties.

While caseworker churn has slightly eased in recent months, the turnover rate is still outpacing turnover prior to the pandemic, according to state records. State officials are taking steps to try and stem the losses: as part of his budget proposal, Kemp wants to give the state an additional 300 caseworkers to deal with a wave of Georgians who will be applying for Medicaid coverage. He’s also proposed a $2,000 annual pay boost for all state workers, a move that would benefit some of the lowest paid employees the most.

Department of Human Services Commissioner Candice Broce, who also oversees the Division of Family & Children Services, said the recent investments in pay have made a tangible difference. She said she is hopeful the conversations will continue in the Legislature.

“I don’t know what their timing is, but we are ready to work with them whenever they want to have that discussion,” Broce said. “And we’re really hopeful that there will be increases.”

The turnover rates, particularly among the lowest level employees, are easing but still high. For example, “Social Services Specialists” or child welfare workers, have a turnover rate of 27% from July to December 2022. During the same period in 2021, turnover was 28%.

“Economic Support Specialists” or the workers who administer benefits, had a turnover rate of 11% from July to December 2022. At the same time in 2021, that rate was at 16%.

In total, DHS says it has about 4,000 caseworkers who work in benefits and child welfare. It would not say how many they need to be considered fully-staffed.

DHS says it is aggressively working to recruit and retain workers. In recent months, the state has held a number of hiring fairs, and have hired hundreds of workers who can process benefits applications. They are also collaborating with a national organization that helps devise child welfare staff retention strategies.

The most recent state budget included a cost-of-living pay raise and a one-time bonus to all state workers. DHS is also paying overtime to workers, offering more options to work from home, and reducing administrative burdens.

“We are short-staffed due to unprecedented demand for benefit programs as well as the impact of the Great Resignation, but we are aggressively hiring,” said Kylie Winton, a spokesperson for DHS.

Despite these changes, the caseworkers who spoke to the AJC said the pay is not enough to entice employees to stay in these grueling positions. Now, the lowest levels of caseworkers who administer benefits are paid $32,000 a year, and those who work in child welfare make slightly more than $40,000 a year.

Another caseworker, who works in child welfare, says she’s been responsible for about 30 kids at any given time. She lives in fear that she’s spending too much time with some cases, at the expense of helping other children in her care. DHS says that on average, child welfare caseworkers have caseloads that range from 11 to 20 cases.

“So many kids just get lost in the shuffle and it’s not intentional,” said the caseworker, who also asked not to be named. “It’s like being in an emergency room. You have to triage.”

She isn’t alone in her experience. In Fulton and DeKalb counties, many child welfare workers have more cases than they can handle, according to reports from a court-appointed monitor who oversees the two counties.

Caseworkers for child welfare are not supposed to have more than 12 to 17 cases at one time, according to the court monitor. But they found that 44% of caseworkers in DeKalb County and 28% of caseworkers in Fulton County were blowing past that cap for the first six months of 2022.

The monitor also found the counties weren’t hiring at a fast enough pace: from January to June 2022, the two counties hired 73 workers, but 132 workers left. This included about two dozen caseworkers who all called in sick in May to protest their working conditions. They were later all fired. DHS has defended the firings, saying those caseworkers can’t put children’s lives in danger by trying to prove a point.

Further complicating matters, benefits caseworkers also recently saw a cut in their paychecks. In the past year, the state used federal coronavirus-relief aid to pay some workers an extra $480 per month. That money ran out at the end of December, DHS said.

The veteran caseworker who spoke with the AJC said her teammates were shocked when the boost expired.

“Management would regularly say, ‘Just a reminder, it’s temporary but we are working to make this permanent because we value you,’” she said. “Everybody felt like a bucket of cold water hit them on the head when that e-mail [indicating the pay was running out] came right before the holidays.”

Broce acknowledged that she worries the loss of $480 a month for workers could exacerbate turnover in the new year. She said she will continue to pursue additional funding, or to find ways to make their jobs more flexible.

“We knew that the money would run out, we always knew that. But we did not want to prevent our staff from being able to get those supplements purely because we knew one day, we’d have to take them away,” she said.

The child welfare caseworker said the reward for succeeding in her job is more cases. In a week, she estimates that she’s working 80 hours on average between field work and working from home. She thinks that if the state wants to retain more caseworkers, they need to significantly boost salaries.

“This is the hardest job I’ve ever had,” she said. “I walk this line of being so frustrated with the system that I want to walk away from it completely, to, on the flip side, being so frustrated with the system that I want to change it.”

Despite the constant hours, this caseworker says her team is considered to be “fully staffed” by department standards. Just saying those words leaves her looking exasperated.

“I tell people every day that I work against the current constantly,” she said. “I’m just trying not to drown.”