Food stamp workers ordered to work OT

For the second time this year, state workers who administer the food stamp program have been ordered to work overtime. Officials said the order, which took effect Monday, is designed to prevent a backlog of unprocessed applications when the food stamp program rolls out a new call-in system next month.

Except for the weeks of Thanksgiving and Christmas, workers will have to put in an extra eight hours a week through the end of the year, costing the state as much as $450,000 a week.

Like the current overtime mandate, the earlier one arose in conjunction with a new call-in system. That system proved disastrous, preventing thousands of applicants and recipients from reaching the Department of Family and Children Services, which administers food stamps in Georgia for the federal government.

At its height, the backlog of unprocessed applications reached 65,000. In response to that and other problems, federal overseers threatened to withhold as much as $76 million in administrative funds, prompting Gov. Nathan Deal to order mandatory overtime in April and May.

The application backlog now stands at a little more than 5,000, agency spokeswoman Ashley Fielding said. She and other officials framed the new overtime requirement as insurance against another crisis.

“We are not back where we were in March,” Fielding said. “We’re not planning to get to that point again.”

Instead, she said, “we want to have the cleanest house possible” when the new phone system debuts, knowing that “with any sort of transition you get some slowdown in productivity.”

About 800,000 Georgia households comprising 1.8 million people, receive food stamps. Recipients are required to renew their benefits every six months, and DFCS processes as many as 20,000 renewals a week, Fielding said. The time allotted for processing a renewal (or a new application) is typically 30 days, she said.

Federal officials, in addition to dinging the state for bad phone technology, faulted DFCS for having too few workers administering food stamps. Since January, the program has added about 420 employees, and the goal is to have 1,200 people answering the phones, Fielding said.

The new call-center technology will be provided by NexxPhase, an Atlanta company that describes itself as a “cloud-based … customer engagement platform.” According to the DFCS release, the system “will improve the customer experience by eliminating call ‘throttling,’ or calls disconnected due to a lack of capacity on the line.” Persons faced with a long wait time will also have the option to schedule a return call, Fielding said.

The platform also offers the option of integrating phone, email, text and web-based communications, and DFCS intends to deploy those added features over time, Fielding said.

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