State says it will take months to clear backlogged food stamp applications

A months-long backlog of food stamp applications has denied aid to thousands of Alaskans. And although the state plans to add additional employees during the next few weeks to process the applications, the director of the statewide program said Dec. 27 it likely will be months more before all the issues are resolved.

At least 8,000 households applying for Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program benefits since September have faced delays of 90 to 120 days in processing, far exceeding the 30-day statutory requirement, due to an employee shortage and lingering issues from a cyberattack in May of 2021, according to a statement by the Alaska Division of Public Assistance.

“It’s not an easy fix or an easy thing to find solutions for,” Shawnda O’Brien, the division’s director, said in an interview.

The agency is processing expedited applications for households claiming immediate need — with less than $150 in cash and less than $100 in any other funds such as a bank account — within the mandatory seven calendar days, she said.

Residents with pending applications said they are facing waits of several hours on hold when they call, non-responses when they do reach the division, and an inability to pay for food and other bills. Juneau public radio KTOO first reported the backlog.

The division’s Juneau office was mostly empty of employees around midday Dec. 26, with a lone applicant filling out paperwork in the waiting area. O’Brien said the office normally has about 30 employees, but many have been working remotely since the COVID-19 pandemic.

The division is seeking to hire 45 temporary employees and fill 30 vacant permanent positions, with 33 temporary and 13 permanent staff signed up as of this month. O’Brien said they should be trained and ready to help applicants within a few weeks.

“For now, it will help us answer the phones more quickly,” she said.

Several complications are contributing to the delay, according to the division’s statement:

A cyberattack on the division’s computer systems in May of 2021 is continuing to cause problems with automation tasks, meaning much of that work must be done manually by employees.

The end of the state’s public health emergency declaration in July of this year, combined with a high staff vacancy rate, resulted in an accumulating backlog as staff needed to verify everyone’s income status after the emergency ended. “Extra time was spent during the application and recertification process for the months of July-September 2022, because an interview was required for all SNAP applications and recertification,” the statement noted.

All states have had to deal with an influx of applications that followed the end of that federal program. But none seem to be experiencing such significant delays in processing as Alaska, where delays average about two to four months, Leigh Dickey, an advocacy director with Alaska Legal Services, told the Anchorage Daily News. The agency provides free legal assistance to lower-income Alaskans.

The backlog “just shows how completely broken our system is,” Dickey said.

More than 80,000 Alaska households received SNAP benefits. The backlogged, pending applicants are either from new households or those seeking to renew expiring benefits, which is required every six months.

Qualified applicants will receive retroactive benefits for the backlogged period, according to the division.

 

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