Understaffing Means Thousands of Calls for Social Services Help Go Unanswered, Union Says

Nick Gerda/Voice of OC

A homeless man rests outside the Santa Ana Library.

Thousands of calls for help signing up for food stamps, health care and other social services in Orange County go unanswered each month because of understaffing by the county, union leaders alleged during a Board of Supervisors meeting last week.

“The county has set staffing levels that fail the community,” said Raymond Hartwell, a social services eligibility worker at the county’s Garden Grove office who is also vice president of the union, American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees Local 2076.

The county has roughly 1,500 eligibility technicians, who determine whether low-income people qualify for federally-funded assistance programs like food stamps and Medi-Cal health insurance.

But Hartwell said 26,000 calls went unanswered in January, out of 75,000 total calls for help.

“In a county as wealthy as the County of Orange, that is immoral,” Hartwell said during a union presentation to county supervisors during public comments.

Neither supervisors nor county staff responded to the Feb. 28 presentation.

The union has been in labor negotiations with the county for a new contract since April, but they have not reached an agreement. The workers’ current contract expired in June.

But when the workers spoke at the Jan. 24 supervisors’ meeting, Supervisor Shawn Nelson reiterated a point he often makes when people ask the board for more social services spending.

“We get less money from our property tax than any county in the state. It has an impact,” Nelson said. Orange County gets the lowest portion of local property taxes returned by the state to a county government among all 58 counties in California.

This is due to funding formulas set up by the California Legislature in response to Proposition 13, the landmark 1978 measure that reduced property taxes statewide and slowed their future growth. The amount each county gets is based on how much it spent on schools and other government services in 1979.

“Our citizens are in need that are poor and hurting, and they need our help,” Nelson said, calling Sacramento’s treatment of Orange County property taxes “shameful.”

In addition, the supervisors have shifted the county spending they control, known as discretionary spending or net county cost, from social and health services to law enforcement.

Over the past decade, discretionary spending for the Social Services Agency and Health Care Agency dropped by $9.3 million and $10.6 million, respectively, according to county budget documents.

During the same period, discretionary spending for the Sheriff’s Department and District Attorney’s Office increased by $57 million and $32 million, respectively.

And budgetary changes coming from Sacramento could lead to further cuts to social services in Orange County, officials say.

Gov. Jerry Brown’s recent state budget proposal calls for a cutback in state contributions to counties for In-Home Supportive Services. The program, which was signed into law by then-Gov. Ronald Reagan in 1973, pays people to care for seniors and disabled people at home by helping with housework, meal preparation and other daily tasks, as an alternative to more expensive care like nursing homes.

The governor’s plan would shift between $28 million and $38 million in costs from the state to Orange County, according to Mike Ryan, director of the county Social Services Agency, during the supervisors’ Jan. 24 meeting.

If the governor’s proposal moves forward as planned, “it’s gonna have a huge impact” that will affect “all of our programs,” Ryan said.

The eligibility workers also alleged supervisors were treating them unfairly in comparison to other employee groups. All of the other professional and technical employee groups at the county have gotten pay raises that add up to a 13 percent higher increase in total wages than the eligibility workers, they said.

County compensation for the social services workers is lower than the pay of someone who’s learning to become a dog catcher for the county’s Animal Care department, the workers said.

All the eligibility workers are asking is “for the same respect” supervisors are showing everyone else, said Alex Rodriguez, one of the eligibility workers.

Nick Gerda covers county government and Santa Ana for Voice of OC. You can contact him at ngerda@voiceofoc.org.

  • verifiedsane

    OC social services are dysfunctional and an ongoing failure by design! This article isn’t really about the corruption and failure of social services to the public. It’s about the union’s own self serving agenda. That’s the truly sad commentary being relayed by mouth pieces for a corrupt public entity that wants to point fingers every where except upon itself. Deflection seldom points us in the direction of solutions.

  • Shirley L. Grindle

    Falling back on the fact that OC receives a small return of the taxes given to Sacto is getting old as an excuse for not providing services to residents. Instead of accepting this status quo, why don’t the County Supervisors do something about it – like work with legislators to get this changed?

    • verifiedsane

      Folly, is looking to the problem (County Supervisors), to actively seek solutions

  • LFOldTimer

    Here’s come truth for ya straight from the Orange County Grand Jury. The GJ estimated that in the last half of 2009 there were $9.6 million dollars in fraudulent county welfare payments. One reason is that they downsized the number of fraud case workers to a ridiculous level. So welfare fraud was actually promoted by reducing the number of investigators. Of course the welfare payments are heavily subsidized by the Feds. So why not promote welfare? It’s a big win for the public unions and for the county departments.


    Has anything been done to stop the pervasive welfare fraud in the county since that GJ report? Not to my knowledge. Today we have more welfare recipients than ever. But rarely would you see the media report on this. It’s just not politically correct and doesn’t fit their social agendas.

    Political correctness is killing the country.

  • cherylk

    San Diego has a relocation program one way ticket to anyplace in country for family support too expensive here now

  • loudchapina

    The Eligibility Workers have been victimized by their own Union more than by the County. A few years ago, they had the opportunity the sign up for the 2.7@55 retirement plan but they thought a small raise was better. Now they whine and complain that everyone else is unfair. They also voted to get rid of health coverage for retirees leaving them with the huge burden of waiting to retire until they become eligible for Medicare. Also most eligibility workers are compassionate and respectful with their clients BUT there are some that are lazy, rude, disrespectful, and treat the poor like they are criminals.

    The County is no better, they hire a lot of management and play favorites when promoting people to higher levels. A friend called a medi-cal hotline a few days ago and was told that the wait time for some to answer her call would be more than six hours. How is that good customer service?

  • LFOldTimer

    Don’t you think the time has come for an open dialogue to discuss the reasons the poverty rates in southern California has flown off the charts? The poverty rate in OC is about 25%. I realize this would take us into politically incorrect territory and would hurt the feelings of all the social justice warriors. But if we hired 1500 more welfare workers 3 years down the road we would need 1500 more. But that’s exactly what the public unions want. More workers, bigger kingdoms and more power. Government unions aren’t poverty fighters – they’re poverty advocates since they’re direct beneficiaries of poverty. Poor people are their lifeblood. For God sakes, there are over 300,000 illegal aliens living in OC. More than 10% of our population by conservative estimates. 95% of those are indigents. Then we have our homemade underclass who need public assistance. Add it all up and one out of every 3 OC residents need handouts. Has the time come to ask “why?” instead of just rolling over and feeding the beast?

    The number of Medi-Cal enrollees has exploded. California has 12 million residents in Medi-Cal. Our Medi-Cal population is larger than the individual populations of 44 states! lol. California has 33% of the nation’s welfare recipients but only 12% of the nation’s total population. Go figure. Has anybody asked “why?”. Of course not. The answer is too uncomfortable. It would hurt the sensitive ears of the liberals who think money grows on trees. So they sweep the dirt under the carpet.

    “Our citizens are in need that are poor and hurting, and they need our help,” Nelson said, calling Sacramento’s treatment of Orange County property taxes “shameful.”

    Even Nelson won’t address the real problem. The best he can do is wag his crooked finger at Sacramento – which is a total cop-out. Nelson is just as politically correct as the social justice warriors in SacTown. He’s scared to tell the truth – as it would result in political fallout in the event he decides to run for another public office. So he leaves all options open with the help of political correctness.

    Stop it, Shawn. You voted to give OCSD a $62 million dollar raise during the last contract agreement. And in the previous contract you voted to give them a 10% raise. County government is rolling in dough. You’ve got a $6B budget. You’ve got the cash to spend on more welfare workers. So quit the theatrics. Show some courage and talk about the REAL problem for once.

    Unless these problems are hit head-on they only get worse.