While much of the official and media focus during the Coronavirus pandemic has been on public health operations, county social workers also have been catapulted into center focus like never before.
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Food stamp and general aid applications have soared at the agency and wellness checks on many of the most vulnerable – children and the elderly – have become much trickier.
Yet despite the spike in workload, many of these social workers could soon be applying for the very programs they are now administering as their agency faces cutbacks due to steep sales tax losses to county coffers.
County Social Services Agency Director Debra Baetz said the economic fallout from the virus has hit the agency harder and faster than the Great Recession.
“The increase is more drastic with this pandemic. Everything shut down all at once and there was an upfront demand for needs,” Baetz said in a phone interview. “I think I see it as more of a dramatic increase in need due to the pace of the closures.”
Baetz said assistance programs needed in the Great Recession gradually built up.
But the pandemic landed all at once, economically reeling many residents and causing food stamp applications to more than double compared to the same time last year.
“Our applications for CalFresh (food stamps) are definitely more than double,” Baetz said.
CalFresh is the federally funded food stamp program administered by the state.
There were over 1.5 million OC residents employed in March, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.
That number fell to 1.3 million in April, the latest data available from the Bureau. The job losses created a nearly 14 percent unemployment rate for Orange County as of April, according to the Bureau.
And the unemployment rate is expected to grow.
Gov. Gavin Newsom is expecting a 25 percent statewide jobless rate at some point this year, he said at a news conference last month.
In Orange County, applications for food assistance increased by 80 percent, from 25,934 households applying for the benefits from March through May last year, compared with 46,704 during the same time this year, according to numbers provided by agency officials.
Baetz said she made sure community outreach about the benefits has been translated into multiple languages for Orange County’s diverse population.
“We always make sure that whatever we are sending out is translated,” Baetz said. “And we always make sure those communications go to those in-language outlets (like community newspapers), so that everybody receives it in a way that can be easily communicated.”
Baetz also said she’s been speaking with various city officials on conference calls to let them know about the benefits administered by the agency and any program changes stemming from the pandemic.
Medi-Cal applications are also up over 17 percent in the same time frame. Medi-Cal is the state-administered health insurance program for the poor and needy, funded through a combination of federal and state money.
Direct cash aid, known as CalWORKs, for families with children also increased over 66 percent to a total of 7,064 families.
Lawrence Pascual, a benefits eligibility and application technician, said it wasn’t until late May that he noticed an uptick in Medi-Cal applications.
“In the first month or two, the only applications I had been receiving was CalFresh and it was only recently it’s been a mix of CalFresh and Medi-Cal,” Pascual said.
He said he expects more Medi-Cal applications as unemployment grows. Pascual also said he reminds himself there’s people behind the applications.
Since the SSA lobby closed because of the pandemic, the agency started doing drive-thru benefit applications and benefit card pick-ups for residents.
“We need to remember that these are humans we’re dealing with, these are families,” Pascual said. “We’re dealing with a brother, sister, mother or father.”
To date, Orange County Supervisors haven’t really asked Baetz much from the public dais about the pandemic’s impact on the poor and vulnerable.
Since the pandemic began, Baetz normally gives an update to the OC Board of Supervisors at their Tuesday meetings, but Chairwoman Michelle Steel abruptly ended the meeting last week before Baetz could give supervisors an update.
Supervisors routinely hear her updates and move onto the next item without asking Baetz questions or having a discussion about the rising food stamp, medical and cash aid program applications.
Early in the pandemic, Baetz told Supervisors she was concerned about the sharp drop in child and elder abuse reporting — normally done through schools, doctor offices, banks for elderly people.
Supervisors didn’t engage on the topic publicly, then or since.
Baetz told Voice of OC the agency has partnered with the OC Department of Education to help raise awareness of potential child abuse cases.
“We continue to work with the Department of Education. I will be honest, what we do know from the Emergency Operations Center is that the teachers, our local educators are very committed to their students and we know from a variety of sources is they have been reaching out and doing wellness checks on students for whatever reason aren’t logging in” for their online courses, Baetz said.
Sabrina, an emergency response social worker for children, said she’s seen needs grow for low-income families during her welfare checks. Due to security concerns because of the nature of her work, her last name was withheld by Social Services Agency officials.
“We are seeing more families who are in need of more financial help because they’re losing their jobs,” Sabrina said in a phone interview.
She says she and other emergency social workers are giving out lists of resources — from food stamps to direct cash assistance — during their visits to needy families.
The school closures have also been affecting the kids, Sabrina said.
“There’s an additional stress for kids that they’re not able to go to school, not able to have their normal routine in life,” she said. “It’s so important for, especially for older kids, to be able to socialize with their peer groups. So that is something I’ve seen when I’m talking to kids.”
Since the pandemic hit, Sabrina said she sometimes checks on kids through video conferences.
But she still needs to visit houses to check on the children, she said.
“My job is to go out and just assess their safety and see if there’s any needs that need to be met to keep the home safe,” Sabrina said. “There’s really no way to do emergency response without being public — there is just no way. When I had that mom who had COVID-19, I still had to go out to where the child was.”
Baetz said the agency is taking a multi-department approach to check in with at-risk or vulnerable children.
“My child welfare staff is working very closely with our CalWorks staff and we’re doing wellness checks on our CalWorks households,” Baetz said. “To look at what resources our most vulnerable need and looking at ways to meet those needs.”
Social workers have found children may be in need from anything from food to school supplies since working with the food stamp workers, Baetz said.
“It’s going really, really well and I’m pretty proud of the work we’ve done.”
Rene Velasco-Pelayo, who’s a social worker with the agency, said he and other staff have been able to consistently check-in with the elderly population through video conference calls so employees aren’t exposing high-risk seniors to the virus.
“Since this whole thing started, I’ve actually only gone out to two clients in-person,” Velasco-Pelayo said.
He works in the agency’s In-Home Supportive Services, which helps care for elderly and disabled people throughout OC.
“The elderly, the blind, the disabled. What our program does is provide those services to ensure that those with limited ability that can’t care for themselves are able to remain safely at home,” Velasco-Pelayo said.
He said the supportive services clients are able to choose from an agency-provided list of certified caretakers or a relative to serve as a caretaker
Velasco-Pelayo said while social workers are contacting all the seniors and disabled people in the program multiple times during the pandemic, they’re also examining their needs.
“Also as we’re doing the assessment we make sure that the clients have enough food, that they have a provider (caretaker) in place, they have medications, they have emergency contacts,” Velasco-Pelayo said.
He said social workers also have necessity items on-hand.
“If the clients, let’s say they don’t have food for the next three days, they can deliver it to them,” Velasco-Pelayo said.
Social workers also have diapers, wipes, nutritional shakes and various other items ready to be delivered to elderly or disabled people when they need it.
Now, after months of nonstop work to get food and general relief distributed, these workers themselves may soon need the very programs they are administrating.
The County Social Services Agency is threatened with a gaping hole in the state budget — an expected $54 billion budget deficit.
Many of the programs administered by the SSA are funded through state and federal money.
And Orange County is facing a projected $200 million loss in funds over the next year, largely due to the drop in sales tax. The forecasts could affect positions at the SSA and other programs.
It’s also unclear if Congress is going to approve another bailout package for counties and cities throughout the United States.
“The reality is everything we’re working on right now is budget projections,” Baetz said. “We won’t have a clear understanding of what those numbers are for Orange County until probably August. What we are doing is proactively looking at our expenditures, looking at our areas where we can be more efficient.”
Spencer Custodio is a Voice of OC staff reporter. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @SpencerCustodio.
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