The shutdown of city welfare offices due to the pandemic meant many New Yorkers would have to rely on their phones to apply for benefits like food stamps and job assistance.
But that hasn’t been working out very well, according to the Urban Justice Center, which recently conducted an audit of the city hotline devoted to those types of calls.
The Justice Center, which is focused on helping people secure public benefits, found that more than 50% of calls to the city Human Resources Administration were dropped and 20% had wait times of more than eight minutes.
Callers also had difficulty getting through to translators and had to struggle through English-only pre-recorded messages, according to the group, which conducted the audit through calls it made between June 23 and Aug. 4.
“People need to be able to get in touch with the city administration that is responsible for administering critical benefits,” said Kiana Davis, the group’s policy analyst and benefits advocate. “The fact that the info line has excessive dropped calls, inadequate access for non-English speakers and workers who are not adequately trained makes it unduly burdensome for New Yorkers to get the help they need.”
Sarah Wilson, 40, says she’s been waiting two weeks — and counting — to get her housing benefits sorted out through the hotline.
“The process of getting a hold of them is quite difficult,” she said.
City workers called her from blocked numbers, arousing fears that they were scam artists since she had to provide personal information over her smartphone, she said. That led to delays, forcing her to reapply for benefits she’d already been receiving.
She was able to use her phone to send records to HRA, but noted that not everyone is so fortunate.
“The app and email are only so good,” she said. “A lot of people don’t have WiFi or a smartphone.”
The hotline headaches come at a time when increasingly more people are out of work and in dire need of public assistance.
In April, there were 34,213 applications for cash assistance — a 33% increase compared to April 2019, according to data provided by HRA in May.
The agency declined on Friday to provide more recent data. Arianna Fishman, an HRA spokeswoman, noted that “the city is doing everything possible to meet the needs of our most vulnerable.”
“We’ve implemented sweeping reforms to make all our benefits accessible online, by phone and via our world-class app, reassigned and retrained more than 1,300 additional staff to process cases, and built a new remote access platform and deployed technology to enable as many staff as possible to process applications and interview clients from their homes,” she said.
In March, the city closed down nine offices that specialize in connecting people with food stamp benefits. Five of those offices — one in each borough — have remained open to process walk-in food stamp applicants.
Eleven job centers have also closed, leaving seven open.
“They’re all still closed,” Davis said. “The city has not said anything officially about re-opening plans.”
People seeking benefits or having problems with the benefits they already receive also have the option of using the city’s online portal. But according to Davis, the problem with that is it doesn’t allow for questions or any real back and forth.
Because of COVID-19, the federal government granted states the ability to waive some requirements connected to food stamp and cash assistance benefits, essentially allowing people to submit their applications over the phone.
But the loosening of application restrictions isn’t always translating into results, according to the Urban Justice Center’s findings.
According to Sameer Jain, who worked on the audit for the group, seven out of nine HRA workers who were asked about the new parameters had no idea they had been put into place.
“Most of them were not aware of the policy,” he said.