Tuesday, May 26, 2020
May 26, 2020

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Clark County residents applying for unemployment face frustration

Obtaining benefits for newly unemployed a test of will, patience with demand soaring

By , Columbian Social Services, Demographics, Faith
Published:
3 Photos
Patricia and Dillon Haggerty are pictured with their children Quintin, 8, from left, Cadence, 6, Nora, 3, and Juniper, 1, at their family farm Dilish in Clark County on Tuesday. The Haggertys both lost their jobs in the service industry due to closures caused by the COVID-19 pandemic. The couple said their small farm business has also been affected.
Patricia and Dillon Haggerty are pictured with their children Quintin, 8, from left, Cadence, 6, Nora, 3, and Juniper, 1, at their family farm Dilish in Clark County on Tuesday. The Haggertys both lost their jobs in the service industry due to closures caused by the COVID-19 pandemic. The couple said their small farm business has also been affected. (Alisha Jucevic/The Columbian) Photo Gallery

With many people losing their jobs in the face of the coronavirus pandemic, thousands of Washington residents are turning to food stamps and other public benefits.

The average number of daily food assistance applications filed with the Department of Social and Health Services between March 23 and 27 — the first week of Gov. Jay Inslee’s stay-at-home order — was more than double that of the same time period last year. Last week saw more than 2,600 daily applications.

The agency is reporting similar increases across its benefit programs such as Temporary Assistance for Needy Families and Aged, Blind or Disabled, both cash assistance programs, and the Housing and Essential Needs program.

Those calling the Customer Service Contact Center to apply for benefits may have to wait for an hour or so. Department of Social and Health Services spokeswoman Norah West said the Community Services Office is experiencing much higher than usual call volumes and longer hold times.

The agency drastically reduced in-person services beginning last week in response to COVID-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus.

Lost wages due to COVID-19 and need help?

• Visit washingtonconnection.org to apply for public benefits or call the Customer Service Contact Center at 1-877-501-2233 between 8 a.m. and 5 p.m. Monday to Friday. Wait times may be an hour or so.

Proebstel resident Patricia Haggerty said she called the contact center on March 15 and was on hold for three hours. After that, she was transferred to a different line and on hold for another hour before she hung up.

Haggerty lost her job at Tommy O’s in Camas. Her husband, Dillon Haggerty, worked at Hopworks Urban Brewery in east Vancouver and Moda Center in Portland, which closed after holding its last event March 11. He’s not among the employees benefiting from the Portland Trail Blazers’ COVID-19 emergency relief fund.

The Haggertys, who have four children, used food stamps previously, so Patricia Haggerty figured she could just update the family’s income in their existing file. Instead, she had to complete a new application online at washingtonconnection.org.

She had trouble using the website, and when she tried multiple times to call the Vancouver DSHS office, she got a busy tone and decided to try to reach someone in person.

At the office, Haggerty was met by security staff who told her they were only letting in people who were approved for food stamps and picking up an electronic benefit transfer, or EBT, card. She said the experience was frustrating.

“It’s a bunch of calling and nobody is available — because everybody is trying to do that same thing,” she said.

Haggerty said she can only imagine how much more difficult the process would be for a single parent or someone who relies on public transportation or has some other barrier to accessing social services.

The Community Services Office encourages people to use the washingtonconnection.org website whenever possible. The contact center is open 8 a.m. to 5 p.m., and the busiest time is between 11 a.m. and 2 p.m., so West, the agency’s spokeswoman, recommends calling the first thing in the morning to get in the queue and stay on the line.

“The earlier the better,” she said.

As the pandemic ramped up, several DSHS employees shifted from traditional in-person work to supporting the contact center, West said. Other agency employees are telecommuting. At this point, the agency does not plan to hire additional employees.

“We really appreciate the public’s patience” as Community Services addresses the influx of applications, West said. “We understand this is a challenging time for everyone.”

Food assistance applications are traditionally approved or denied the same day. Under these new circumstances, however, most online applicants have to follow up with a call to the contact center for an eligibility interview. Most EBT cards are mailed to clients within seven to 10 days.

Food benefits from the federal Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, called Basic Food in Washington, and the state Food Assistance Program for immigrants are disbursed during the first 20 days of each month. Average daily benefits are $7.18 per household.

Participants will receive emergency supplements for March and April; exactly how much varies by household size and benefit allotment. For instance, a two-person household that normally receives $200 in food assistance will receive an additional $155 for March and $155 for April.

March’s additional benefits will disburse to EBT cards on Saturday. April’s additional benefits will disburse on people’s usual distribution dates (or Saturday for those whose distribution date is April 1 to 3).

In addition to applying for food stamps, the Haggertys filed for unemployment. As they wait to receive public benefits, they are wondering how to cover mortgage, car and tractor payments. Patricia Haggerty applied to work at a grocery store and hasn’t heard back.

“I have restaurant experience, and that’s it,” she said. “It’s kind of a niche market.”

The family lives on a farm called Dilish and is trying to get Community Supported Agriculture or CSA up and running this summer, but they’re unsure how viable boxes of local produce and eggs will be given the current climate around the coronavirus. It’s hard to start and market a new business right now, Patricia Haggerty said.

“This is making me panic,” she said.

If all works out and the family gets approval, Haggerty said, people who are getting food stamps may be able to use them at the farm’s CSA.

Columbian Social Services, Demographics, Faith
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