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Errors, employee unrest at Utah's Workforce Services

Some clients say DWS workplace woes also affect them.

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"When you have a demand for quantity, you’re going to miss quality," Roe said. "And then you have agency errors which the struggling poor have to pay back."

Roe, who teaches life-skills classes to inmates at the Salt Lake County jail and also volunteers in the Homeless Court held at Salt Lake City’s Wiegand Center, contacted the U.S. Department of Agriculture with his concerns.

At a glance

Caseloads up, staff and budget down

The recent recession caused a flood of need while resources grew scarcer:

Public assistance cases » 121,712 in 2008; up to 183,600 in 2012

Food stamp cases » 53,907 in 2008; up to 113,946 in 2012

Eligibility workers » 1,094 in 2008; down to 808 in 2012

Operational costs » $80 million in 2008; down to $59.4 million in 2012

Source » Utah Department of Workforce Services

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In a March 29 reply, regional Director Cheryl Kennedy told Roe that Utah’s agency is operating under a corrective action plan to address error rates that result in underpaid benefits or their improper suspension or termination.

However, Utah’s pursuit of overpayment reimbursement — in cases where households obtained more than they were entitled to receive — is in line with congressional intent, Kennedy said.

DWS spokesman Stewart said the corrective action plan deals with denial and closure errors, not overpayments. Supervisors now double-check cases before they are finalized, Stewart added, and further training is being provided to improve performance.

Cox defends her work » In legislative committee sessions this spring, Cox has defended her agency’s track record: DWS handles eligibility for more than 150 programs, she said.

Cox, who receives a total annual compensation package of $187,616, said she has tried to maximize output with scarce resources.

"We focused on cost and quality over the past few years because those are essential during a recession," Cox told legislators, touting a decrease in cost per case from $57.66 to $35. "Our target this upcoming year is $31.86."

While the federal government allows up to 30 days for case determinations, Cox said her target is 12 (the agency now averages about 14).

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She acknowledged that federal and state guidelines are not crystal clear when it comes to calculating eligibility.

"There are a lot of different rules around income," Stewart said. "We’re working with the Department of Health to have a more consistent method across the system."

Cox also told lawmakers that the agency’s work environment functions as a democracy, including an online "Ask Kristen" tool by which employees can give input.

That feature is supposed to be anonymous, but Rep. Bird told Cox during a May committee session that emails he’d received say "it’s anything but." He also said he would use subpoena power to gather testimony from employees who otherwise would keep quiet out of fear.

"We’re open to the audit and sharing this information," Cox responded. "Likewise, I hope that you would be open to understanding that a couple folks don’t necessarily represent the agency as a whole."

Sen. Karen Morgan, D-Cottonwood Heights, said that during the past year she has received many calls and emails complaining about difficulties in accessing DWS services.

Between July and December 2011, the DWS call center averaged more than 100,000 calls each month, with wait times ranging from 13 to almost 20 minutes. About one-third dropped off before the calls were answered.

"It’s a big issue," Morgan said.

Sen. Karen Mayne, D-West Valley City, compiled a list of client service questions to be considered during the upcoming DWS audit.

"[DWS] is the place to go for help," Mayne said. "Many who work there try to do the very best they can and our job is to give them the tools and the morale to do [that]."

Tribune staff writer Robert Gehrke contributed to this story.

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