Tabytha Gardener and William Foord say this Christmas holiday season feels quieter, more subdued than usual.
Normally, Christmas dinner for the Anchorage couple includes a prime rib roast or a turkey with all the trimmings, mashed potatoes, gravy, salad, a green bean casserole, corn for the picky ones, rolls, pumpkin and pecan pie, and apple cider.
This year, it’s macaroni and cheese and hot dogs. Their bank account is overdrawn by $497.
The couple is among thousands of Alaskans whose food stamp benefits have been severely delayed over the last four months amid an unprecedented backlog of applications and a staffing shortage at the Alaska Division of Public Assistance.
State officials attribute the problem to the staff shortage, a cyberattack that disrupted online services for months and an influx of recertification applications they received early this fall when Alaska’s pandemic-era Emergency Allotment Program expired in September. The program had made it easier for Alaskans to receive maximum benefits without annual recertifications, and ended when the state’s emergency declaration did.
All states have had to deal with an influx of applications that followed the end of that federal program. But none seem to be experiencing such significant delays in processing as Alaska, where delays average about two to four months, Leigh Dickey, an advocacy director with Alaska Legal Services, told the Daily News. The agency provides free legal assistance to lower-income Alaskans.
The backlog “just shows how completely broken our system is,” Dickey said.
Alaska Division of Public Assistance director Shawnda O’Brien said in an interview this week that the agency has been working to hire more staff to meet the demand and work through the backlog, and address various technology challenges that have slowed the approval processes.
But she didn’t have a clear timeline for when Alaskans, many of whom rely on Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program benefits — also known as SNAP, or more colloquially as food stamps — to feed their families, would receive the help they’d been waiting on.
Meanwhile, numerous food stamp beneficiaries interviewed for this story said they’d been put on hold for four to five hours at a time when they tried to reach the state’s call center for SNAP. They expressed frustration with a lack of transparency about why their benefits were being delayed and when they might receive some relief, and described increasing stress around where their next meal will come from and what they’ll do next to make ends meet. Longtime SNAP recipients said this was the longest they’d ever waited to receive assistance.
“We’re Band-Aid-ing everything,” Gardener said.
Miracles out of nothing
More than 80,000 Alaskans, or about one in nine, rely on food stamps to help feed their families. More than two-thirds of recipients have children in their families, and most have incomes below the federal poverty line.
When an Alaskan applies for SNAP benefits, or tries to renew their existing benefits, the state has 30 days to process that paperwork. It’s now taking much longer on average to process those applications — up to four months.
State officials said this week that the delays were impacting, at the very least, 8,000 Alaskans who had applied for or attempted to recertify their SNAP benefits in August, but also thousands more who have applied since then.
Chrystal Gillmere, a single mother of four living in Homer, submitted her annual SNAP renewal paperwork on Aug. 30, a full month and a half before it was due.
Up until then, she’d been receiving $934 a month in benefits for her family of five. It’s the only income she receives besides the $27 she gets in child support from her children’s father.
Gillmere cannot work because there is no one to take care of her children, ages 13, 5, 4 and 3. Without work, she cannot afford child care.
When October came around and no SNAP benefits had been deposited in her account, Gillmere called the Alaska Division of Public Assistance.
After a long wait, they looked up her case and told her they saw she had turned in all her paperwork. They told her they didn’t know when her case would get reviewed or when her benefits would kick in.
Gillmere said she tried to go in person to the Division of Public Assistance office in Homer, but when she arrived, she found all the desks had been cleared out and none of the lights were on. The office had been permanently closed, she was told later on.
So she called back the state helpline every day for a month. Most days, she was put on hold for hours. She cried nearly every day, too.
To survive, on Monday and Friday, she goes to the local food bank in Homer.
“I’ve had to make miracles out of nothing,” she said.
No timeline for relief
Food stamp beneficiaries are feeling an increasing sense of urgency as the months pass.
But there’s no set date when Alaskans waiting on delayed SNAP benefits can expect the money, said Alaska Department of Health commissioner Heidi Hedberg and O’Brien, the Division of Public Assistance director, in an interview this week.
O’Brien said that when the public health emergency ended in July, there were 8,000 people whose applications needed to be renewed as a result — about double the agency’s usual monthly workload.
She said the agency at the same time experienced a staffing shortage “due to people retiring, moving out of state, or just making other choices.” At one point, nearly 27% of all positions were vacant, she said.
Recently, the agency created 45 new temporary positions to help with the influx, many of whom O’Brien said are being onboarded “in the next month.”
The agency is also ramping up its recruitment efforts for permanent positions, O’Brien said.
“We’ve got a dedicated team of individuals we just brought on to address the oldest work and then the remaining workforce that is continuing to work through the existing paperwork,” she said. “That will really help to address the workload challenges that we’re facing.”
When asked how quickly the new staff might help the agency work through backlogs, O’Brien said she didn’t have an estimate.
“I don’t want to set an expectation that we can’t meet,” she said, adding that Alaskans should start to see the impacts of the new hires “shortly,” and that she would be able to update Alaskans in the coming weeks on progress.
In the meantime, Alaskans can visit their local Division of Public Assistance offices, which are open Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday, or call the state’s Virtual Contact Center, 800-478-7778, O’Brien said.
One weekday in December, the average wait time for the call center was about an hour and a half, Hedberg said, though many Alaskans interviewed for this story described much longer hold times.
More than half the calls the center received that day were abandoned: In most cases, the person waited so long that they hung up before being put through to anyone.
When callers do connect, all the person on the line can tell them is whether their paperwork has been received — not how soon their application would be reviewed or when they could expect a decision about their benefits.
Only those who meet the state’s criteria for expedited application processing can be bumped up in the queue, with a timeline of a week, O’Brien said. The criteria for expedited processing is very narrow: They have to have less than $150 in cash, and less than $100 in any other kind of resources, including income or a savings account, she said.
Dickey said this week that Alaska Legal Services has been inundated with requests for help from Alaskans who’ve been waiting on SNAP benefits and don’t know what else to do.
She said that attorneys with her firm are able to help Alaskans who’ve been waiting more than 30 days for the state to review their SNAP benefits applications or renewals apply for a fair hearing, which can be a simple way to move applications to the top of the pile.
Because SNAP is a federal program, the state has to treat any request for review as a fair hearing request, Dickey explained. All that’s required is a form, which the firm’s attorneys can help fill out and turn in to the state, Dickey said.
“They seem to have a select group of staff that can review those within 10 days,” Dickey said. “That’s how people can get themselves out of the backlog,” she said.
Dickey said she was frustrated by the Division of Public Assistance’s tepid response to thousands of Alaskans being without benefits, and said the agency has had years to better streamline their application and renewal process to mirror, for example, the state’s Permanent Fund dividend portal.
The Alaska ombudsman’s office, which investigates complaints about state agencies, has also received nearly 200 complaints related to SNAP delays, Katie Buckhart, Alaska state ombudsman, told KTOO Public Media.
Advocates say another option that hungry Alaskans have is to call 2-1-1 for resources, or reach out to their local food bank for help.
Cara Durr, chief of advocacy and public policy with the Food Bank of Alaska, said her organization has seen a dip in donations and an increase in need in recent months as the cost of living has risen.
In Anchorage, residents can visit anchoragefood.org for a daily list of free food pantries near them.
“We are sympathetic to the challenges the state is having. We know that people there are working really hard to clear the backlog,” Durr said. “But people are really frustrated. And they have been really frustrated for a while.”
Meanwhile, Tabytha Gardener and William Foord, the Anchorage couple, aren’t sure how much longer they can wait for relief.
Foord is unable to work because of a chronic illness. Gardener lost her food stamps in the fall when she got a job at Home Depot. She reapplied in October.
Three weeks ago, she was told by a division worker that her benefits would be deposited in her account within four days. Relieved, she paid some bills using the small amount of money left in her bank account.
Two days before Christmas, Gardener said her SNAP benefits still hadn’t been deposited. She’ll need to take an Uber to work for an early shift that begins before buses are running.
She’s faced with an impossible choice: paying for food for her family, or paying for a way to get to work to buy the food. Next on the chopping block will be their internet service. Heat. She’s already received a disconnect notice from the electric company for being two months behind on a bill.
“Today is my daughter’s 16th birthday,” she said. “And we can’t even get her a cake.”
In Anchorage, Alaskans can visit anchoragefood.org for a list that is updated daily showing free food pantries around town. The Food Bank of Alaska also has an online calendar of food distribution sites. Statewide, Alaskans can call 2-1-1 for free assistance connecting to local resources for food assistance.