Health Care

Unfilled staff vacancies, ongoing mismanagement causing severe problems at DHS

Speaking in Spanish, Lopes told reporters that she suffers from cancer, and has been unable to get SNAP benefits for two months. Lopes has faced long wait times when she calls DHS on the phone, and has found a there is a lack of staff able to speak to her in Spanish. She and her ten-year old child can’t get answers to their questions or solutions to their problems from the state.
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Published on February 2, 2022
By Steve Ahlquist

The media was gathering in the parking lot across the street from the Rhode Island Department of Human Services offices (DHS) in Pawtucket when Julia Lopes approached and asked to be heard. The press conference that was about to start concerned staffing shortages at DHS, and Lopes story was exactly on point. Worker vacancies, fully funded by the Rhode Island General Assembly in the state budget, have not been filled leading to long delays in getting people in need the services and resources they need.

Speaking in Spanish, Lopes told reporters that she suffers from cancer, and has been unable to get SNAP benefits (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, aka food stamps) for two months. Lopes has faced long wait times when she calls DHS on the phone, and has found a there is a lack of staff able to speak to her in Spanish. She and her ten-year old child can’t get answers to their questions or solutions to their problems from the state.

Another woman told reporters that she was on the phone for three hours without anyone picking up. People without access to a computer cannot simply walk into DHS – they need to make an appointment – necessitating contact by phone – and the phones go unanswered. The second woman had no money on her SNAP card, meaning she has little access to food.

At the press conference, SEIU Local 580 President Matthew Gunnip and AFSCME Local 2882 President Rafael Martinez, called on state officials to immediately start to fill vacancies at the DHS. Supporting the unions were State Senator Cynthia Mendes, Representatives Mary Messier and Karen Alzate, and Pawtucket City Councilmember Clovis Gregor.

“Backlogs due to vacancies at DHS have caused a lack of access to vital resources for Rhode Island’s most vulnerable children, families and elderly, including delays to obtaining SNAP benefits for food security, child care benefits, health insurance coverage, and cash assistance to meeting basic needs during the bone-chilling winter months, amongst the COVID-19 pandemic,” said Gunnip.

In all, DHS has failed to fill 28 worker vacancies represented by his union, SEIU Local 580. There are around 50 vacancies in positions represented by AFSCME Local 2882.

“When it comes to DHS leadership, their actions don’t match their words,” said Martinez. “Our frontline workers received an all-staff message, just Friday, that DHS is working to ‘eradicate structural and systemic oppression within our organization and in the community’ yet their lack of urgency to fill vacancies is non-existent.”

The vacancies have been fully funded, yet unfilled, since July 1, 2021 said the union leaders. In December, the DHS call center received 575 call per hour, resulting in 82,299 total calls. “We tried to work from inside the system,” said Gunnip. “We couldn’t do that. We’re here out of desperation.”

Channel 12 has reported that the temporary director of DHS, Celia Blue, has stepped down, leaving a department that is already stressed and overburdened with no real leadership.

“This is a moment, a critical moment,” said Gunnip, “and hopefully the Governor can meet this moment and say, ‘You know what? New leadership.'”

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