DHS workers brace for another round of layoffs

LIHU‘E — Not long ago, state workers experienced office-shuffling when some of their colleagues lost jobs through reductions in force late last year.

Now, some of those same state Department of Human Services employees on Kaua‘i are readying for even more cuts that seem likely to also include closure of certain Kaua‘i DHS offices.

Penny Rubio, an income maintenance worker in the DHS Kapa‘a (East) office of the Benefit, Employment and Support Services Division, is at the same time worried that her job and office are targeted for closure while also concerned for low-income clients who depend on the face-to-face contact to start or keep necessary financial benefits flowing.

How is a person who signs her name with an “X” because she can’t read or write supposed to navigate a mechanized system that may soon require her to deal with state DHS workers via fax, phone, or computer, Rubio asked Thursday night at a public meeting to discuss the planned DHS reorganization.

“Those people are going to fall through the cracks,” said Rubio, who said she has been told by a supervisor that her position will be eliminated, and her office closed, in the DHS reorganization.

State DHS Director Lillian Koller, Deputy Director Henry Oliva and consultant Sandie Hoback said at least one Kaua‘i office will remain open for face-to-face interviews, though most of the other initial claims processing workers will all be in either Honolulu or Hilo on the Big Island at proposed new Eligibility Processing Operations Division centers.

Few specific details of the plan were available at the Governor’s Council of Neighbor Island Advisors meeting at the Kaua‘i War Memorial Convention Hall in Lihu‘e Thursday night, but Friday Koller said 31 DHS offices statewide would close, and 230 DHS positions would be eliminated, in the reorganization she says will increase efficiencies for all involved, save the state millions of dollars, and move the DHS system into the present century.

“We cannot get out of this hole by cutting,” said state Rep. Jimmy Tokioka, D-Wailua-Lihu‘e-Koloa, adding that the reorganization is “not a good idea.”

Clients and employees of DHS on Kaua‘i Thursday night saw things differently from the DHS leaders and consultant.

“I think that takes the ‘human’ out of ‘human services,’” said Linda Shigeta, a DHS worker for 18 years who added that she doesn’t think the planned DHS reorganization will comply with the federal Americans with Disabilities Act.

“This is not being accessible.”

Around 60 people attended the meeting.

Hoback and Oliva said the reorganization should “create enormous efficiencies,” and that the current system is simply not fiscally sustainable.

The new system planned to be patterned after a similar Florida reorganization would be “very efficient, very accurate, and allow the whole system to become very efficient,” said Hoback.

It would also provide more options (fax, e-mail, computer, telephone) to enter into the system, she said.

“I’m not somebody that doesn’t understand bottom line,” said Lihu‘e attorney Michael Ratcliffe, acknowledging that a one-hour, face-to-face interview is inefficient, “but for some that’s all that works.”

“No more layoffs, no more furloughs, and no more client suffering,” said Raymond Catania, a DHS worker who survived the first reduction in force.

“Without face-to-face (interviews), you’re asking for fraud,” said Anne Punohu, of the Kaua‘i DHS Clients Coalition, adding that clients without access to telephone, fax or computer will have a difficult time communicating with DHS workers.

“It’s definitely not client-friendly,” said Punohu, like other clients also concerned about the loss of “terrific” DHS workers. 

The DHS recently announced consolidation of offices and positions involving determination of eligibility for certain state financial and medical benefits to low-income and otherwise challenged residents.

The DHS fact sheet on the proposed establishment of the EPOD indicates two centers, in Honolulu and Hilo on the Big Island, where centralized processing of applications would take place.

Details of the plan indicate that several current DHS offices on Kaua‘i might end up closing, with several positions eliminated or moved off-island as a result, leaving just a “south” office to serve the entire island’s client base requiring face-to-face contact.

The plan so far has not been warmly received by the workers’ union, the Hawai‘i Government Employees Association, nor affected employees or clients.

Rubio, who works in the first-to-work and child care unit’s East income maintenance unit in Kapa‘a, which may be closed in the reorganization, worries both about her job and her clients, she said.

“Of course I’m concerned about losing my job,” said Rubio, who with five years of state employment might not have enough seniority to supplant or “bump” another state worker with fewer years of service.

“I’m concerned about my clients,” including one elderly woman who comes in every year to have Rubio help fill out her paperwork necessary to keep her benefits flowing or the homeless person who has no access to a phone, fax or computer.

“We offer them a kind face, a kind voice,” human “contact. They’re used to the old way” of face-to-face interaction, said Rubio.

“They’re not used to change,” or leaving a telephone message with a call center and not knowing when the call will be returned.

Rubio said she has been told by supervisors that her office could be closed as early as July 1, and that she would likely lose her job in the process. “I’m kind of lower on the totem pole,” said Rubio.

Judy Lenthall, executive director of the Kaua‘i Food Bank, said she has two fears: the new system won’t be implemented, leaving the existing, broken status quo; or the new system will be implemented but not correctly.

“Both of them scare me to death. That’s not good enough for Hawai‘i.”

A DHS client said someone who applies for food stamps appears before a DHS interviewer, and through the process of the face-to-face interview it becomes clear the client is eligible for services in addition to food stamps and the appropriate referrals are made, under the current system.

“It’s a very personal issue” that can’t be totally accomplished via computers or other electronic means, she said.

When you get it right it helps. “When you get it wrong a lot of people suffer,” said another client.

“You folks are taking away the human element,” said Janice Shitanaka, a DHS worker for 26 years. “It’s so sad because clients are powerless. It’s an injustice.

“I pray that this does not go through because you’re going to be hurting thousands of people in Hawai‘i.”

“You really forgot your workforce,” said Priscilla Badua, a state employee for 39 years. “I cannot believe you’re supporting this plan. Give me a break.”

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