Many COVID-19 impacted workers denied when applying for food stamps
Throughout March and April, as Louisiana's businesses closed their doors to ward off the spread of COVID-19, the statewide shutdown left a historic number of citizens unemployed.
But when these same people applied for food assistance from the government, many were rejected.
According to The Advocate, they were deemed ineligible for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program because of unemployment payments that inadvertently boosted their income above the threshold to qualify for food stamps.
As part of a $2 trillion stimulus bill passed by Congress in late March, the federal government is kicking in $600 a week to everyone who qualifies for unemployment, on top of the state benefit, which in Louisiana is a maximum of $247. That $847 a week would put most people in four- and five-person households over the income limit for food stamps.
The predicament comes as many experience long wait times for both food stamps and unemployment benefits due to the overwhelming number of applications being handled by limited staff and limited computer programs.
The Department of Children and Family Services and the Louisiana Workforce Commission (DCFS), which oversees SNAP, saw an average 33,000 applications a month last year.
On March 31, a little more than a week after Gov. John Bel Edwards issued his stay-at-home order, nearly 23,000 people applied within a day.
By the end of March, applications soared to 93,705. Last month, 108,488 more people applied. In the 30 days after schools closed, the agency said applications had grown to five times the normal amount.
“This is the most unprecedented and historic event that we have ever had with the SNAP program,” said Marketa Walters, secretary of DCFS. “It just kept building.”
In April, more than 74,000 people were rejected for food stamps, which is more than seven times the normal amount.
Shavana Howard, DCFS assistant secretary for family support, said the agency has no choice but to reject the applications.
“It’s a federal program and we have to follow all the federal guidelines,” Howard said. “Unfortunately, all continuous income counts.”
The dilemma for those laid off from the economic crash prompted by the pandemic was further complicated by delays at the food stamp and unemployment offices, which struggled to keep up with the mounting applications.
DCFS put workers on mandatory overtime and brought in more than 120 additional staff from other parts of the agency, recent retirees, a call center and even some employees of the Louisiana Department of Revenue.
Still, the number of pending claims outpaced the agency’s ability to process them in the early weeks, leaving thousands waiting for benefits.
The agency has 30 days to process claims before they’re deemed part of a backlog, and by mid-April, 108,684 applications were pending, with about 13,000 within one week of the 30-day deadline.
Aside from the sheer volume of applications, DCFS had just started implementing a new computer system for handling food stamp applications, a month before the virus was discovered in Louisiana.
“It’s just been this incredible perfect storm,” Walters said.
The agency has reduced the number of pending claims considerably, to around 25,000 as of Wednesday, said Sammy Guillory, DCFS deputy assistant secretary for family support.
According to DCFS, the number of applications that were nearing the 30-day deadline for being processed had fallen to about 5,400 by May 8, indicating the agency has largely caught up.
Unlike after many other disasters, the pandemic did not result in the disaster food stamps program, called D-SNAP. That program offers food benefits to people who don’t normally receive benefits, but who had lost wages or damages from a hurricane, flood and the like.
For instance, after Hurricane Katrina, 345,441 people were approved for D-SNAP. After the 2016 August floods in south Louisiana, 123,000 were approved.
Danny Mintz, an anti-hunger policy advocate at the Louisiana Budget Project, said the delays at DCFS were “pretty much inevitable” given the volume of applications coming in during such a short period.
Applying for unemployment and food stamps can be “really confusing” for people to navigate, Mintz explained. For example, people may receive food stamp benefits if their application is completed and processed before their unemployment benefits but shortly after this, they're disqualified because of the new income.
He also noted the agency has received several waivers from the federal government for food stamps. Perhaps the most significant one allowed the agency to pay maximum benefits to everyone who qualifies, resulting in $43.5 million in emergency benefits paid to more than a quarter of a million households in March and a similar amount in April.
The agency also got waivers to make it easier to process applications, but requests to allow recipients to spend the money on hot foods — Walters noted it is crawfish season — and to waive some verification requirements for students, were denied. Work requirements were suspended.
Mintz also noted the boosted unemployment benefits will end in the coming months for most workers if Congress doesn’t extend them. That could lead to a second wave in food stamp applications if people lose the additional benefits.
Plus, Mintz said he expects the flexibility the feds granted states for food stamps during the pandemic will go away long before the economy is back to normal for workers.
“The need here is pretty incredible,” Mintz said. “While the applications have gone down to something like more or less the levels DCFS was seeing before coronavirus, I would expect applications are going to start spiking again if Congress doesn’t approve an extension of this major bump of unemployment benefits.”