State, County Workers Face More Late Nights, Long Weekends Because Of NC FAST
State and county employees may have to continue working nights and weekends to keep North Carolina's food stamp backlog under control. Those kinds of hours helped the state make tremendous progress toward a federal deadline Monday. But more challenges remain.
Over the past year, many families have faced astounding waits to get food stamps. It's because of a new online system the state rolled out last March, called NC FAST.
Rodney Adams is a division director for Mecklenburg County social services.
"Each time there would be a crisis, we would redirect staff resources to focus on the crisis at hand," he said. "And this was just another one of those instances."
About three weeks ago, North Carolina had more than 20,000 food stamp applications with significant delays - roughly 8,000 of them longer than three months. The U.S. Department of Agriculture oversees the program, and it ordered North Carolina to clear the worst delays by Monday.
In Mecklenburg County, Adams said staff worked around the clock.
"These folks came in as early as 5:00 a.m., many of them stayed as late as 9:00 and 9:30 p.m.," he said. "Folks came in on Saturdays, on Sundays. They could bring their children here. We provided childcare for them right here on site on the weekend."
That kind of schedule will continue across the state, said N.C. Health and Human Services Secretary Aldona Wos. She addressed lawmakers Tuesday morning.
"We have not stopped to rest yet," she said. "We are still on that same labor-intensive schedule."
As of Monday's deadline, North Carolina was only 25 food stamp applications and renewals short. The Department of Agriculture hasn't said yet if that's good enough. It has said that North Carolina must have all of its food stamp problems fixed by the end of March. If the state fails, the Department of Agriculture may take away the state's administrative funding.
And NC FAST still has defects, said Joe Cooper with the state Department of Health and Human Services.
"There will continue to be issues that are identified over the coming months, and as we encounter them, we will address them," he told lawmakers.
Food stamps are just the beginning for NC FAST. The state plans to add all sorts of public assistance to the system.
Rodney Adams of Mecklenburg County said Medicaid is next. Will that lead to even crazier hours for his staff?
"You know," he said with a sigh, "right now I can't promise anything."