Bisma Whack was already struggling to make ends meet when the coronavirus forced the closure of Chesterbrook Academy in University City, where she works as a preschool teacher.
Whack, 43, applied for food stamps when the school closed, afraid she would stop getting paid and wouldn’t have enough money to feed herself and her two children. But after she was furloughed this month, her application was denied.
She spent hours on hold with state offices, seeking answers. Then Community Legal Services, a Philadelphia organization that had previously helped her get money to pay her utility bills, helped submit documentation of her furloughed work status. Whack received money from the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) this week.
“Without this pandemic, me and my children have already had not a lot of food, or skipped meals,” she said. “And then to finally receive some help when you really need it, it’s a blessing.”
One such organization, BenePhilly, normally answers about 80 calls a week but answered 323 calls — a 300% increase — during one week in early April. The Greater Philadelphia Coalition Against Hunger said it processed about 26% more applications in the last month than its average in the past year.
“We are seeing people reach out who are now eligible for benefits who weren’t eligible before," said Maria Pulzetti, a supervising attorney with Philadelphia-based Community Legal Services.
The state Department of Human Services, which administers federal benefits to Pennsylvanians, reported only a modest increase in applications for SNAP and cash assistance during the March. But officials said they are bracing for a spike as the pandemic and the resulting economic crisis linger.
That spike in requests could be exacerbated by a struggle to process them. Like most offices, the assistance offices in each county responsible for processing benefit applications have been closed to the public. Applicants have had to endure technical issues with the online application system, long hold times at phone centers, and state employees working split or staggered shifts.
And while the state encourages applicants to use its online system to access benefits, not all do; only 45% submitted online requests in February, growing to 55% in March, according to DHS data.
Other states, including New York and New Jersey, saw benefit applications spike as high as 300% in March.
“The states around us, they are struggling,” said Lisa Watson, a DHS deputy secretary overseeing the office that determines eligibility for programs like Medicaid, SNAP, and cash assistance. “I don’t think any of the states are able to keep up with that volume."
Benefit applications may spike as time passes and people who lost their jobs are forced to wait for their unemployment benefits, Watson said.
As the coronavirus began spreading in Pennsylvania in March, Watson said DHS sought to streamline the process, taking steps like not requiring interviews for benefit applicants.
Still, the call centers couldn’t keep up with the flood of calls because of social distancing rules; answer rates dropped as low as 57% in as the state limited the number of workers in the office at one time. By April 15, Watson said the answer rate was back up to 96.7%.
Employees in county assistance offices have also expressed concern about their safety as workers tested positive for COVID-19 and others self-quarantined. DHS began allowing telecommuting this month, and as of Friday, more than 3,500 county-level employees were working from home, according to spokesperson Erin James, while others worked staggered shifts.
“It has caused staffing shortages, people have been calling out," said Damon Allen, a supervisor at a Frankford Avenue office and Philadelphia chapter president of SEIU Local 668. "There’s been a couple times where people felt like, ‘It’s safer for me to be home,’ so they called out.”
Kathy Fisher, policy director for the Greater Philadelphia Coalition Against Hunger, said that before the pandemic her organization typically started each week with requests from 10 to 15 people for help processing benefit applications or to find food.
This past week, that number was 341, she said.
Many of those people may have called multiple organizations and found help elsewhere, Fisher said, describing the system as a “patchwork” of resources.
“I hope people out there, especially the newly unemployed, realize that they can apply,” she said. For anyone newly in need, she said, it can be "daunting to figure out.”
Whack, the West Philadelphia mother and teacher, recalled the long wait times she discovered when she first called the state a few weeks ago.
"I had been getting the runaround … hanging on the line for two to three hours just waiting for a customer service representative to just say hello,” she said.
But this past week ended on a happy note: She planned a trip to the grocery store with the $610 she received in SNAP benefits.