Long, 'ugly' wait for social services

Bill Behr and Chris D'Angelo, both CSEA workers Bill Behr and Chris D'Angelo, both CSEA workers from Nassau County Police Fleet services, along with other union members listen to the legislature discuss layoffs in Mineola. (Dec. 19, 2011) Photo Credit: Howard Schnapp

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Joye Brown Newsday columnist Joye Brown

Joye Brown has been a columnist for Newsday since 2006. She joined the newspaper in 1983 and has ...

Nassau County has cut heavily into its social services staffing during this year's layoffs, leaving residents frustrated and workers with impossibly heavy caseloads struggling to keep up.

As of Jan. 1, the department lost 104 of 810 full-time staff and supervisory positions -- a 13-percent cut.

By the time the dust settled, there were few supervisors left. And not enough workers remained to handle the work, especially for residents seeking assistance with food and heating.

"There is no question that the reduced staff has made for longer waiting times," John Imhof, the county's social services commissioner, acknowledged in an interview Wednesday. "It is horrible."

On Tuesday, residents complained about waits of three to five hours to see a worker. And that was after waiting to get into the building in an early-morning line that snaked out onto the sidewalk.

"It is chaos," said Tom Bradley, of Hempstead, who said he waited more than three hours to see a worker about replacing a card.

Zeyna Washington, of Elmont, said she and others spent part of their waiting time using their cellphones to call Imhof's office to complain.

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"The mailbox was full," Washington said. She said she waited almost five hours to speak to an employee.

"I didn't find out that my regular worker had been fired until I got here," she said. "It was so odd because his voice is still on his voice mail but his mailbox is full up too."

Imhof noted that some help is on the way, with the rehiring Friday of 40 laid-off workers.

Last week, Deputy County Executive Rob Walker told Newsday that Nassau had found grant money to fund the rehires.

"We have done our due diligence and found new funding to bring back some workers," he told a Newsday reporter.

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But there is no "new" money.

The rehired employees will take back positions that were funded -- 100 percent -- by state and federal money even before the layoffs.

Why would Nassau attempt to save money by laying off employees whose salaries the county does not pay?

And how could the county leave a department -- which provides mandated services to an increasing number of Nassau residents stung by the recession -- understaffed and undersupervised?

Couldn't Nassau differentiate between mandated and unmandated services? Or put a cap on how many positions would be cut in a layoff?

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Brian Nevin, a spokesman for County Executive Edward Mangano, said the county was left to the mercy of the domino-like "bump and retreat" process, where veteran union members during a layoff can knock newer members out of jobs. He noted that early on the county had said it might be able to rehire some workers.

That means little to residents who sometimes are forced to wait in the long line outside the building in Uniondale.

The line spares no one, even residents seeking help from other agencies housed in the facility, which include the office that issues parking permits for the handicapped.

"This, today, was ugly, it was disgusting," LaWanda Thomas of Long Beach said Tuesday. "You've got too few people trying to get through too much work."

Imhof said he hoped things would improve when the rehired employees return.

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"It won't be like it was, especially since the number of people seeking help keeps rising," he said. "But it should be better."

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