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Shutdown came with added price for securing food

February 10, 2019
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Welsch
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Welsch

Helping ensure Olmsted County residents received needed food benefits as the federal government shutdown lingered last month came with a $32,800 price tag.

“It meant that our Family Support and Assistance Department team members had to complete about a month’s worth of work in four days,” Olmsted County Administrator Heidi Welsch said.

On Jan. 10, the 20th day of the 35-day federal shutdown, county officials received initial word that a plan was being readied to ensure Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program benefits, also known as food stamps, would be available for February, but had to be issued within days.

The following day, counties throughout the state were told they had four days to ensure the required paperwork was complete.

In Olmsted County, that required opening the office on Saturday and Sunday, as well as extending working hours on the following Monday and Tuesday.

Corrine Erickson, the county’s Family Support and Assistance director, said the work called for a staff of 60 on Saturday.

“That’s everybody who came in,” she said, noting some staff members are salaried and do not receive overtime pay for the extra hours worked.

Those who did receive the extra pay racked up $32,800 worth. While the federal program covers half the cost, the rest is a local expense borne by the Olmsted County.

Welsch said the added expense will not overwhelm the county’s payroll in the long run, since the county typically budgets for a full staff through the year and savings appear during gaps caused by employee turnover.

As a result, the county should be able to cover the cost with existing payroll funds, without dipping into other resources.

“It was still a cost that was unanticipated,” Welsch said, noting the expense also doesn’t take into account work that was deferred to a later time to cover the needed planning work to issue February food stamps early.

At the same time, she noted the outcome was worth the expense, to help secure federal food benefits for the people seen during the four days the overtime was logged.

Erickson said approximately 750 people were seen at the office during the extended hours, affecting an estimated 1,400 local residents. Staff also logged 750 to 800 outreach calls.

For some of those who were reached, Erickson said, additional paperwork was needed to secure the February food stamps. In four days, he staff received and recorded approximately 3,800 documents.

Since each case sees an average benefit of $152, Erickson estimated approximately $103,000 in federal benefits were provided because of the work done.

And work didn’t end when the state deadline was met.

“We continued our business as usual with SNAP,” Erickson said, noting cases continued to need processing for future benefits and clients continued to call with questions.

“The pressure was not off at all,” she said.

With the lingering threat of a Feb. 15 shutdown, Erickson said counties have been told food-stamp benefits are secure through March. Other cash programs are reportedly covered through June.

That doesn’t mean worries don’t ripple after the recent experiences.

“There’s still a little bit of uncertainty,” Erickson said.

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