AUSTIN (KXAN) — Miki Spurlock had grabbed her groceries.

She was checking out when her Lone Star Card declined. She said she was supposed to have gotten food benefits already.

“Luckily, I was with my mom, and she paid for all of my groceries so I could feed me and my kids,” explained Spurlock.

Four months later, she said she was still waiting.

The Texas Health and Human Services Commission oversees the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program or SNAP food benefits.

The agency said an increase in applications and staffing shortages has made the backlog even more challenging.

“I had all of my paperwork that they requested turned into them prior to the expiration date. So, they had plenty of time to review my case, contact me for an interview, and I’ve heard nothing from them,” said Spurlock. 

‘Working diligently’

Some state workers processing applications tell KXAN investigators, “We are working diligently to get these apps [applications] processed ASAP.”

Worried about losing their jobs, the employees asked to remain anonymous but explained that there have been no pay increases for those who have worked with the state for years. 

“We, ourselves, are having to go to pantries or the food bank to put some kind of meal on our own tables by the end of the month,” said one employee. “The cost of living is going up higher these days, and our state isn’t even considering giving us a raise or merit to help its employees out.”

HHSC said it’s committed to increasing capacity and retaining staff so that applications can be processed as quickly as possible. 

“HHSC has reduced eligibility advisor vacancies from 18.72% in January 2022 to 13.28% to date,” said Tiffany Young, Assistant Press Officer with HHSC. 

Last month, Young explained that the state increased base salaries for clerks, eligibility advisors and supervisors. 

The agency said it has also implemented workforce initiatives to improve retention and increase hiring, including exploring the hiring of part-time employees who have previous eligibility experience and working with The Office of Veteran Affairs Services Coordinators to recruit military spouses.

The state said it held 70 job fairs between December through July trying to recruit more staff. 

“HHSC participates in federally led workgroups and forums where states share best practices and strategies on mitigating workload challenges during the public health emergency,” said Young. 

Mobile pantry

HHSC is also helping some employees with a newly created Grab and Go market.

Young said it’s for staff at the Austin State Supported Living Center, a facility for medically fragile people with intellectual and developmental disabilities and behavioral problems.

The state has partnered with a nonprofit to create the mobile food pantry for its lowest-paid employees and to help offset the rising cost of groceries. 

The Grab and Go Market opened in May, and since then, the state explained that staff had visited the pantry 1,755 times. 

Young said the food provided has a shelf life, cannot be sold in stores and would otherwise go to waste. 

“Our staff work in a 24-hour-a-day, seven-day-a-week facility serving adults with disabilities. Staff are often working more than 40 hours a week to ensure our most vulnerable individuals are fed, cleaned, and cared for, and the food pantry is one way we show our appreciation for their dedication,” said Young. 

KXAN investigators asked if other state employees could access the Grab and Go Market, but the spokesperson explained that it’s only available to those workers on the Austin State Supported Living Center campus.

Thousands of applications to be processed

KXAN also asked if HHSC is considering offering something similar to other employees who also make lower wages, but no response was provided. 

Spurlock said she understands that even state workers are struggling. She added that she’s trying to be patient, but it’s been tough to go months without being able to buy food for her family.

The state explained that currently, 71% of SNAP applications are processed within 30 days from receipt of the application. 

As of Aug. 29, 2022, Young said there is an estimated total of 198,025 SNAP applications waiting to be processed.

Spurlock said she’s never experienced this type of delay with her benefits.

“They’ve escalated my account – my benefits twice. I have spoken with their special resolution or escalation department,” said Spurlock. “I don’t even know if I’ll get my benefits next month or not yet.”