PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) — Questions linger about staffing levels at the R.I. Department of Human Services call center, as some Rhode Islanders have waited months to access food stamps and spent hours on hold seeking answers.

As Target 12 reported in December, DHS offices statewide are closed for most in-person services due to the pandemic, and getting issues resolved remotely has proven difficult. Those applying for the federal Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program — or SNAP — have to call a centralized call center with questions, with some waiting up to four hours.

State Sen. Lou DiPalma, chair of the Senate Committee on Rules, Government Ethics and Oversight, said he reached out to DHS after seeing Target 12’s report in December.

“The answers in response weren’t necessarily satisfying,” DiPalma said. “No one should be on the phone for three hours, period.”

DHS spokesperson Jose Garcia said last week that its call centers “have nearly 50 staff assigned” to answer the phone. But Target 12 obtained a slide from a DHS Zoom meeting on Dec. 14, indicating the call center had 10 allocated positions with the goal of adding 33 additional positions by Jan. 15.

When asked about the slide, Garcia said call centers do have “nearly 50 staff currently assigned,” but said only 20 positions have “additional specialized knowledge, training and experience on all DHS programs.”

DiPalma called DHS’ lack of clarity frustrating.

“Let’s be explicitly direct with folks and figure out where help is needed,” he said. “The only way that we can fix something is to know the true situation.”

Cherie Cruz, a community advocate in Providence, told Target 12 she’s seen no signs of improvement on wait times for applications or phone calls recently. She said one person she’s helping has spent weeks trying to get her application approved, and they waited on the phone for four hours before getting through to someone on Wednesday.

DiPalma said DHS offices need to reopen for in-person services, which he said will cut down on wait times. He said he’s working with Woonsocket State Sen. Melissa Murray to make that change happen.

“We’re talking about people here–we’re not talking about making widgets,” DiPalma said. “We’re talking about peoples’ lives.”

“We’re not going to lose sight of this issue,” he added.

Tolly Taylor (ttaylor@wpri.com) is a Target 12 investigative reporter for 12 News. Connect with him on Twitter and on Facebook