PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) — The R.I. Department of Human Services is continuing to face questions from lawmakers about the agency’s persistent staffing shortages, which have been blamed for slow approval of benefit applications.
Former R.I. Department of Human Services acting director Celia Blue testified about staffing shortages before the House Oversight Committee more than a month ago, and on Tuesday her replacement went before the Senate Finance Committee to discuss the same issue.
Yvette Mendez, who has been the acting director for about six weeks after Blue’s departure, testified that filling vacant jobs is a priority.
“The staff has been working hard, morale is low,” Mendez said. “There has been a lot of changes at the agency, so we are trying to get a good assessment of what is happening.”
At the Senate hearing — called to discuss Gov. Dan McKee’s proposed budget plan for DHS — the acting director opened her comments by saying that roughly a third of all Rhode Islanders use DHS services, or roughly 300,000 people.
But committee members quickly zeroed in on persistent staffing issues at the state agency, with state Sen. Melissa Murray saying she’s been hearing frustrations from constituents for months.
“I was assured that the wait times would go down, and we’ll do everything we can,” said Murray, D-Woonsocket. “And my worry was about staffing.”
“A constituent who calls into the call center has generally experienced wait times of three to four hours, and that was reported to us today,” she added.
DHS deputy director Kimberly Brito said 35 of the 71 open positions that the state agency has prioritized have been filled.
But state Sen. Lou DiPalma said Blue told him back in October that openings would be filled within a few months.
“We want to believe what’s being said, but we can’t,” DiPalma said.
Matthew Gunnip, president of Local 580, and Rafael Martinez, president of Local 2882, said the unions continue to be frustrated about the staffing shortages, and said they can’t properly evaluate the scale of the problem because DHS won’t be transparent.
Gunnip referenced Blue’s testimony from February: “They presented that they were going to fill 55 vacancies by the end of March and another 16 by the end of April. I’m not seeing those positions being filled.”
Gunnip said Local 580 is down roughly 28 employees at DHS, while Martinez said Local 2882 is down about 50. They told Target 12 the same numbers during an interview in early February.
Gunnip also said the union has filed a formal public records request for staffing data from DHS, but that so far, agency officials have not provided it. The union has lodged a complaint over the dispute with the attorney general.