Social workers gathered on the steps of the state Capitol last week to express their anger with leadership at the Department of Social Services. AFSCME Council 4 employees said Commissioner Patricia Wilson-Coker’s administration has allowed caseloads to reach unmanageable levels, while employee morale has plummeted.  The Department of Social Services did not return several calls for comment. Belinda May, union president and DSS eligibility services supervisor, said Thursday the department is woefully understaffed with many employees carrying up to 1,000 cases. She said clients who come to its offices for services are being turned away and told to come back the next day only to be turned away again.

“By failing to provide critical medical and food benefit assistance in a timely fashion, agency leadership harms our clients and places the state’s taxpayers in legal jeopardy,” DSS employees wrote to Gov. M. Jodi Rell. The letter, signed by 700 or 70 percent of the department’s employees, included a petition of “no-confidence” in Wilson-Coker.May said the department should lobby the legislature to restore approximately 240 DSS employees laid off in 2003 while John G. Rowland was governor. The Rowland-Rell administration laid off 3,000 state employees that year to fund a budget deficit. Instead of department staff positions, May said the agency leaders lobbied to increase funding and decrease caseloads for private nonprofits that contract with the department to deliver some agency services. May said caseloads at non profits average around 100 cases per employee, which is one-tenth the number her DSS staff handles. She said most employees don’t even check their voicemail anymore because they don’t have time to listen to the dozens of messages. She said a new employee was overwhelmed her first day with 500 unopened pieces of mail. “My staff cries,” May said. “I go home not feeling very good about my job.” She said she began work at the agency in 1976 to help people and “it’s frustrating when you can’t.“The employees said Thursday that they were hoping to use election-year leverage to help convince Rell to use her influence on the legislature and increase funding for department staff. Rell has been influenced by public pressure in the past. On the eve of her re-election announcement, Rell ordered her administration to release documents sought in an ongoing dispute over the public’s right to know how HMOs are running HUSKY, the state’s healthcare program for struggling families.