DCFS call center 092121

Staffers with the state Department of Children & Family Services handle applications for disaster food stamps on Tuesday, Sept. 21, 2021.

After a rough opening day for the three-week application period, Tuesday was a little better though call volumes remained high and wait times remained long for people wanting to apply for disaster food stamps.

The state Department of Children and Family Services received 250 to 350 calls per second on Monday leading to a lot of people hearing busy signals and hours-long waits for those lucky enough to get through.

The situation wasn’t much better Tuesday, at least if angry commentators to the DCFS Facebook and on Twitter accounts are any indication.

It wasn’t as bad Tuesday as it was Monday, said Sean Ellis, a spokesman for DCFS, even as an unexpected tsunami of calls continued to flood the circuits. Response times have improved and more applications are being processed faster, he added. 

On Monday, at least for those who got through, the maximum wait time was 2 hours 21 minutes. On Tuesday the maximum wait time was 1 hour 32 minutes.

The agency handled 11,339 applications on Monday, which was more in one day than the entire program processed for some previous storms. DCFS staffers handled 9,628 people as of 4 p.m., with another couple of hours to go.

DCFS expects 185,000 Louisiana residents eventually will file for the Disaster Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, D-SNAP.

The system can handle 1,500 calls at any one time, meaning that those lucky enough to get through have a long wait before one of 700 staffers can pick up to take the application. But callers unable to get through still complain about being sent off to phone perdition.

More than 100 people commented Tuesday on the DCFS Facebook page, claiming waits of up to four hours before a staffer comes on the line. Others say they still haven't gotten the phone number – (888) 524-3578 – to connect at all.

Under the federal and state regulations, a DCFS agent must personally interview the applicant. In storms before COVID, applicants had to stand in line and wait their turn to speak to somebody. Louisiana got a waiver last year to handle Hurricane Laura survivors by phone instead.

Still others complain that after a long wait, their applications were denied. Even with storm damages considered, the applicants still took home too much money to qualify for food stamps. Those who are refused can appeal within 90 days.

The decision letter that applicants receive from DCFS will include instructions for filing an appeal. They will need to complete and sign the section below "Fair Hearing Information" and return it to the address indicated in the letter.

The federal government last week relaxed the qualification rules for receiving food stamps because of Hurricane Ida. By adding storm-related expenses to the calculation, D-SNAP temporarily opens the door to food stamps for some households who ordinarily make too much for the benefit – up to $680 in groceries for a family of four – depending on how much storm expenses they had between Aug. 26 and Sept. 24.

To apply a member of the household must phone the agency and be interviewed by staff between 7:30 a.m. and 6 p.m. on their designated day. Applicants will be asked about income, checking and savings account balances and other financial assets, as well as about a wide range of costs caused by the storm. The interview takes about 22 minutes to complete. The numbers go into a computer program that determines eligibility. Most applicants will learn immediately if they qualify and for how much.

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DCFS's Ellis said one of the big reasons for the clogged phone system remains people calling in and tying up lines when its not their turn.

On Tuesday, the agency added a wait time message about who could apply during that time period, in hopes those who aren't calling during their allotted time would hang up and give their spot in line to someone else.

DCFS set up a schedule that allows applicants from specific parishes to phone during specified times in hopes of keeping the whole process running smoothly. Actually, applicants have three days to phone in to apply: The scheduled day for last names that begin with specific letters, then two additional days, Friday and Saturday, for people to phone in from those parishes regardless of the letter with which their last name begins.

Phase 1 started Monday and was dedicated to people whose last names start with the letters A-F and are living in East Baton Rouge, East Feliciana, Iberia, Orleans, Pointe Coupee, St. Bernard, St. Tammany, Washington, West Baton Rouge and West Feliciana parishes. Tuesday was for residents of those parishes with last names beginning G-M.

Wednesday is for last names N-S living in the 10 parishes and Thursday is for last names T-Z.

Applicants can also phone on Friday and Saturday, regardless of their last name, provided they are living one of the affected parishes being processed during that phase.

PHASE 2 – Sept. 27 to Oct. 2

For residents of Ascension, Assumption, Iberville, Jefferson, Livingston, Plaquemines, St. Helena, St. Martin (lower St. Martin Parish ZIPs only 70339 and 70380), St. Mary and Tangipahoa parishes.

  • Day 1 (Monday, Sept. 27) — Residents with last names beginning with A-F
  • Day 2 (Tuesday, Sept. 28) — G-M
  • Day 3 (Wednesday, Sept. 29) — N-S
  • Day 4 (Thursday, Sept. 30) — T-Z
  • Day 5 (Friday, Oct. 1) — Open for all (letters A-Z) in the Phase 2 parishes
  • Day 6 (Saturday, Oct. 2) — Open for all (letters A-Z) in the Phase 2 parishes

PHASE 3 – Oct. 4-9

For residents of Lafourche, St. Charles, St. James, St. John the Baptist, and Terrebonne parishes.

  • Day 1 (Monday, Oct. 4) — Residents with last names beginning with A-F
  • Day 2 (Tuesday, Oct. 5) — G-M
  • Day 3 (Wednesday, Oct. 6) — N-S
  • Day 4 (Thursday, Oct. 7) — T-Z
  • Day 5 (Friday, Oct. 8) — Open for all (letters A-Z) in the Phase 3 parishes
  • Day 6 (Saturday, Oct. 9) — Open for all (letters A-Z) in the Phase 3 parishes

Additional information about the emergency food stamps can be found by texting LADSNAP to 898-211 or by visiting www.dcfs.la.gov/DSNAP. Translation services are available for people whose primary language is not English.

Email Mark Ballard at mballard@theadvocate.com.