published Wednesday, October 19th, 2011

Action urged to get Tennessee state workers off food stamps

  • photo
    The Nine Brothers convenience store on 38th Street in Alton Park has a large hand-painted sign announcing that they accept food stamps and WIC vouchers in this 2007 file photo.

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NASHVILLE — Pay for one out of every 39 Tennessee state workers is so low they are using the federal food stamp program to make ends meet, figures show.

According to the state Department of Human Services, 968 of the state's 39,012 workers are on the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, the federal government's food stamp program. That amounts to 2.48 percent of all state general government workers.

The food stamp program is designed to help low-income families buy food they otherwise could not afford.

Top Tennessee State Employees Association leaders, who obtained the figures from an Open Records Act request, say they are "shocked" by the number.

In a Sept. 28 letter, TSEA President Philip Morson and the employee group's executive director, Robert O'Connell, urged Gov. Bill Haslam to take action.

"We can never let it be said that, in Tennessee, we don't pay our state employees enough to put bread on the table," the letter said.

Haslam spokesman David Smith said via email that "there are a number of variables for Tennesseans' participation" in the food stamps program.

"The governor and administration continue to be focused on hiring and retaining the best and brightest to work in state government, and certainly pay is a piece of that puzzle," he said.

It was unclear whether any of the 968 employees are working part-time. Department of Human Services officials did not provide information Friday, Monday and Tuesday about how many part-time state employees are collecting food stamps.

Figures show the largest number of state employees on food stamps -- 228 -- work in the Human Services Department, representing 23.5 percent of all state workers on the program.

About 6:30 p.m. Tuesday, the department issued a statement that said:

"The Department of Human Resources works diligently conducting research and evaluations towards the goal of maintaining equity in pay. The department engages itself in the process of collecting and providing surveys and data relative to compensation in the surrounding job market."

"It's ironic that DHS, which is the agency responsible for the administration of the food stamp program is responsible for the highest number of employees on food stamps," O'Connell said. "I don't know why that is."

In an interview, O'Connell said "there are surely full-time employees there. My bet is there are part-time employees in there."

With regard to the part-time employee issue, O'Connell said, "I don't think we're really in the position of quibbling about someone who is only able to work part time. We get that."

But with full-time workers, he said, the state could begin losing valued personnel "if you don't pay them enough."

Other figures show:

* The Department of Correction, which operates states prisons, had the next-highest figure with 191 employees are on food stamps.

* Ranked No. 3 is the Department of Environment and Conservation, which employs many seasonal workers. Figures show 129 employees were using food stamps.

But while one out of every 39 state employees is using food stamps, the percentage is dwarfed by what is occurring among Tennesseans statewide as a result of the "Great Depression" and its sputtering economic aftermath.

About 1.28 million men, women and children -- one out of every five of Tennessee's 6.34 million residents -- were on food stamps during September, according to the Human Services website.

Between September 2007 and last month, the number of all Tennesseans on food stamps shot up from 874,889 people to 1,284,808 -- an increase of 409,919 or 46.9 percent and nearly the population of Hamilton (336,463) and Bradley (98,963) counties combined.

The gross income standard for food stamp eligibility is $1,180 a month or $14,160 per year per person. For a family of two, the required gross income level is $1,594 or below monthly or $19,128 a year.

For a family of three, the level is $2008 monthly or $24,096. The gross income level is $2,422 a month or $29,064 annually for a family of four. The eligibility standard for families goes up another $414 per month for each additional family member.

Noting that eligibility depends on family size and other factors, Rep. Bill Harmon, D-Dunlap, said a state employee may go to work for the state at $20,000 a year with one child "and five years later you're making $22,000 with the raises we give."

"You have four more kids and you're now eligible for food stamps," Harmon said. "So some of that could be deceiving, but there's no doubt in my mind there's plenty of sections in state government where we do not pay employees in comparison to private enterprise in the same jobs."

State employees went three years without a pay raise, but received a 1.6 percent increase this year.

House Majority Leader Gerald McCormick, R-Chattanooga, said "you'd think someone [state employee] with a full-time job wouldn't be able to qualify for food stamps."

"The first thing I'd want to do is determine what you have to do to qualify for food stamps," he said. "We may have too many people on food stamps would be my first question. And if that's not the case and if it is because of terribly low pay then, we need to look at it."

about Andy Sher...

Andy Sher is a Nashville-based staff writer covering Tennessee state government and politics for the Times Free Press. A Washington correspondent from 1999-2005 for the Times Free Press, Andy previously headed up state Capitol coverage for The Chattanooga Times, worked as a state Capitol reporter for The Nashville Banner and was a contributor to The Tennessee Journal, among other publications. Andy worked for 17 years at The Chattanooga Times covering police, health care, county government, ...

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SavartiTN said...

"It's ironic that DHS, which is the agency responsible for the administration of the food stamp program is responsible for the highest number of employees on food stamps," O'Connell said. "I don't know why that is."

Really? You don't know why that is? Seriously?

Now I would like to see the fraud investigation start.

October 19, 2011 at 2:19 a.m.
cecemo29 said...

Could it be the fact they pay them $8.50-9 per hour & require a Bachelor Degree for the job. Look at some of your state universities, they have lots of full time worker who are paid less than $10 per hour for jobs that require advanced degrees.

October 19, 2011 at 8:38 a.m.
Emersization said...

It began by "no new taxes", then the gap of poverty grew wider between the government and private sectors. As a result, the private sector is winning the greed game, while the government compensates humanitarian loss to its' families with food-stamps. Next, like the great depression, it shall be gas-stamps and buckets of coal to stay warm at night. For single / divorced (with no dependents) people, the trickle down effect because more deplorable -- hostels, soup kitchens, homeless shelters / camps -- formerly known as Hoovervilles.

October 19, 2011 at 8:40 a.m.
sage1 said...

"The gross income standard for food stamp eligibility is $1,180 a month or $14,160 per year per"

Ok...according to the US Dept. of Labor, the federal minimum wage is 7.25 per hour. A 40 hour job should equate to $15,080 per year working 2080 hours per year. How could a company pay $14,160 per year in wages? I know tipped employees are paid way less, but is the state violating the federal minimum wage laws?

October 19, 2011 at 8:44 a.m.
Humphrey said...

sage1 - they work less than 40 hours per week, and / or have larger families. The level is 29K annually for a family of four, for example.

October 19, 2011 at 9:10 a.m.
amnestiUSAF84 said...

Eligibility for foodstamps aren't solely based on income, but also on what a family has to spend out on such things as utility bills, gas etc. and family size. Also, I suspect many of those state workers may participate in the fostercare program, where they take in foster children. Being a fosterparent, they would automatically receive foodstamps for each fosterchild they care for. Raising income, or even raising minimum wage is not the sole solution. As we all know, when minimum wage and income go up so does the cost of living.

What they'll likely to do to remedy problem will be to lay off a certain amount of workers, give the remainder a raise and declare problem solved! The problem is those now unemployed state workers will have to rely on foodstamps and an unemployment check to make ends meet.

October 19, 2011 at 9:11 a.m.
dilbertAlso said...

House Majority Leader Gerald McCormick, R-Chattanooga, said "you'd think someone [state employee] with a full-time job wouldn't be able to qualify for food stamps."

"The first thing I'd want to do is determine what you have to do to qualify for food stamps," he said. "We may have too many people on food stamps would be my first question. And if that's not the case and if it is because of terribly low pay then, we need to look at it."

My response is DUH!!!

He's probably telling everyone that we need to cut government. Guess what,the State is already running a barebones budget, and has been for several years! Gerald McCormick is so far out of it he doesn't know what's going on. Worst of all he's making decisions that affect all of us.

October 19, 2011 at 1:13 p.m.
SavartiTN said...

Interesting, amnesti, I had foster children in the state of Tennessee and didn't get food stamps for them. They must have changed the rules.

October 19, 2011 at 1:15 p.m.
utworker said...

The issue needed to be addressed years ago. No cola, I work with folks that have been employed in UT system for years and still at the beginning wage. HR response "that is just the way it is."

Dilbert, you think McCormick is out there? Check out Harmon's math or sarcastic remark, whichever, about "four more kids". It doesn't take "four more kids" to hit the gross wage. He doesn't have a clue.

October 19, 2011 at 2:36 p.m.
cecemo29 said...

I have a foster child who is related to me & get $140 a month to care for her. With her there is a total of 4 people in my household. I make less than $30000 per year & still don't qualify for food stamps. The caseworker for my little one makes way less per year than I do.
Our great government officials have no clue how people who make less then $50000 a year live. How could they when they spend more than that to send their precious kids to private school.

October 19, 2011 at 2:59 p.m.
macropetala8 said...

SavartiTN said... Interesting, amnesti, I had foster children in the state of Tennessee and didn't get food stamps for them. They must have changed the rules.

But you likely could have qualified if you wanted them. Furthermore, what's the stipend the state pays out now for each foster child? Isn't that taxpayers' money they pay to foster parents who take in foster children? Not to mention all the other goodies involved? Last time checked, and that was a number of years ago, a foster parent could get up to $1,800.00 a month. Especially if the foster child has special needs. The amount a foster parent can receive for each child is likely much more now. Michelle Bachmann had it made, taking in foster children, receiving government handouts, then using the children for farm laborers. A win! WIN situation!!

October 19, 2011 at 4:07 p.m.
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