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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."