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Published: Thursday, 11/5/2009

Michigan social workers fear threats over delays


LANSING - Michigan social workers struggling with mounting welfare, food stamp, and Medicaid caseloads said yesterday they fear for their lives after being assaulted or threatened by recipients frustrated by delays in state aid.

Employees of the Department of Human Services said at a legislative hearing that they are overwhelmed with bulging caseloads and people seeking help are taking out their frustration on workers. The employees said offices are packed because there are not enough workers to deal with the influx of cases as Michigan's unemployment rises.

Human Services administrators did not dispute much of the testimony, though they emphasized they take employees' safety seriously. They said the state's estimated 8,500 field caseworkers need more help. At least 700 more staffers need to be hired, a director of field operations said.

But Michigan has been cutting state government to deal with multibillion-dollar budget deficits.

Wayne County eligibility specialist Colette Gilewicz said she has more than 800 cases and handles 100 phone calls a day. She said a line forms outside her office in northeast Detroit at 7 a.m., an hour before the building opens.

Ms. Gilewicz said a client frustrated by the wait threw a chunk of concrete through a window. The office has been broken into three times. The computer server was stolen for scrap metal.

She said she is seeing an increasingly large number of former middle-class workers laid off from small auto-related factories and tool-and-die shops.

"Now at age 55 or 60, they're entering the system for the first time," she said. "They simply don't know what to do and where to turn."

A human services spokesman said 2.2 million people, or more than 20 percent of Michigan's residents, get some type of government assistance - 400,000 more than a year ago.

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