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UPDATE: NC FAST- Behind the Backlog

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GREENVILLE, N.C. -
The Pitt County Department of Social Services wanted to respond to our report, “Behind the Backlog”. Our Andrew Ruiz sat down with officials on Friday to discuss it.

9 On Your Side addressed it all, from the employee quotas to the lack of planning. At times, it felt like a game of semantics; but overall we all agreed even though the NC FAST concept is ideal, Pitt County wasn't prepared to handle the issues that ensued.

Here is an excerpt from the conversation:

“Do you think you guys anticipated how all of this NC FAST system was going to be executed?” Ruiz asked Scott Elliott, Pitt County Manager. 

“I don't think any county in the state of North Carolina, with there being 100 counties truly knew what NC FAST will entail from the beginning,” Elliott said. 

Pitt DSS Interim Director Earl Marett says the USDA improved productivity. Marett says the state provided helpful solutions to problems the county was experiencing. “The public needs to know we are looking at this situation daily. We are looking at the case loads daily; we're looking at who's getting their benefits and who's not getting their benefits daily. Are we perfect, no, do we have a monumental task ahead of us? Yes.”

Ruiz also asked about employee quotas and the monitoring of employee. A source to 9 On Your Side says supervisors monitored their bathroom breaks and idle time. 

Income Maintenance Program Administrator Bryan Averette said, “Nobody is being monitored as far as when they take breaks. They are entitled to take their breaks when it fits into their daily schedule. So they don't have to ask for permission to take a break.”

Ruiz asked if there are quotas. The team says DSS has target goals and says employees aren’t fired for missing them. Averette said, “There’s a goal they set based on a state average of how many reviews should be completed on a daily basis and we consulted with the state about that.”

DSS says prior to these goals, management experienced problems with employees; some took longer than usual breaks and were not doing what they were suppose to on company time, like being on their personal phone.

Our story included a question about money the county may have spent while working to meet the USDA deadline. Aside from the contract with an outside company to process applications, Pitt County says they didn't spend any additional money.

Elliot says over 1200 comp time hours were accumulated amongst all employees working towards the USDA deadline. The employees won’t be allowed to take the hours in the near future because of the pending March USDA deadline. 

Supervisors will evaluate when employees can take comp time. Now if an employee leaves, just like any county employee Elliot says the county would pay out their banked comp time.
     
Worst case scenario, if all the employees owed comp time left, the county's chief financial officer says the county would tap into its contingency fund, a pot of money put aside to cover unforeseen circumstances. The county says there is enough money in the account to cover it all.

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Previous story

NC FAST is North Carolina’s food stamps processing system and is quite troubled. The federal government threatened to yank funding because of a case backlog and just yesterday (Wednesday), the Department of Health and Human Services announced the resignation of the program’s director.

What's causing the backlog and why is everyone jumping ship. 9 On Your Side Investigated.

"Its' unfair to tell the public that we're caught up, when they know we're not." This anonymous Pitt County Department of Social Services employee agreed to speak exclusively to 9 On Your Side about the backlog plaguing so many departments. They say before NC FAST was implemented Pitt DSS had a backlog on applications and recertifications. At one point, Pitt County had more than 1000 untimely pending applications (more than 90 days old).

"Even before NC FAST, we were behind. But the old system was different. It was worker friendly. The NC FAST system is not."

Our source tells us NC FAST made matters worse. Among the reasons---the lack of training, increased workloads, a glitchy software and an ineffective management team. "Last minute is the measure of the day there."

In November, Pitt County commissioners called DSS leadership into question. Commissioner Glen Webb heard employees were kept under close watch. His sources say management limited the number of bathroom breaks employees could take and required them to meet a quota. Our source addressed those claims.

"The minimum amount was 8. If an employee is unable to meet the quota. Then they've said that employee will be terminated. You know you were watched as to how often you got up and left your office."

County leaders deny firing anyone over applications. But through a public records request we found out, 5 employees resigned and DSS fired someone in the past 6 months. County H.R. says they are unable to release the reasons for the changes.

"NC FAST is a new system and it's different and some people are just not capable of being able to work in that system,” Interim Pitt DSS Director Earl Marett said. 

Our source says DSS blamed employees for the backlog, but an investigation into Accenture---the company charged with integrating and implementing the software reveals:
 
In New York: A $37.5 million contract for work that took 8 years to see results and ended with costs exceeding 300% the original cost. There was no formal action.  
    
 In Texas: An $899 million contract behind schedule and $100 million over budget. That contract was terminated. 
     
In Colorado: A $39.6 million contract with work behind schedule and the state said the company breached the contract.    
     
Accenture says bringing this to light is unbalanced and unfair. The company says these projects represent around 3% or less of its work for governments. The company requested we speak to industry experts about its track record. So we did.

The response: Accenture is one of the best management consulting firms in the world and one that's never afraid to take on the most complex projects.
 
We'll let you decide.

Lawmakers asked DHHS Secretary Aldona Wos to provide them with an estimate as to how much money the state spent to meet the USDA deadline. Her response? The cost is second in line with making sure that our citizens have their needs met."

Officials haven't released a final figure yet--- but the counties will cover a majority of the cost. North Carolina was at risk of losing $80 million in food stamps funding if DHHS missed the USDA deadline, which Secretary Wos says was not an option.
    
In a visit to Greenville, Andrew Ruiz asked Governor Pat McCrory how he felt about the deadline. McCrory said, “frankly I don't like to get threats from the federal government of them withdrawing food stamp funding, which I think is ridiculous."

I asked DHHS if the state would still have a significant backlog if the USDA didn't threaten to take away funding. But they didn't answer our question directly.
     
Pitt County leaders say they didn't spend additional money to meet the deadline. However, they did hire an outside company, Vanguard Professional Staffing, to help process the applications prior to the threat. The contract was for $40,000. 

County leaders say DSS employees worked long hours, nights and weekends. The County Manager says all the employees that worked over time will get comp time. When we asked if that would create another backlog, he says employees will not be permitted to use the banked comp time in the near future.

Pitt County provided us with this statement: "NC FAST was not an optional implementation and DSS employees are being trained to work with the new system. A re-training unit is being set up that will provide laptops and help for those DSS workers who are having  are a harder time working with the system, and readiness plans are also place to prepare for the upcoming 3/31 USDA deadline, when backlogged applications in any category must be processed."

Click here for Pitt County's steps taken to improve application processing and overall productivity.
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