Sylvia Geraghty helps a customer during the weekly food pantry at Resurrection Lutheran Church on Tuesday, Dec. 6. (Mark Sabbatini / Juneau Empire file photo)

Sylvia Geraghty helps a customer during the weekly food pantry at Resurrection Lutheran Church on Tuesday, Dec. 6. (Mark Sabbatini / Juneau Empire file photo)

Online SNAP benefit forms go live as state hopes to catch up on 8,000-applicant backlog by March

State: 260 online forms in first 10 days take average of 20 minutes, compared to an hour for paper.

The state is hoping to catch up on its backlog of food stamp applications — now about 8,000, compared to more than 12,000 a month ago — by mid-March, aided in part by online applications now available that should speed the process up for applicants and employees processing the forms, state Division of Public Assistance Director Deb Etheridge said Friday.

The online form for Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) benefits has been available at the division’s website since Dec. 27 and a mobile-friendly version available as of this week, she said. A statement issued Friday by the division noted 260 online applications have been received so far “with an average completion time of 20 minutes, including uploading all required documents.”

[‘New normal’ is long waits for SNAP benefits and long lines at food pantries]

The existing paper application is 28 pages long and takes about an hour to complete for a family of four with one income, according to the division. Etheridge, in an interview, said a key difference in the length of filling out the form is the online version eliminates unnecessary portions.

“It is a smart form so it doesn’t require you to answer questions like, for example, if you select that you do not have a job it won’t ask you for employment questions,” she said.

Also, about 40% of submitted paper applications are incomplete, resulting in them being placed on “pending” status until the required documents are received, Etheridge said. She said the online form checks to see if such documents are included.

“The online application adds efficiency because individuals are providing those applications with the verifications that we need to make determinations,” she said. “If you indicate you have employment, then you can hover over and you can upload that employment information — you can just take a picture with your phone or if you have something saved online — and that will go and attach to the application. And then that application goes directly into our document management system.”

Processing the forms by employees at the division can therefore also be faster, Etheridge said.

“The completed application with all the forms and verifications that we need can take as little as 40 minutes, just depending on household size,” she said.

Backlogs in SNAP applications have been an ongoing crisis for the division since August of 2022, with the list reaching a peak of 14,000 applicants — some of whom reported going without benefits for 10 months — before division officials reported largely catching up last September. The backlog was attributed to several factors including lack of staff, outdated computer systems and lingering effects of a cyberattack.

But a relapse occurred during the fall, with Etheridge in early December citing weather-related office closures, technology glitches and a reinstated interview requirement during the previous six weeks as primary causes.

The initial backlog resulted in a class-action lawsuit, as well as a formal warning from the federal government, since applications for benefits are required to be processed within 30 days.

Among the measures taken to address the issue was an $8.4 million emergency supplemental budget, including about $3.1 million to hire about 30 employees to help with the SNAP backlog, passed by the Alaska State Legislature in March. Gov. Mike Dunleavy, when releasing his proposed budget on Dec. 14, included $8.8 million for 30 additional full-time division employees to process applications and $5 million to purchase supplies for the state’s food banks.

The current SNAP backlog includes about 4,000 new applications and 4,000 recertifications, Etheridge said. She said the target date to catch up on the forms is March 15.

She noted in December the division was having supervisors and managers help process applications, rather than perform their normal duties. On Friday she said that means some activities such as employee training and meetings are being put on hold.

“We have decreased the number of group meetings, and we have streamlined and are trying to cut out any meeting that is not necessary so that they can free up space in their day to do that,” she said. “Decreasing the one-to-one time where they may have had a weekly one-to-one supervision and it might have gone to once every two weeks. That doesn’t mean that we don’t have staff available to provide support. They always can go to their supervisor, there’s sort of a system to receive support.”

The division also has 21 potential new eligibility technicians whose employment status is pending, with the hope being all of them can be trained as a group once their individual situations are resolved, Etheridge said.

Other public assistance programs within the division, such as Medicaid and senior benefits, have also been affected to lesser degrees by the same issues causing the SNAP backlog. Etheridge said efforts to resolve those are proceeding as they catch up on the SNAP applicants.

“Only 5% of individuals in the SNAP program do not have an attached program,” she said. “So what that means is that we’re picking up and processing other backlogged programs as we process the SNAP backlog. So they’re all kind of carrying together.”

• Contact Mark Sabbatini at mark.sabbatini@juneauempire.com or (907) 957-2306.

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