AEI: A conversation with Russell Sykes, former New York State Deputy Commissioner, on SNAP administrative challenges

By Angela Rachidi
American Enterprise Institute

Human service agencies across the country are grappling with increased demand for their services. At the same time, these agencies are trying to adapt their business models to reduce COVID-19 transmission. Recently, I spoke with Russell Sykes, former New York State Deputy Commissioner and Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) administrator, about how Congress can help relieve the burden on state and local human service agencies.

Rachidi: The Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act wisely gave state unemployment insurance (UI) programs flexibility to meet the needs of tens of millions of workers who lost their jobs. Congress allowed states to use contractors, re-hire retirees, use American Job Center front-line staff, or hire temporary workers to handle eligibility determinations. This work was formerly reserved for full-time state employees only. Why did Congress need to adapt UI?

Sykes: The CARES Act gave states the flexibility they needed to address inadequate data systems they use for processing UI benefits. It also allowed them not to hire new full-time government employees for what many believe could be a relatively short-term economic shock. It is difficult to hire state employees quickly and even harder to terminate them when they are no longer needed. Congress also passed new unemployment programs and they needed to give states more flexibility to handle new eligibility groups. Take, for example, gig workers, who don’t qualify for regular UI benefits.

I’ve been told that two-thirds of states have taken advantage of the UI administrative flexibility allowed in the CARES Act. According to Gerri Fiala, a former Department of Labor official, this flexibility “was a common sense solution that was not partisan in nature; it met the needs of both Democratic governors (20) and Republican governors (17) to help millions of unemployed workers and their families in their states avoid economic catastrophe while avoiding outdated UI technology systems and burdensome public hiring requirements.”

Why is this relevant for SNAP?

Under current law, states cannot use contracted staff to make an eligibility determination for SNAP. This basically means that full-time state or county government employees must process applications and conduct recertifications. As you can imagine, it is very difficult for existing staff to ramp up their capacity when demand for SNAP increases suddenly. States cannot currently use outside help for SNAP, even though they can for other human service programs.

States have faced increased demand in the past and gotten by without changing the law. When I worked in New York City, we used non-profit groups to compile SNAP application materials to save time and effort for our caseworkers. Why can’t states take a similar approach now?

It is true that some states and cities, like New York City, found ways around this gap in the law. But it still creates a lot of unnecessary hurdles to efficiently processing SNAP applications. It also increases the risk for fraud when multiple people and organizations are “touching” a case.

This is also a unique time. States are asking staff to operate in a very different environment than prior to the pandemic, including taking the necessary public health measures to control the spread of the coronavirus. And SNAP households are under a unique amount of stress. We should be finding ways to accommodate families where they are without overburdening program staff.

So, what needs to happen? What does this look like?  

Similar to what Congress did for UI, they could give states flexibility to hire contractors for the duration of the pandemic. We hope the increased SNAP workload is temporary, but states need help to meet the increased workload in the meantime. States would not be required to contract services, but they would be given the option to hire private contractors to complete the full SNAP eligibility process, including certification interviews, quality control, benefit allotment, and claims determination.

New legislation could allow states to hire temporary workers, as well as rehire retirees and former employees on a temporary basis. This option should remain in effect through the public health emergency, the same as the UI flexibility provision. Why should SNAP stand alone as the only program without flexibility in the middle of this crisis?

Are you concerned that contracted and temporary staff would reduce the integrity of the program? In other words, would they make program oversight weaker?

States using contracted staff would still need to meet all current requirements outlined in law, including regulations and program guidance for operating SNAP. In other words, contracted and temporary employees would have to be familiar and competent in following SNAP rules and regulations. If states failed to ensure this, the Department of Agriculture would hold states accountable, and states would hold contractors responsible for any issues.

Do you think Congress will pass this legislative change?

Predicting what Congress will do is difficult because they balance many policy and political choices. But they are negotiating with the White House and we hear that this issue has support. States need as many tools as possible to meet the unique needs of this time. That includes having the flexibility to contract additional staff so eligible recipients can get timely and accurate benefits.