Action at welfare office protests cuts, workloads

Posted: December 03, 2010

About a dozen activists protested conditions inside a crowded welfare office in North Philadelphia yesterday, prompting applause from some case workers and citizens, and fury from supervisors and guards, who forcibly booted the protesters.

Volunteers with the Poor People's Economic Human Rights Campaign walked into the second-floor office, on Broad Street near Lehigh Avenue, shortly after 10 a.m. Within minutes, they began chanting, marching with signs and distributing flyers to people waiting for service.

"What do we want? Better conditions! When do we want 'em? Now!" they shouted.

The protest lasted about 10 minutes. Shouting guards and supervisors herded and pushed the activists back into the elevators and tried to forcibly confiscate the cameras of both the Daily News and a freelance photographer.

Afterward, an office supervisor refused to comment to the Daily News.

Picketers briefly continued the protest outside, vowing to return in two weeks to see if the office met their demands. The protesters say that the consolidation of another office into the one on Broad Street has led to crushing workloads for case workers and long waits for clients.

The offices were consolidated due to financial constraints, said Michael Race, state Department of Public Welfare spokesman.

At a time of soaring unemployment rates and welfare need, the office doesn't have enough staff or room to handle the demand, protest organizer Cheri Honkala charged.

Welfare applicants have to wait hours - or come back the next day - for help, she said. Applicants are forced to discuss personal matters publicly, because the office has no private rooms, she said. It also has no children's play area, creating a chaotic waiting area, and case workers are too busy to answer phones, she added.

"The situation is very volatile . . . [it's] a moment away from an explosion," Honkala said.

Race acknowledged those problems, calling them "unavoidable" - and unlikely to improve.

The activists say that the state should hire more case workers, set up an emergency hot line manned by people instead of an automated system, shorten wait time, create a children's play area and give families more privacy in which to discuss their troubles.

The department lost 3,500 positions between 2000 and 2009, the largest employee decline of any state agency, Race said.

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