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Racing to promote “social distancing” for throngs seeking public assistance as coronavirus upheavals hit, the city’s poverty relief agency is encouraging phone and online applications instead of in-person office visits.

That goes not only for food stamps, already accessible by phone, but soon for welfare benefits, thanks to a state waiver, which Social Services Commissioner Steve Banks informed his staff about in an email Tuesday afternoon.

“We are working to stand up this brand-new approach as quickly [as] possible,” wrote Banks.

On Sunday night, the agency announced on its website that it will not penalize clients for missed appointments, including for career services and child support.

Yet the same notice declared that offices remain open for client intake.
Applicants continue to stream in seeking aid at Human Resources Administration job centers around the five boroughs — putting them into contact with one other and with agency workers who must report to duty unless sick.

‘Lucky to Get Any’

Late Monday morning at Concourse Job Center in The Bronx — where average wait time in September 2019 was over two hours — about 20 clients sat in the center’s waiting room, about half its capacity.

None of those interviewed by THE CITY were aware they could get help remotely.

Michael Peters, 52, at an HRA office in The Bronx on Monday. Credit: Claudia Irizarry Aponte/THE CITY

Michael Peters, 52, went to figure out why his monthly grocery allowance had been reduced from $192 to $57. He found out it was because Social Security had begun paying him benefits.

“They told me, ‘You’re lucky to get any at all,’” said Peters, who has received disability benefits for the last year after a stroke led to brain surgery. “Imagine that. In the middle of a crisis.”

A young woman who declined to be named was surprised to learn she would face no consequences for missing her scheduled appointment that day.

“Oh, I mean, that’s good, with all this virus stuff going on,” said the woman, who came with her two sons.

Still, she said she would return the next day for a follow-up appointment, “just to be sure.”

A Coronavirus Case

Social Services employees aren’t just required to keep working at the public-facing application centers — they must also keep showing up to office jobs as well.

Banks wrote in his staff memo Tuesday that “we are working as quickly as possible to develop a telecommuting initiative for non-client-facing work, with a goal of implementation by the end of this week.”

Employees at a downtown administrative office at 33 Beaver St. were rattled Monday when they received a memo, signed by Banks, informing them about a confirmed coronavirus infection of an agency employee in the building.

Banks reassured employees that the office had been disinfected, and emphasized that staff were required to report to work in person.

“It’s unclear what the agency is doing to assure employees and clients are safe,” said a staffer who works at the building, who spoke to THE CITY on condition of anonymity.

Employees had asked to work remotely late last week.

The staffer noted that many client files and internal documents are not digitized, making some remote work challenging.

The Department of Social Services did not respond to THE CITY’s repeated requests for comment.

Bracing for Impact

Meanwhile, the department is bracing for a deluge of new applications from New Yorkers stung by layoffs and job cutbacks as the coronavirus crisis deepens.

Ana García, 72, who was laid off of her job as a home attendant, said she had never applied for welfare before.

“I have no idea what I’m going to do or what to ask for. This is so difficult,” an emotional García told THE CITY in Spanish.

She went inside to figure it all out, teary-eyed and in disbelief.

“It’s not going to be easy,” she said. “I’m desperate and have no other option. But I will survive.”

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