The mass unemployment caused by the coronavirus pandemic has led to an unprecedented surge in applications for food assistance, creating a massive backlog for the state agency charged with processing the requests. 

More than 87,000 food assistance applications submitted to the Louisiana Department of Children and Family Services (DCFS) since coronavirus-related business closures began on March 14 have not yet been processed, according to data supplied by the agency. 

Although the agency has taken several steps to streamline the application process, the current backlog could take at least 30 working days to resolve at a time when many Louisianans need emergency help paying for basic necessities. 

Applications for Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) benefits began to spike in mid-March, after Louisiana’s restaurants, bars, and other businesses shuttered to slow the spread of the coronavirus. The state saw a second, considerably larger spike in applications around April 1, when rent and mortgage payments were due, and when many people who lost their jobs following coronavirus closures were heading into their first week without a paycheck.

Between March 14 and April 3, DCFS received 117,447 new applications for SNAP (formerly known as “food stamps”). That’s a 525% increase from the 22,357 new applications the agency received between Feb. 1 and Feb. 21, a three-week period with the agency’s typical application volume. 

Authorities say the main barriers to resolving the backlog are the time that it takes to process each application and the limited number of available staff, even with some staff reassigned to application processing from other duties and caseworkers putting in overtime. 

The agency has taken several measures to speed up processing. Applicants no longer have to be interviewed by a caseworker–caseworkers are only contacting clients when information is missing from their application. The reports many SNAP recipients previously had to submit midway through their certification period are no longer being required. Caseworkers who were tasked with re-certifying existing cases have been reassigned to processing new applications. The agency has also waived all work requirements for the program, making it more accessible to the unemployed.

Even with these changes, which have substantially increased the number of cases DCFS is able to process daily, the agency’s capacity remains far below what’s needed. If caseworkers were to process applications at the fastest pace they have achieved since Feb 1 (2,871 applications per day), it would still take over 30 working days to process the current backlog. That is without accounting for the new applications that the agency continues to receive.

The agency’s ability to process applications is also affected by an ongoing transition to a new computer system for managing SNAP cases. The new system has been in development for three years, but launched statewide just before Mardi Gras this year. This means that agency caseworkers, now working from home, are processing applications using a new, less-familiar system. Necessary maintenance, scheduled as part of the system transition well before the coronavirus first affected Louisiana, will also periodically take the system offline.

When SNAP benefits do arrive for the thousands of Louisianans likely to qualify due to recent job losses, they will provide a substantial boost to family budgets and the local economy. All SNAP recipients in Louisiana will receive the maximum SNAP benefit for their household size, and benefits will be retroactive to the date a household filed for SNAP.

But for the time being, the volume of applications coming into the agency and the finite amount of staff available to process those applications mean that many people in Louisiana who cannot afford to wait for help won’t be able to access benefits when they are most needed.

Update, April 7, 2020, 10:00 p.m.: This post was updated to reflect the fact that while DCFS caseworkers may call SNAP clients to obtain information missing from an application, this call does not constitute an interview, to clarify that SNAP applications recorded as “processed” on a given day may have been submitted on a previous day, and to clarify increases in DCFS’s application processing speed.