DHS Molokai Office Increases Staff
Returning from the brink of survival last year after proposed Department of Human Services (DHS) cuts were vetoed, the DHS eligibility office on Molokai is now expanding its staff to handle a hefty case load. A recent visit by Rep. John Mizuno and DHS Deputy Director Panjit Bhanot bolstered the confidence of DHS Molokai employees, who say a new administration has made the difference between night and day.
“We were drowning, but we see the light now…” said Molokai eligibility worker Krisha Sahagun.
Bridget Mowat, Molokai supervisor, said she and each of her three employees currently handle up to 600 case loads each, due to lack of staffing and taking on Lanai’s cases after their DHS worker left in June.
“Luckily I have a really good team,” Mowat said.
Three positions are now being added to the Molokai branch – including a secretary and another eligibility worker. Mowat said while the positions are open to statewide applicants, priority will be given locally.
Thousands of Molokai residents depend on DHS for basic services such as food stamps, social services, financial assistance and medical care for the elderly. Last year, in an effort to save funds, the state proposed the closure of 31 local eligibility offices around the state, including Molokai.
Instead of sitting down with a local DHS employee face to face, recipients would have had to rely on phone and website services to get much needed assistance. Recipients, workers and politicians rallied around the state, and the closures were canceled after a close call.
“It was scary – not having us would have been horrible for them,” said Sahagun. “They [administration] weren’t listening to us – we felt helpless.”
According to Mizuno, the DHS serves about 300,000 – or one in five – people in the state. Molokai “has the highest rate of assistance” with over 40 percent of the population using DHS services regularly.
“We have to be there for them – they have nowhere else [to go],” added Mowat.
Now, with a new administration, DHS is back on its feet. Mizuno said this was the first time in eight years that the administration is working closely with legislature and DHS units to keep communication open. This year, both Director Patricia McManaman and Bhanot have made personal visits to Molokai.
“It’s wonderful,” said Mowat. “As employees, we feel more comfortable.”
For Mizuno, the issue is close to his heart. He worked with the DHS for years before he became a representative, and is a friend of Mowat’s. “He can speak for us, because he knows us,” she said.