Saturday, April 29, 2017

The face of bureaucracy and the face of poverty

I mentioned a couple of weeks ago that I had started a day job and briefly commented that their business model is based on temps who they may or may not hire on later. So that aspect is at least percolating in my head, trying to come up with what I really think of it.

One thing is that the work force is one of the most diverse I've worked with, maybe ever. And yet my supervisor is a white guy from the same corner of Ohio that I am. (Most supervisors aren't, from what I can see, so it was just by chance that I ended up with him). But I thought "Hey, this is cool" about all the colors and accents around me and immediately realized that because this job relies on hundreds of temps, paid above (not a lot above) the minimum wage, it's definitely not like having minorities at the helm of a company. If we relied entirely on my income, our family of five would be below the poverty level. (Though I got approved to do overtime and worked an extra six hours this week at time and a half, which would bring us up into low income...maybe. But there's also an aspect of exploitation in making it so you can only climb out of poverty by working overtime). Which has given me other things to think about.

So anyway, the face of nameless, faceless bureaucracy And all these other human beings who are working for wages that are not going to make them rich. We're impermanent with no benefits or pension or anything. Well, there are some minimal benefits through my temp agency and I guess the company has benefits once you become a real employee (sounds like Pinocchio: I want to be a real employee!), but it's certainly not the idea of government employees hanging on, being surly, impossible to fire, waiting until they retire.

Our division within the company is processing Medicaid forms for a state east of the Mississippi. I won't say the state, but it's not California (though this company has done some work for Covered California, too).

Sometimes people send in a note with their packet (like one I got yesterday on flowery note paper, saying they didn't get the packet and tried to call but didn't get through, please send a packet - and the first time anyone is thinking about what to do with the note is me and by now they're past their reconsideration period and have gotten an automatic letter and will have to contact social services to re-enroll). Sometimes, there's a little narrative we could call "My Hard Times" which talks about losing jobs, people dying, and getting surgery. Most often, there's a "I guess I did this right, but I got confused. Call me if it's wrong." Some feel a compulsion to bless us.

I want to help them. I really want to call up a nice-note lady who totally bollixed up her kid's packet and tell her they're going to lose coverage before we can get it all straightened out, so here's what to do to make it right. And to call up the nice, elderly lady and make sure she has enough money for food and check she's OK.

In any case, we have to shuttle through these things in a few minutes (we need to average about four an hour for the people who are doing the actual decisions on who gets to keep Medicaid, about ten an hour when sharing the packets, and twenty-five per hour for the thing we've been doing this week. That's 200 cases a day. Though I hit more like 300 a day by the end of the week.), so we don't have time to write a note back. There are some circumstances in which we refer them to the call center and they get a call. But mostly, we're at a literal and figurative distance, treating them impartially and efficiently. Damn the torpedoes, full speed ahead. Ours is but to do and die.

And while I don't know about the attitudes of everyone there, I actually do care about the people whose forms I'm handling (handling in a virtual way: everything is scanned and in PDF format by the time it gets to me). This week, we've been doing a thing where we flip through the forms, make sure they're signed, and set up a task for later if there are more than one person named in the packet, so I've spent less time than before on thinking about the people involved. In fact, I only care if there's more than one person listed and if there's a signature and I barely retain the first name just so I can see if the next name is a different person. Yes, people fill out their own names on every page instead of putting down Person Two and Additional Family Members. And I get pretty mad if there isn't a signature on the correct signature line, because that process takes longer. (So double check all your documents to be sure you sign them, OK?)

I'm on the Research Team and our main task in between the side tasks is to look through the forms and make sure everyone in the family-slash-household is linked together and has the renewal packet and all the bits of info that have been sent in.

On usual days (which I guess I shouldn't call usual, because I've spent as much or more time on the side tasks), we have to move quickly, but at the top of the blank page open on my screen that I use to copy and paste salient info, I always put the Applying Member's name. I don't believe that saying a person's name or praying it or doing anything other than actually contacting that person to lend support does anything, but just thinking of their name and not a number reminds me that these are human beings who need health insurance. I keep in mind that I'm not there to judge them. I keep in mind that I've had government assistance, too - not limited to roads and bridges and education and the CDC.

And let me tell you, some of the stories are heartbreaking. 
  • The foster kids and the kids adopted by the grandparents and the ninety-year-old lady who has no property and almost no income and whose checking account is nearly empty at all times. 
  • And the family relying on income from a part-time job at WalMart and a pittance from babysitting the neighbor's kids. 
  • And the one that drew a collective gasp when we were in training, in which a waitress was getting paid $2.13 per hour plus tips. Her dad was delivering pizza part time. Combined, they were making about $300 per week, which comes out to $15,000 a year for a family of four.
  • And the 20-ish year old guy who gets his mail at his grandma's but is couch-surfing with friends and family. 
  • And the people in hospice or nursing homes who have social workers or care home staff filling out forms for them. 
  • And the paperwork received back from an organization that I guess helps the homeless, who lost track of the guy on the papers over a year ago - and that's the only address we have for him. 
  • And the woman who sits behind me having a conversation with a supervisor about how to figure out the designation on a packet for a married couple who are sixteen and eighteen and have two kids and live with the wife's parents. Whose income is taken into consideration to decide eligibility? Will she get Medicaid as a minor? This is known as the cycle of poverty, by the way, kids.

The face of poverty in America, at least in the unmentioned state:
  • Single parents and families with two biological parents and families with step-parents. 
  • It's families with one child and the one with twelve kids who instead of filling out the forms for everyone made a spreadsheet of names, birth dates, and social security numbers and answered the questions for them all (they're all white, none are foster kids, no one's pregnant, and they have names like Hallelujah and Hezekiah, except they all start with the same letter (that's not H)). 
  • They're lifelong residents of the state and they're naturalized citizens and the kids of undocumented immigrants. 
  • They speak English and Spanish (because those are the only languages the forms are available in), but also Arabic, Russian, and other languages from all over the world. 
  • We can't see their faces, but sometimes I glance at the answers on the race portion, and there are some of everything, but lots of White, quite a few Black, and many Hispanic.

Names are an interesting, sometimes hilarious thing:
  • There's a trend among African Americans to name boys things with -ious at the end. Markevious. Zacarious. And another trend to name girls (and sometimes boys), things with apostrophes. De'Shelle. La'Shonda.
  • There's a little girl named Fantasy and another named Exhilarate.
  • There's an elderly lady named Fairy. (Which, according to searching the Social Security baby names site, was a thing back then. The name was in the top 1000 until the 1930's: "The year when the name Fairy was most popular is 1905. In that year, the number of births is 32, which represents 0.010 percent of total female births in 1905." Those crazy kids!
  • There's a dad named John Smith who didn't put any other identifying info on his kid's packet. There are 200 or so John Smiths in that state who have Medicaid and who are in the reapplication process right now. I couldn't find him by address, which means he is probably not getting Medicaid, though his kids are.

TL;DR is that I care.
And don't give me the "all people on Medicaid are scammers" crap, because some people work full time and still can't afford health care. Also don't give me the "Welfare Queen" crap because I will have to smack you. Oh, and: the people who are processing the forms are probably barely scraping by, either.

And this was 1700-ish words that I did not put into my latest novel. Get back to work, Philippa Lodge.

And go buy my French historical romances. 

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