LANSING, Mich. — One frustrated client hurled a piece of concrete through the window of a welfare agency. Another threw her car keys at a welfare worker before being escorted away. At one point, a woman on public assistance even took a swing at a worker.
As Michigan struggles with the highest-in-the-nation jobless rate, state workers who deal with unemployment, welfare and other aid programs say they have never been so overwhelmed — or so worried about their safety. Some clients have begun taking their anger out on the very people who are offering help. And caseworkers are seeking extra protection.
"We are seeing it more and more as a dangerous situation," said Amy Harrison, a caseworker who used to work for the state prison system, where she says she never felt as insecure as she does now.
More than 15 percent of Michigan workers do not have a job. The dismal economy has also caused record demand for food stamps and public health care, forcing impoverished clients to wait hours for help in crowded office buildings. To make matters worse, a troublesome new computer system is also causing delays.
It's a recipe for conflict — or worse.
"What is it going to take? Is it going to take one of us getting seriously injured or killed? I hope not," said Laurie Massie, who works for the Department of Human Services. "I am replaceable as a state of Michigan employee. But I'm not replaceable to my friends and family."
Massie grew fearful when a 6-foot-4, 250-pound man walked into in her office in the Upper Peninsula demanding that his application for emergency assistance be processed. She told him she was helping another client who had an appointment.
"He stood there. He stared me down," said Massie, whose job is to determine if people are eligible for public assistance.
The man began cursing and questioning why he was not being helped. He eventually left. Workers learned later that he had a history of armed robberies and aggravated assaults.
Long waits for assistance
At the DHS office in Macomb County, north of Detroit, lines have snaked outside the door, and workers worry what will happen when winter arrives. At a Detroit office, the line forms at 7 a.m., an hour before the building opens. A client frustrated by a long wait recently threw a chunk of concrete through a window.
Clients have even bypassed security guards and surprised workers in their cubicles. In the Detroit suburb of Warren, an angry client tossed her car keys at a caseworker, who ducked. The woman was promptly escorted away.
About two out of every 10 Michigan residents receive some kind of state assistance. That's 400,000 more than a year ago, and staffing levels at public-aid agencies are only slightly higher than before the recession.
Terry Salacina, director of DHS field operations, says Michigan is still short 700 full-time field workers, and that's after the state hired more child welfare caseworkers to comply with a federal court order. It's also using federal stimulus money to add food-assistance specialists.
Even so, given Michigan's multibillion-dollar budget deficits, it will be tough to bring in reinforcements and to pay for more computers, phones and office space.
Earlier this month, seven caseworkers traveled to the state Capitol to plead with lawmakers for help. They asked for better security, more staff and help with the problem computer system.
Republican Rep. David Agema went so far as to suggest they consider carrying handguns, an idea that did not sit well with caseworkers — not to mention the fact that having a pistol in an agency that oversees child-welfare is illegal.
Jan Brown, a Berrien County caseworker in southwest Michigan, says she was opening the door to see a client when a woman ran over, grabbed the door and said, "You ARE going to see me." The woman finally left and on her way out called the front-desk workers "every name in the book."
"This isn't happening once. This is happening daily," said Brown, who monitors welfare recipients who have been instructed to get training or seek work. Her caseload that was once 150 is now 360 and climbing because people cannot find jobs.
Brown has been assaulted by a client, but does not blame people for their frustration.
"We've got a crisis here. It's not the people that are coming into us. It's not their fault. It's no workers — not enough workers — and a computer system that is not working compatibly."
Harrison, who works in Jackson in south-central Michigan, had to get an order of protection against a client who took at swing at her. She said workers are constantly threatened, and lobby security is not enough.
Salacina says threats to employees are nothing new, but now there are more of them. "It's just we have more clients," he said.
'These people are angry'
Stephen and Christina Saunders of Grand Rapids started receiving $335 in monthly food assistance in September to help feed their four children ages 6 and under. He lost his job as an injection-mold operator when his company closed a factory.
A few months ago, he landed a full-time job bussing tables but now gets only 16 to 19 hours of work each week because fewer customers are eating at the restaurant.
Christina Saunders spent 90 minutes recently waiting to see the family's caseworker. People had to wait in the hallway, and many were visibly frustrated because of the long wait. Some shouted at employees.
"Having that many people together, once one person starts crabbing, then another person starts crabbing, and it gets harder to calm things down," said Stephen Saunders.
Said Brown: "I think I'm tough, and it's frightening me. These people are angry."
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