Protecting Your Benefits
Each year, our offices receive hundreds of calls about problems getting and keeping public assistance benefits. Many problems are avoidable, if you know your rights and plan in advance.
Communicate All Important Updates in Writing
Can you remember a phone conversation you had with a friend three months ago? Probably not, at least not the details. Don't depend on your caseworker to remember what you may have said months ago. When the time comes that you need to prove something, you may not have the same worker.
Don't depend on telephone messages or even in-person conversations. If you need to give your worker important information, give it to her in writing, as well as telling her verbally. Likewise, if you want to request help from your worker - to make a change of address, add a child to your case, etc. - put the request in writing.
The most important thing you can do is to keep copies of every piece of paper that you give to your caseworker or receive from DSS with the envelope it came in (this proves when it was actually sent to you.) An easy way to do this is to get a big manila envelope or a folder with pockets and keep everything in it. Get a calendar and record on it all your interactions with the welfare office and your caseworker. For example, if you call you worker to report you started a job, and you leave a voice-mail message, write down on your calendar the time you made the call and that you left a message. If you have to go to a hearing later, your own notes can be used as evidence to help you.
When you give papers to your worker, keep a copy AND get a receipt to prove when you dropped it off, so that if it gets lost, you can provide it again with no problem.
Months later you may have to prove that you dropped off a document by a certain deadline. Your receipt will be your only proof.
If your caseworker tells you to bring in document by a certain date, pay attention to these dates. If you are unable to provide the requested document by that date, notify your caseworker in writing, in addition to any phone call you make. You have the right to request an extension of time to provide the document. You also have the right to ask your worker for assistance if you've tried to get the document, but can't. Your caseworker has an obligation to assist you.
If you have any appointment with DSS, pay attention to the date and time. If you need to reschedule the appointment call your worker right away and follow it up with something in writing, explaining why and asking for a new appointment.
If a problem comes up in your case and you cannot resolve it by talking with your caseworker or a supervisor, you should also request a Fair Hearing to protect your benefits. Request a hearing by calling (1-800-342-3334). Request a hearing even if your worker tells you "don't bother, you're going to lose anyway". If the problem is actually resolved by the time the hearing is scheduled, you should still go to the hearing to get written proof that the problem has been resolved. There is a deadline to request a hearing, so request it right away.
If a staff person at the welfare office has been rude or unprofessional in handling your case, you have a right to make a complaint and you should make the complaint in writing. Write a brief description of what happened and remember to be specific. For example,
I have made 4 phone calls to my worker, Mr. X because my Medicaid card is not working and I cannot fill my prescriptions. I left 3 voice mail messages on March 1, March 3, and March 7. Mr. X did not return my call. I called again on March 12 and spoke to Mr. X. I told him my card is not working. He told me he doesn't know what's wrong and can't deal with it now. I asked him how I could get my prescription filled and he told my "that's your problem" and hung up on me.
Send your complaint to the local commissioner of DSS. Be sure to keep a copy.
Filing a complaint should not affect your eligibility for benefits. If you have filed a complaint and believe you are being punished for making a complaint, you should contact an attorney.
•Don't be rude back - You have a right to be treated with courtesy. If your worker is rude or treating you badly, it's easy to feel angry. However, if you are rude in return, it will do nothing to help you resolve your problem and could make it worse.
•Don't assume your worker knows - Public assistance caseworkers handle many, many cases each month. Laws change. Your worker can make mistakes. If you have a question or problem with what your worker told you, you may want to double-check with someone else, like a supervisor. If you still have questions, you may want to call our office.
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(c) Legal Assistance of Western New York, Inc. ®
This article provides general information about this subject. Laws affecting this subject may have changed since this article was written. For specific legal advice about a problem you are having, get the advice of a lawyer. Receiving this information does not make you a client of our office.
rev. 2/7/08 J. Hogue