AUGUSTA, Maine — The Department of Health and Human Services blames short-staffing for a delay in its delivery of supplemental food benefits to eligible low-income Mainers.

DHHS spokesman John Martins, who could not immediately identify how many recipients are being affected by the problem, said the backlog affects people involved in the annual renewal process, which involves reaffirming financial information and other eligibility criteria.

“There is a backlog of cases, and we are using all available staff resources to address them in the short term,” said Martins in response to questions emailed by the Bangor Daily News. “Staffing is a primary reason for the backlog (vacancies and staff turnover), and we are currently working to fill vacant positions.”

Martins said the vacancies are not because of budget issues, and the open positions are being advertised. Even a slew of hires in the short term wouldn’t immediately solve the problem, because, according to Martins, it takes new employees up to a year before they are given full caseloads.

He said the vacancy rate statewide is about 18 percent and is worst in Bangor, where the vacancy rate is 29 percent. That’s where the backlog is the longest, he said.

Martins said the department has hired a recruitment and retention specialist to help with the problem, and existing resources are being shifted to Bangor and other urban areas to help with the backlog.

Terrie Haggey, a mental health worker in the Bangor area, said she has several clients who have been affected by the delays, and that local food banks and other charity organizations are usually unable to fill the void.

“This has caused people to go for days or weeks without food stamps,” said Haggey. “A lot of our folks are living off $700 a month, and most of them can’t afford not to have that for weeks on end.”

Haggey said the delays have ranged from a few days to three weeks.

“This is hitting a portion of the whole food stamp population,” said Haggey.

Ginette Rivard, president of MSEA-SEIU Local 1989, the labor union that represents the majority of state employees, said Tuesday that the backlog is a symptom of too many cuts in state government and lax hiring practices within DHHS.

“My information is anecdotal but from talking to members who work in those jobs, they say vacancies don’t get filled, they’re tough jobs, and the workload is incredible,” said Rivard. “This is what happens when you keep cutting government. Benefits aren’t available to citizens when they’re due them. It’s prevalent throughout state government that jobs don’t get filled and people are overworked.”

Martins said the problem is likely at a monthly peak because of the schedule under which annual reviews are processed and benefits distributed. Anyone due for an annual review must submit information to DHHS by the 10th day of the month, and information is processed in a first-in, first-out manner.

Under normal circumstances, benefits are released to people’s state-issued EBT cards between the 10th and 14th of the following month.

Martins said despite the delays, recipients will receive all of the benefits they are entitled to once their paperwork is processed. The Office for Family Independence is in the midst of revamping the way it processes food stamps and other benefits, including the introduction of electronic imaging and other technology, and is moving toward a more task-oriented workforce, versus a geographically based one.

“By using technology and other resources, the workload can be spread out over all DHHS offices, which will allow for cases to be processed faster and for more balance in the workload across the state,” said Martins. “This process redesign is currently underway with full completion targeted by the end of the calendar year.”

According to DHHS data, in May 2014, more than 230,000 individuals in Maine were receiving food stamps for a total distribution of some $26.9 million in benefits. Cumberland County had the highest distribution — $4.4 million — followed by Penobscot County at $3.4 million, and Androscoggin and York counties with about $2.9 million. The lowest-receiving county from a monetary perspective was Piscataquis, with about $458,000 in food stamps distributed in May.

Food stamps, which since 2008 have been called the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, are funded by the federal government.

Christopher Cousins has worked as a journalist in Maine for more than 15 years and covered state government for numerous media organizations before joining the Bangor Daily News in 2009.