Advocates for low-income families have filed a class-action lawsuit against Texas' public benefits agency alleging more than a third of food-stamp applications languished beyond the one-month processing time required by law.
The Texas Legal Services Center and the National Center for Law and Economic Justice filed the lawsuit Friday in federal court in Austin.
The Texas Health and Human Services Commission said Monday that agency officials are working to hire more staff and find other ways to trim the application backlog.
"We just have seen a huge increase in the number of people applying," said commission spokeswoman Stephanie Goodman. "Basically it's the economy. We really escaped that longer than most places in the nation."
Federal law requires the state to reach a decision on food-stamp applications within 30 days; seven days for emergency food-stamp applications in cases of families without money for food or rent. Last month, Texas processed more than a third of all food-stamp applications late and the state has failed to meet the federal time constraints for more than three years, according to the lawsuit.
Applicants in the Dallas and Houston metropolitan areas have faced some of the longest waits, the commission said. Some applicants in the Dallas area have waited as long as 70 to 80 days for processing, according to the lawsuit.
Health and Human Services hired nearly 700 workers in the last year and plans to hire about 650 additional staffers to tackle the increase. Staffers have been working weekends and longer hours to try to keep up with an increase of 11 percent more food stamp applicants compared to last year. The agency is also looking at other ways to diminish the backlog, including having people reapply for benefits once a year instead of twice a year, Goodman said.
Some 2.8 million Texans receive food-stamp benefits, according to the commission.
The National Center for Law and Economic Justice is also challenging delays and other processing problems in Indiana, Maryland, Rhode Island, Colorado and New York.