Editor's note: the day of the oversight hearing has been corrected to Wednesday. This article originally made multiple references to Thursday as the hearing day.
The Department of Integrated Services for Individuals with Disabilities saw a tremendous increase in the number of individuals seeking services over the last 18 months as COVID-19 disrupted the island.
Clients would not only seek housing services, due to reduced income, but the demand spread throughout all services, especially caregiving services and financial assistance for daily living, Michelle Perez, deputy director at DISID, told The Guam Daily Post in late September. The number of new clients had ranged from seven per month to up to 42 in one month, Perez said.
Moreover, the agency continues to face hiring challenges.
DISID is in critical need of social workers, community program aides and program coordinators, Perez said Wednesday before lawmakers during an oversight hearing on the agency.
Social workers are a "hot commodity" who have been difficult to acquire for any public agency and even private entities, but are nonetheless critical to provide services at DISID, Perez said.
The agency has three social workers within the Division of Support Services, with one going on extended medical leave. For each social worker, there is a caseload of about 150 clients. And just Wednesday morning, the agency took on three new clients, Perez said. DISID has a total of 18 employees.
"Our social workers are really working hard to provide the service that we can with the resources that we do have," Perez said.
Some responsibilities have also been returned to DISID from the Guam Behavioral Health and Wellness Center.
DISID is trying to recruit social workers and included funding to support hiring when it was first developing its fiscal year 2022 budget. But the version of the agency budget that made its way to the Legislature incorporated a budget ceiling, which directed agencies to fund current staffing and not additional staff, among other guidelines.
The additional positions were included in the DISID staffing pattern but the funding was zeroed out, according to discussions Wednesday. This meant that funding for additional positions is not included in the current budget law.
"That's because the request was not made for additional funding for those positions - the request that was sent to the Legislature," Speaker Therese Terlaje said Wednesday, noting that the budget the Legislature has approved is the same as the governor's executive budget request. "I would like you to be very clear in the next budget cycle or even prior to that, if DISID has additional needs that were not reflected in the governor's budget request, then that has to be put in writing and made very clear to the governor as to what your challenges are ... and to the budget chair here at the Legislature."
Terlaje said it is difficult for lawmakers to advocate for more than what the governor says is needed for an agency, and added that she was concerned the number of clients at DISID may impose a greater need than discussed.
The administration is aware of DISID's challenges as well as the influx of new clients that have come within the last six to eight months, and are working to find funding for additional personnel, social workers especially, according to Perez.
However, DISID so far hasn't heard whether it will receive funding from the American Rescue Plan.