Pacing around the women’s department at Target, my younger daughter playfully hiding in the racks of clothes, I tried to stay calm while holding in the tears. I was on the phone with a Department of Health and Human Services employee.
One of the upsides of being part of the “liberal elite” is that I’ve spent my life being treated with what may be an atypical level of kindness and respect. There have been times when people have been rude, abrasive or flat-out mean, but in most of those situations there were personal relationships involved. When I am trying to get something accomplished with employees of retail or service companies, or governmental agencies, I almost always find it easy to get along.
Twice I’ve been on the phone with someone at DHHS about my food stamps and MaineCare when I felt like I was being punched in the gut or smacked in the face.
In both cases, as I was on the verge of tears, I whimpered, “I don’t understand why you are being so unkind to me. No one talks to me like this. I don’t know why you are.”
And, in both conversations, it was clear the person on the other end of the phone call wasn’t trying, necessarily, to be unkind.
Some of my interpretations of their treatment of me may be simply my ignorance of the language of the working class or poor. I know there are language barriers I haven’t yet been able to cross. I know the look of a clerk at the 7-11 as she stares at me in a strange silence, and I feel like she thinks I’m bonkers. I don’t know the right way to do small talk when I’m in unfamiliar territory.
There have been times when friends of mine with working-class roots take things I intend as jokes and respond to them as if I meant them literally. Maybe both of the DHHS workers were speaking in a tone that means something else — something appropriate and respectful — in worlds unfamiliar to me.
Still, setting aside cultural differences and valid misunderstandings due to different language styles, these two women were unkind. I believe that’s objectively the case.
After the first disturbing call, I spoke with Terry Hamilton, program administrator at the Portland office, to see if I could learn about these calls from the point of view of the staff. She was quite clear that customer service was one of the agency’s highest priorities. She pointed out that the people serving as case workers want to help those of us seeking assistance.
“They wouldn’t stay in these jobs if they didn’t want to help,” she said. I told her I wondered if it might be difficult for the staff to work with highly stressed people day in and day out, and she agreed it was challenging.
She emphasized repeatedly that she “expects staff to be considerate and to have good interviewing skills.” She also noted that staff are trained to pick up on “the subtle clues” about an applicant or active recipient’s experience with the benefits system. If someone seemed to not understand what was happening, she said, she felt confident her staff would take the time to respectfully walk people through the process.
So, DHHS wants to treat their customers with respect. And both women who brought me nearly to tears said they weren’t trying to be unkind. Still, I found myself physically shaking after each call, feeling completely confused about what had just happened. It took a few hours and some conversations with friends who work in social services to piece together what was so distressing for me about the phone calls.
In retrospect, I see now that the workers were both treating me like I was trying to get away with something. They were treating me like I was guilty of misleading them, even as if I was a liar. They asked me a question about my case, and I asked them to clarify what they were looking for so I could give them the right information. Their responses made me feel they thought I was being difficult, even belligerent.
The first women told me to “stop interrupting” her. The second woman went from telling me in what sounded like an outraged tone, because I still own part of a home that’s going through a short sale (I will see no money from it), “This is a needs-based assistance program.”
This felt cruel. I had gone through the humiliating experience of saying, “I can’t do this on my own,” and she felt she should tell me this was a needs-based program?
Moments later, when discussing my business income last year (almost nothing) she sounded flabbergasted, asking, “How were you able to pay rent?”
I responded, “I know! I was barely making it! But things are getting better.”
She jumped in, saying, “If you are making more money now, you need to tell us.”
I had just completed my recertification paperwork days ago and had told them how things are getting better. The information on that recertification paperwork was why she called me in the first place.
I believe staff members at DHHS mostly all have good hearts and want to help the people who come looking for assistance. I also believe my life experience leaves me with tender skin — the second worker told me I was “being sensitive” when I asked why she was being unkind — and some of my response to the calls were misunderstandings of their language style.
But I also believe there was a general tone of mistrust and even accusation in both conversations that left me feeling guilty and ashamed. I felt as if I had done something wrong, when all I wanted to do was do it right.
If other people interacting with DHHS are being treated this way and think it’s fine, I can’t help but think their lives might be full of people treating them terribly. I don’t know how to fix the system, but I know some mutual kindness and respect combined with an assumption of innocence would be a good start.
Heather Denkmire is a writer and artist who lives in Portland with her two young daughters. After a few challenging years, she is growing her small business, where her team helps nonprofit organizations win grants. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Her columns appear monthly.