By Jessica Mathews /

Like many agencies and businesses, Livingston County Veterans Services is dealing with staffing shortages, phone issues, and ever-increasing requests.

The Committee met Wednesday night, where Director Mary Durst sought input from members about priorities to help provide guidance with decision making and direction for the Office that will have the biggest positive impact for local veterans.

Resources were said to be tight with half of the department staff out sick, in part due to COVID, and other problems with a brand new phone system and voicemails. The Office recently moved to a new location next to the Secretary of State’s Office in Howell but had to close for a time because the front part of the building to be renovated. Then the building didn’t have heat for a week during sub-zero temperatures, which Durst said was a fiasco on its own.

Durst said the Department gets a lot of requests and if something is turned down it can be viewed poorly and it’s not that they want to but they have a very limited amount of staff. The staffing shortages are resulting in backlogs and there were said to be a lot of people waiting for callbacks. Appointments are averaging two to three weeks out, although it was stressed that the Office always has room for emergency relief appointments or time-sensitive items.

Durst said they strive to call people back within 24 hours but that hasn’t been possible as of late since the move and phone issues and with staff being out sick. She said been pretty stressful the past couple of weeks but once they get caught up, they should be able to get calls are returned within 24 to 48 hours.

With half of the staff temporarily out, the Office voice mail refers veterans with emergencies to contact the American Legion or the Veterans Benefits Administration. The latter is said to be automatically granting 90-days on extension letters because they’re six weeks behind and veterans are receiving letters with hearing dates that have already expired and people are livid. Durst said a regional office is also short-staffed and all of the agencies are struggling.

Chairman Joe Riker reminded the local Office was set up for emergency relief per law, not various other items including compensation and pension benefits. He said their focus is on the emergency needs of veterans, while the benefit assistance is an additional service being provided that’s a long process and takes months. Due to the current climate, Riker felt the priority needs to go toward emergency needs for a veteran’s well-being. He said they don’t want to turn anyone away but they have to be truthful that the Office is booked up and appointments might be two or three weeks out, adding they can recommend other service organizations to assist if someone doesn’t want to wait.

Durst commented that many times veterans want immediate satisfaction on something but a lot of times they need to do further research and it takes time. When veterans don’t get exactly what they want when they want it, she said they can be quick to jump and yell at whoever is around them. Durst said as long as her staff knows the committee has the same priorities, there will be a lot less stress and everyone will be on the same page. She’ll gather responses from all members on priorities before putting together anything formal for discussion at a future meeting.

Another issue raised was employees using their personal phones for work-related business, which is no longer going to be permitted for various reasons, and the possibility of purchasing additional phones for the department. Durst said she wasn’t suggesting going that route now but if they come across hard staffing times again or COVID issues, then she would strongly encourage the purchase of three cell phones.

Members agreed employees should not be using personal phones, and that messages can be left at the office or emails and later returned.

It was noted that during the pandemic, staff had to contact veterans from home via their personal numbers. Durst said then people have their private numbers and later call back for different things. She said if they block their numbers, veterans usually won’t pick-up a blocked number and then don’t know the Office was trying to reach them. It was also noted that many veterans don’t have voicemails set up or know how to check them or they’re often full.

The Office was also said to be desperately in need of another front desk person and the Committee approved a request to hire a full-time person for that role using grant funding.