Seattle University researchers who posed as "secret shoppers" to test customer services at the Department of Social and Health Services gave the agency a failing grade.
Their report card, released this month, showed that DSHS treated whites and people of color differently, failed to provide basic information on programs when asked, failed to keep confidentiality and made things difficult for the disabled and those who don't speak English.
The researchers, who are of different ethnicities, visited all 54 DSHS offices around the state between July and December of 2009.
Of the four female researchers, the African-American received the worst treatment, according to the study. Many DSHS receptionists also assumed the Asian-American investigator was a foreigner and asked questions about her citizenship status, even though she was born in America and had no accent, said lead investigator Rose Ernst, Ph.D., an assistant political science professor at Seattle University and the study's author.
"I never had a single question about my citizenship status," said Ernst, who is white.
"On the flip side, there was an assumption if I was in the office, I had a very legitimate reason to be there, that I really needed help," Ernst said.
Ernst said office receptionists asked if she had a domestic violence problem or drew her into hushed conversations about others in the waiting room.
In contrast, staff at many offices assumed the African-American investigator knew all about DSHS programs, asked if she had applied before and subjected her to rude treatment more frequently than the other researchers.
The African-American investigator encountered rude or dismissive behavior in roughly 40 percent of her visits to DSHS offices compared with 25 percent for Ernst, the white investigator.
At times, staff members raised their voice to "shame" the African-American investigator by broadcasting her question to the entire office, the report says.
The researchers had trouble getting answers to basic questions about cash, medical and food programs -- the study's core mission, Ernst said.
Only half of DSHS's offices are fully wheelchair accessible, the researchers found. When the researchers telephoned offices, they got voicemail systems that provided no route to basic eligibility information or a live person. Voicemail options offered in Spanish and Russian later led to English, the report says.
Ernst said the study grew out of previous advocacy work she did with Washington's Welfare Rights Organizing Coalition, which issued annual report cards on DSHS in the past.
She said the goal is to inform DSHS where it needs to make changes and provide data that community organizations can use to advocate for DSHS clients.
The report recommends changes that would cost DSHS little or nothing, Ernst said. Among them, the researchers call for streamlining phone menus, directing staff members to lower their voices, reminding them not to differentiate by race and requiring a course on dismantling racism.
Terre Penn, field services administrator for DSHS's Community Services Division, said many of the changes have already been made. Research in the report dates back to 2009, she said. DSHS was aware its offices had problems, she said, and has since instituted a program to fix them based on input from a client focus group.
The department now operates only one call center with a consistent voicemail tree, including language options, she said. DSHS has also put a financial eligibility worker in the lobby of each office to help answer people's immediate questions.
If the conversation turns to private information, the worker can direct individuals to private conference rooms, she said.
DSHS spokesperson Rebecca Henrie said the department trains all staff in issues of civil rights and equal access. But DSHS just got the Seattle University report, she said, and would need to know more about the incidents that researchers experienced before deciding how to proceed.
She agreed, however, with the premise.
"We should not be making assumptions based on a person's appearance," Henrie said.