'Lives are at stake': Arizona's congressional caseworkers easing anxiety during coronavirus pandemic

March 30, 2020
In The News

With the deadly coronavirus pandemic sweeping across the U.S., and with restrictions on travel and commerce, the phone lines of Arizona’s 11 members of Congress are ringing off the hook. 

Call by call, thousands of anxious Arizonans, desperate for information and help, are relying more than ever on a few dozen people who try to solve problems, calm nerves and reconnect loved ones.

Those working in constituent services for Arizona’s two senators and nine representatives are guiding a needy public through the foggy maze of government bureaucracy at a time of heightened anxiety and system overload.

The calls run from wanting to know how to get tested for the new coronavirus to needing to know what can be done for people and businesses struggling financially. And there is an "unprecedented" wave of people needing to bring family members back from overseas.

Ana Armendarez,  a constituent advocate for Sen. Martha McSally, R-Ariz., has never seen anything like this in her 18 years as a constituent advocate. 
The gravity of the moment demands more help than the five caseworkers in McSally's Phoenix and Tucson offices can offer, Armendarez said. That's why everyone in the senator’s office is on deck, taking phone calls and working cases — especially for those out of the country. 

“We are working from home. We are coming into the office," Armendarez said. "I was here both Saturday and Sunday sending out emails to people reassuring them that the office is continuing to work with the State Department to try to get them back into the country.

“And then you have phone calls of people who are lacking resources within the country and we’re trying to get all that information to people.” 

It's a situation playing out in every office on Capitol Hill.

Rep. Tom O’Halleran, D-Ariz., said his office has heard from people on a range of issues, from cancer patients and those needing dialysis to those worrying about a cash crunch.

“Housing issues are at the forefront,” he said. “The American people, the workers of America, are the ones getting hurt the most. … In the short run, we have to make sure the American people know that we're a government that cares for them.”

"Lives are at stake,” said Sen. Kyrsten Sinema, D-Ariz. She has a dozen caseworkers working day and night to help manage the spike in constituent needs.

Sinema's office has fielded an average of 1,500 calls each day over the past week. Written correspondence has topped 26,000 over the past week. 

Sinema, a former elementary school social worker, stacked her team with social workers who have professional backgrounds in helping people in need. 

“Our casework team is working around the clock connecting Arizonans to critical health services, emergency resources, and financial assistance to help them get through the coronavirus outbreak," Sinema said in a  written statement to The Arizona Republic. 

Stranded abroad
On any given day, thousands of Americans are traveling outside the U.S., some for pleasure, some for work or for school. The pandemic has left those citizens suddenly struggling to return home.

Caseworkers with Arizona's delegation are coordinating with the State Department and U.S.embassies on matters from Hungary and Peru to Argentina and Spain. 

For the first time ever, Angela Phillips of Peoria turned to her elected officials. She contacted both senators and Rep. David Schweikert, R-Ariz., in an attempt to secure her daughter’s return from Peru. 

Her daughter, Chelsea Ford, 26, is a physician assistant student at Touro University Nevada. She is stuck in Peru's coastal city of Trujillo because of that nation’s own coronavirus restrictions.

“We’re being told to sit tight and we’re working on it. Senator McSally’s office has been in constant contact with us by email and telephone," Phillips said.

One of McSally's staffers keeps telling her: "Hang in there, we’re working on it. I know it may feel like we’re not but we’re working around the clock." 

It’s a measure of reassurance.

“The first thing I ask is, ‘Are you in a safe place, do you have enough supplies?'” Armendarez said. “Most of the people are calm. They are just wanting to be home.”

Nicole Pasteur, a spokeswoman for Rep. Greg Stanton, D-Ariz., said Stanton's staff worked with a woman to help get her out of Honduras, where she had visited her 95-year-old father.

Stanton’s office worked with the U.S. Embassy there to help close communication gaps about flights out of that country. 

On Wednesday, the woman sent a caseworker the video of her boarding their flight to return home.

Sinema's team has helped 60 Arizonans get home from abroad, including Mormon missionaries from the Philippines, a family in Peru and an Arizonan in the Czech Republic.

People and businesses 
Much closer to home, small-business owners have been looking for information about government programs to help keep them afloat. 

After hearing from employees who lack telework options, Sinema’s caseworkers spoke directly to employers to encourage them to allow teleworking and paid leave for employees, the senator’s spokeswoman said. 

They are helping local companies apply for Small Business Administration Economic Injury Disaster Loans.

Residents face the same kind of financial squeeze.

Stanton's team helped someone who needed an expedited tax refund to lighten their new financial pressure, Pasteur said. It's a service they offer year-round, but has taken on new urgency.

Sinema's team connected a 77-year-old Scottsdale resident who has mobility issues to food-assistance programs.

And there are the health-related cases.

A woman with an autoimmune disease contacted Stanton's office to help get Medicare to quickly allow her to receive in-home treatment, Pasteur said. That helps keep her out of a hospital, where she would be at higher risk of exposure to the virus.

Seniors have questions about who can help get them groceries and run other errands. Hospital workers running out of critical personal protective equipment need urgent help getting more. 

All the offices have heard from people needing help getting COVID-19 tests — and their results. 

Working together but apart
Zak Royse, the director of constituent services for Rep. Ruben Gallego, D-Ariz., said the delegation’s caseworkers consult each other to provide consistent, accurate information.

Royse said their work has gotten more challenging, but so far, the caseworkers are keeping up.

“You know, it's hard. We are by nature, very social people. We like to interact with our constituents face to face, to see really what their problems are," Royse said. "A lot of times we'll get people coming to us in a crisis, and if we're able to sit down and talk to them, we can localize it. What do you really need help with right now?

“We're still doing it. Telephonically, electronically. It's just not the same.”

While they try to help constituents in trying times, they are dealing with their own challenges.

“Personally, I have two 5-month-old twin girls here at home,” Royse said. His wife works in health care, which adds more worry about exposure.

“You know, right now, we just have to all be safe and isolate as best we can,” he said.

A tradition of help
Every member of Congress approaches the office differently. But all are expected to provide constituent services as part of their formal duties. 

The expectation began in the earliest of Congresses, after requests were made for help with Revolutionary War pensions and other matters, according to the Congressional Research Service.

In 1794, the House of Representatives created select committees to address private claims; the Senate followed suit in 1816. Today, many of those types of matters would be considered constituent service, the CRS said.

Former Sen. Jon Kyl, R-Ariz., who was in office during the September 11 terror attacks, the 2001 anthrax attacks and the 2008 Great Recession, said caseworkers were one of the most important functions of his office.

“A lot of times, these are really complicated (cases) and the people often have tried themselves and haven’t been able to get satisfaction," Kyl said.

Caseworkers "are people who are really expert. They know a lot. They work very hard," he said.

“They know exactly who to call or email about a problem and they receive many requests every day to help people who have problems."

How to find help
Need help from the government to answer questions about your rent, your mortgage, coronavirus tests, business loans, returning to the U.S. from abroad, Social Security or any other issue? 

Here is a list of resources to help connect you to congressional experts who can answer your questions and connect you to resources for you and your family.

Arizona's U.S. Senators

Sen. Kyrsten Sinema. Email her casework team at casework@sinema.senate.gov or call at 602-598-7327. Find information on her coronavirus resources website: https://www.sinema.senate.gov/corona2.

Sen. Martha McSally. Email her casework team at phoenix@mcsally.senate.gov or tucson@mcsally.senate.gov or call them at 602-952-2410 or 520-670-6334. Find information on her coronavirus resources website: https://www.mcsally.senate.gov/sites/default/files/2020-03/Resources%20and%20Information%20for%20Arizonans%20Affected%20by%20COVID%5b1%5d.pdf

U.S. House of Representatives from Arizona

Rep. Tom O’Halleran, 1st Congressional District. Email his office by filling out the form on this website: https://ohalleran.house.gov/zip-code-lookup?form=/contact/email. Call his offices at 202-225-3361 in Washington, 520-316-0839 in Casa Grande, 928-286-5338 in Flagstaff and 928-304-0131 in NW Tucson. Find coronavirus information on his website here: https://ohalleran.house.gov/coronavirus-covid-19-resources

Rep. Ann Kirkpatrick, 2nd Congressional District. Email her office by filling out the form on this website: https://kirkpatrick.house.gov/contact/email-me/. Call her offices at 202-225-2542 in Washington, 520-459-3115 in Sierra Vista, and 520-881-3588 in Tucson. Find coronavirus information on her website here: https://kirkpatrick.house.gov/arizona-state-county-resources/

Rep. Raúl Grijalva, 3rd Congressional District. If you need help with a federal agency, email his caseworker team at az03services@mail.house.gov or call them a 520- 622-6788. 

Rep. Paul Gosar, 4th Congressional District. If you need help with a federal agency, fill out this form on his website: https://gosar.house.gov/constituent-services/casework/help-with-a-federal-agency.htm. Call his offices at 202-225-2315 in Washington, 480-882-2697 in Gold Canyon, and 928-445-1683 in Prescott.

Rep. Andy Biggs, 5th Congressional District. If you need help with a federal agency, fill out this form on his website: https://biggs.house.gov/services/help-with-a-federal-agency. Call his offices at 202-225-2635 in Washington or 480-699-8239 in Mesa. 

Rep. David Schweikert, 6th Congressional District. For help with a federal agency, call 480-946-2411. You can also call his offices at 202-225-2190 in Washington and 480-946-2411 in Scottsdale. Find coronavirus information on his website here: https://schweikert.house.gov/novel-coronavirus-resources-and-information

Rep. Ruben Gallego, 7th Congressional District. For help with a federal agency, fill out the form on his website here: https://rubengallego.house.gov/services/hwafa-zip-verify or call his office in Washington, D.C. at  202-225-4065. For information on how to donate supplies to help health care workers combat the virus, visit his website here: https://rubengallego.house.gov/services/coronavirus-supply-donations

Rep. Debbie Lesko, 8th Congressional District. For help with a federal agency, fill out the form on her website here: https://lesko.house.gov/services/casework/help-with-a-federal-agency.htm. Call her offices at  202-225-4576 in Washington and 623-776-7911 in Glendale. Find coronavirus information on her website here: https://lesko.house.gov/coronavirus/.

Rep. Greg Stanton, 9th Congressional District. For help with a federal agency, fill out the form on his website here: https://stanton.house.gov/services/help-federal-agency. Call his offices at 202-225-9888 in Washington and 602-956-2463 in Phoenix. Find coronavirus information on his website here: https://stanton.house.gov/covid-19.