Things won't get better for public assistance clients until an overstressed system and frustrated, overworked employees get some relief - and only the Legislature can provide it.

That was the consensus of a group of welfare client advocates and officials from the Department of Social Services, who met Friday in the latest of several attempts to solve a growing problem with delays in processing public assistance applications, lost paperwork and cases that are closed inappropriately. A new computer case-management system has contributed to existing problems."We're advocates for the clients," said Joe Duke-Rosati of the Community Action Program, "but the bottom line is that the workers are having a terrible, terrible time."

He said that while the caseload has increased and the federal government has handed down a number of regulations that require additional work, the number of employees has remained static.

"I couldn't agree more that we need additional workers," said Tim Holm, director of the Office of Community Operations, the service delivery division for Social Services.

Eighteen months ago, most people who qualified for assistance received it in about two weeks. Recently, according to Cindy Haag, director of the Assistance Payments Administration, the state has "been pushing the limit" on the number of days allowed by federal law - 30 for food stamps and 45 for public assistance.

Department director Norman G. Angus said his staff would try to determine how many more full-time employees it would take to bring the processing back to three weeks and to two weeks in all programs. Advocates will then ask the Legislature to appropriate money for additional employees.

Haag praised his staff "for giving 110 percent," but says they can't get ahead because conversion to the new computer system has caused delays.

The Public Assistance Case Management Information System "is just the straw that has broken the camel's back," Haag said.

Problems like slow computer response time and "down time" are being addressed, Holm said. "We're certainly not trying to blame PACMIS for everything, but it's contributing to the delays."