Calls overwhelm disability benefits call centers

“When the verification process adds extra layers of scrutiny and slows down the system that people normally feel to be fast enough and responsive enough, then people will be calling to find out, ‘Why is this taking longer than this? what am I used to?'” Lacy said.

The department has increased disability insurance call center staffing from an average of 134 in November 2021 to 228 in February 2022, according to the department.

hard to answer

Some call center surges are predictable; Black Friday, for example, is likely to be very busy for retailers.

Call centers should also be able to handle unexpected surges, at least of some magnitude, “without breaking,” said Keith Dawson, vice president of Ventana Research, where he leads research on the experiment. customer.

But, when it comes to a more than twelvefold increase in call volume, as the employment service experienced, “there is no possible way they can be prepared for something of that magnitude,” Dawson said.

One strategy centers can use in the face of increased volume is to give callers more information, either online or in an automated message, so they can get their question answered without speaking to a human, said Dawson. But, he said, that approach is less effective if people call with questions specific to their specific situation. Another option is to quickly increase staff — which is difficult — or outsource some of the calls to a contractor, which is expensive and requires training, Dawson said.

But the recent surge isn’t the first time callers have struggled to reach a human. From May 2021 to October 2021, before the surge in calls, about 80% of unique phone numbers calling were eventually answered, according to department data, which means about 20% of callers never did. .

Difficulty reaching someone has always been an issue with disability insurance and paid family leave, said Katherine Wutchiett, an attorney at Legal Aid at Work, a nonprofit that helps low-income workers and runs a hotline for questions about the right of persons to take leave or to obtain accommodation. The organization has “always heard of people struggling to get that one-on-one, you know, ‘What’s the answer to that?’ I’m confused. I have no more money. What can I do? “Said Wutchiett.

Answering all incoming calls is the goal of any call center, Dawson said. “If you don’t answer all your calls, you’re doing something wrong,” he said.

To repair it ?

As the Legislature and Governor squabble over how California spends its money next year, the Employment Department has made budget requests to bolster its fraud prevention and investigative efforts and modernize its functioning.

A request, for $23.6 million over the coming budget year, focuses on fraud and includes an advertising campaign to raise awareness about identity theft prevention. The department also wants 13 new positions to work on fraud prevention, including in disability insurance and paid family leave programs, and funds to support the prosecution of fraud by local law enforcement. The legislator rejected this request, but included $136 million for the first year of a multi-year modernization project.

This project would include, among other things, reconfiguring the keyboard teleprompter process, adding multilingual functionality, redesigning forms to make them easier to fill out, and establishing a new customer experience team to conduct user research. and design and test new features.

The legislator also approved $10.2 million for the coming year to improve cybersecurity, help mitigate fraud, and improve monitoring of suspicious events, as well as $96.3 million for a multitude of contracts, including several aimed at preventing fraud.

Although the legislator adopted a budget on Monday, the agreement is not final; as negotiations continue with the governor’s office, changes could be made via additional bills.

In the meantime, Californians who have struggled to get their questions answered are frustrated.

Manar Hassan, who lives in the coastal town of Pacific Grove, applied for disability benefits shortly after giving birth in late February. She could see on the department’s website that her doctor had certified her claim in early March, but when payments still hadn’t started coming in two weeks later, she started calling.

One of two things would happen: she would receive a message that the maximum number of callers had been reached, asking her to call back later. Or, she said, “it would hang up.”

“I just thought, what do I do to get my hands on someone? I can’t sit on the phone all day, I have to take care of a child,” she said .

A friend who was also a new mother mentioned that the department sent letters to employers to confirm the last day of work, Hassan said, and she had a hunch that was the problem.

In mid-April, following advice she found on YouTube on how to communicate with a human on the service, she first connected with someone who couldn’t help her, and then, apparently out of luck, with someone who could send another letter to his company. Then the process happened relatively quickly; her employer responded to the letter and benefits began to flow in late April.

“I’m proud to live in California,” Hassan said. “I always tell my friends how progressive California is.

“But when you’re trying to get paid and you have to beg for your money, it’s just – it’s hard.”

About Antoine L. Cassell

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