Photo by Sam Hodgson
Two years ago, San Diego County launched a phone line to make it easier for people to apply for food stamps, welfare and other aid. But callers face increasing hold times and frequent dropped calls. Gwendolyn Kesler a mother of three, said she spent much of her Thursday morning trying to get through.
Time and again, the male voice delivers the same message, first in English, then Spanish: “Due to unexpected high volume, we are unable to answer your call. Please try again later.” Then the call goes dead.
San Diego County rolled out its phone line more than two years ago, a number that people applying for benefits like food stamps, welfare or health coverage could call to start or update their applications. It was meant to cut delays and help those who couldn’t afford to take time off from low-paying jobs to spend hours sitting in a county waiting room. But since it was introduced, callers have often faced long hold times, if their calls get answered at all.
Last year, prompted by criticism for running one of the least successful food-stamp programs in the nation, the county Board of Supervisors asked a committee of county officials and advocates for the poor to make recommendations for improvement. The committee identified the call line as one of many problems that had contributed to the county’s food-stamp enrollment being the lowest in the nation.
But nearly a year after the group made its recommendations, the long hold times and unanswered calls are worse than they’ve ever been.
Hold times now average about 39 minutes compared to about 32 minutes a year ago, according to county statistics. That’s among answered calls. Of the 462,000 calls the county got last month, only 18 percent were answered. The rest ended with the recording and a dropped call.
The county says the increased hold times reflect an 80 percent spike in food stamp recipients since 2009 and recent changes in the way operators handle calls. In the past, they often referred a caller to a county office if they couldn’t immediately answer their questions, but now spend more time on each call to try to avoid that, said Dale Fleming, a deputy director of the county’s Health and Human Services Agency.
She also said the longer hold times reflect the phone number’s growing popularity because it is more convenient than visiting a county office. “We’re victims of our own success,” she said.
But advocates say the worsening phone line problems have elevated a bureaucratic hurdle that makes it difficult for many poor people to get the help for which they’re eligible. Many work minimum-wage day jobs with short breaks that make it impossible to stay on the phone long enough to finish a call. So the already-impoverished often have to sacrifice a day’s work and pay just to ensure their families get fed.
“What’s happening is that they’re locked into these no-communications systems. They can’t get through to the welfare workers,” said Joni Halpern, who was a member of the recommendation committee and is director of the Supportive Parents Information Network, which helps people apply for county social services.
The county’s social service programs have been plagued by problems. Last year, a voiceofsandiego.org special report found that supervisors’ resistance to fund social services and a political culture intent on rooting out fraud had made it difficult for eligible residents to get benefits.
County officials have made some improvements by implementing many of the special committee’s recommendations, which the Board of Supervisors approved earlier this year.
They’re partnering with an advocacy group to rewrite the manual county workers use when processing food stamp and welfare applications, which often gives contradictory instructions. They’ve gotten a grant to develop a better way to track documents and prevent lost ones. They’re training workers to be more sensitive to the reasons people fall into poverty.
But the call line remains one of advocates’ main priorities. They say repeated failed calls discourage people from completing their applications for food stamps and other social services like CalWorks, the state family welfare program.
The county has hired a private firm to recommend changes for improving the call line. Advocates are awaiting those recommendations to see how the county responds.
“Once they get them I’m really hoping there will be some focused effort so that when someone calls, they can get in in 15 minutes,” said Jennifer Tracy, a program director at the San Diego Hunger Coalition who also helped draft the recommendations.
Fleming of the Health and Human Services Agency said she recognized the hold times were too long and that the county is committed to shortening them based on its consultant’s recommendations, which are expected by the end of this month.
“We are not satisfied with the wait time,” she said. “We realize it has to be shorter. And we are devoted to working toward that end.”
When the county’s Health and Human Services Agency rolled out its call line more than two years ago, it was part of a broader effort to reform its process for handling welfare and food stamp applications. To make the process more efficient, it made other changes, like making workers responsible for individual parts of an application rather than the whole thing.
In May, the Center on Policy Initiatives surveyed county workers and reported several problems from those changes. Workers in the call centers said an unending stream of callers made it hard to give them as much attention as they needed. The report said the shift to individual tasks made it more difficult to hold workers accountable for botched decisions on a person’s eligibility for benefits.
And it found that while the total number of food stamps and welfare applications had tripled in the last decade, the number of workers to process those applications has barely grown.
The county has tried to improve its call line by outsourcing general calls to the county’s 2-1-1 information line so county workers only get calls dealing with applications.
Still, the hold times have increased and now hover around 40 minutes.
On Thursday, Gwendolyn Kesler, a 47-year-old mother of three who lives in Imperial Beach, said she had spent much of her morning on the phone.
She estimated she had called the county line several dozen times in the last two years — enough to nearly master a technique to avoid having her call dropped.
If she calls exactly two minutes before the line opens at 8 a.m., she can get through the initial automated menu in just the right time to be one of the first callers in the queue. If she calls a minute too early, she’ll get through the menu before the queue has opened and have to start again. Just a minute too late, and the call center has already been inundated with other callers.
“It doesn’t always work because I have to take my kids to school in the morning,” she said.
Kesler said she lost her job with a Navy subcontractor three years ago and is now studying to be a paralegal. But the father of two of her children stopped making child support payments recently, she said, so she has been trying to get the county to increase the amount of food stamps she receives.
She called the county’s line Thursday morning, and was lucky enough to get through the first time. But when the call ended, her phone had recorded the duration: 48 minutes.
“Anyone with a normal working schedule cannot be on hold for 40 minutes or longer,” she said.
Philip Thalheimer is a member of the county’s volunteer Social Services Advisory Board, which advises the county on implementing the year-old recommendations. He was also on the committee that drafted them.
Back then, Thalheimer recommended that county officials assign enough call center workers to reduce the average hold time for callers to just 10 seconds.
Fleming couldn’t yet say whether that was possible. If it is, she said, the county would try.
“The committee and myself aren’t going to be terribly patient if it doesn’t get fixed soon, because we think it’s a big priority,” Thalheimer said. “If people are holding 40 or 50 minutes, that’s not acceptable.”
Correction: Due to an editing error, an earlier version of this story stated the county had committed to shortening its call line’s hold times by the end of this month. It has committed to shortening them, but not necessarily in that time frame. It’s expecting its consultant’s recommendations by the end of the month.
Adrian Florido is a reporter for voiceofsandiego.org. He covers San Diego’s neighborhoods. What should he write about next?
Contact him directly at email@example.com or at 619.325.0528.
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