Special Report: DWD Call Centers
by Margaret Menge
What if a pandemic hit and hundreds of thousands of people were suddenly unemployed, and when they turned to the people responsible for making insurance payments from the big pot of money — money collected from society by force over many years — those people aren’t there? Don’t pick up the phones. Don’t answer emails. The building where they normally work is locked. And even if you could go there and get in, they’re not there.
It’s a scenario playing out in real time for thousands of Hoosiers who lost their jobs weeks ago, have yet to get an unemployment check and can’t get through to the Department of Workforce Development (DWD), which processes claims for unemployment insurance here.
“We are with nothing at all literally. Not even food stamps,” a woman in East Chicago says. She and her husband filed for unemployment compensation on March 28 after being laid off by the Ameristar Casino. Neither has received a first check.
“I started calling last week Thursday. And, when I first called I had got the . . . If you press one, you can get the return call or whatever,” Robin White said on the phone last week. “I waited that whole day, and never got a call back, so the following day I called back and then I waited like four hours and then the phone hung up . . . I was so upset.”
She says someone on social media recommended she try calling at 7 o’clock in the morning, as Indianapolis is one hour ahead of East Chicago. She finally got through to someone, but the woman indicated she couldn’t pull up White’s case.
“I thought that was bizarre . . . I’m like, You can’t look it up, you can’t tell me exactly what’s going on with my case?”
The woman told her to just sit tight and wait.
The thing about unemployment compensation that a lot of people sort of know but sort of forget is that it’s not welfare. It’s insurance, with the premiums paid by every employer in the state. And it may be interesting to theorize that we would be a better country if it didn’t exist; people would save more, maybe, and take on less debt; they’d plant more vegetable gardens; and they might build their own homes with their bare hands.
But the fact is we do have it, and businesses pay into the fund. So it’s not government acting out of charity, it’s forced communal savings to prevent people from starving when they lose their jobs through no fault of their own.
That said, every Facebook post by the Department of Workforce Development is loaded up with comments from people pleading for help. Almost all say the same thing: It’s been more than four weeks, they haven’t gotten a check and can’t get through to the DWD when they call.
“I have called at least four or five times,” says Fred Eddelman, who was laid off from his job at a powdered-metal plant in North Vernon where he makes connecting rods for automobile companies.
“One day I was on hold for two hours,” he says. “When I finally got through they said they would transfer me to somebody else. It dropped the call as soon as I transferred. I was on hold for another two hours to get through. They said they would transfer me. That took another two hours. And when I talked to somebody they just said, ‘Well, there’s really nothing you can do but just wait.’ So, I was on hold for a total of six hours for about a 20-second conversation that basically said, you know, there’s nothing you can do.”
Many of his friends who were laid off about the same time, the third week in March, have started getting unemployment checks. But he hasn’t. He says he thinks it’s because on the first weekly voucher he filed, he recorded that he worked two days that week before the layoff. The online system tells him that an investigator will contact him or his employer.
“But no claims investigator’s ever contacted me,” he says. Eddelman is 58, and he’s never filed for unemployment before in his life — before now.
This reporter started trying to contact the Department of Workforce Development last week as an experiment. The first time I called, at 2:21 p.m. on Tuesday, April 28, I got a recording: “Thank you for contacting the Department of Workforce Development. All agents are assisting other callers. Please visit double-u, double-u, double-u dot unemployment dot DWDot gov for information on unemployment insurance, or try us again later. Thank you.”
And then the line disconnected. There was no option to press 1 or 2 or to hold. The machine just hung up.
I tried again on Thursday afternoon, because the DWD says it’s better if you call later in the week rather than on a Monday or Tuesday.
It was 2:27 p.m. I got the same message, and the same result. It disconnected the call at the end. There was no option to get to a person or to press anything.
Must be a fluke, I thought.
I tried again at 3:25. Same thing.
I tried again at 4:06. Same thing.
In between, I talked to Josh Richardson, chief of staff at the Department for Workforce Development.
“We’re actually talking to about 11,000 people per day when you look at all of the available operators that we have, and what we’re working on,” he said. “So there are a lot of people that are getting through and that we are talking to. It’s just that the volume is so extremely high and because we have people calling multiple times that it’s just made that wait time really difficult. So, we’re working on that.”
He might be only hearing from those whose claims haven’t gone through, Richardson says. Around 80 percent of claims are filed online and go through “without requiring human intervention.”
“The problem is that other 20 percent has become such a massive number,” he says. “While percentage-wise it’s not particularly high, when you’re talking about 130,000 or 120,000 individuals filing unemployment claims, well you know the inverse is there are 20,000 people that are on the other side of that.”
The week of April 19, the state paid unemployment benefits to about 260,000 people, Richardson says.
He insists that if there is no issue, the average amount of time it takes for a person to get a first weekly check is 15-16 days after filing the initial claim. But he can’t explain why neither Robin White nor her husband have gotten unemployment yet more than four weeks after they applied. Or why so many people, including me, cannot get through on the phones.
On Thursday, April 30, the Commissioner of the Department of Workforce Development, Fred Payne, joined the governor’s daily press briefing, and addressed the issue of calls — sort of.
“While we have increasing claims, we also have increasing call volumes since the pandemic started,” he said, going on to say that the agency “has fielded over 1.1 million phone interactions in the month of April.”
“The improvements are trending in the right direction,” he said. “However, these trends are not being felt by the callers. We are working to improve this.”
He went on to list the changes the agency is making, including “technology changes that will allow for twice as many call-backs to occur” and training of additional staff to help resolve issues that callers are having that are preventing the approval of their claims.
I tried calling again the afternoon of Friday, May 1, and again got the automated message, with the instruction to go to the website or call back another time.
I tried again on Monday, March 4, at 2:23 p.m. and for the first time was able to press 1 and to be placed on hold. I remained on hold for two hours before I finally gave up and hung up.
How can it be that almost two months after Gov. Eric Holcomb first declared the coronavirus a public health disaster, and six weeks after he issued the stay-at-home order and closed non-essential businesses, the Department of Workforce Development still can’t get enough people to answer its phones?
If it’s a matter of preventing starvation, shouldn’t it be top priority to make sure that people who are eligible for unemployment compensation are getting it?
The DWD has hired more people, says Richardson, though he didn’t respond when asked in follow-up emails how many new people have been hired, and how many total employees are answering the phones. In our phone interview, he said that about 80 percent of the DWD staff was working from home. He is one of them.
When told of the DWD phone problem, Mitch Harper, chair of the Indiana House labor committee in the 1980s and Republican nominee for mayor of Fort Wayne in 2015, immediately thought of Daniel Hesse, the former CEO of Sprint. When Hesse took over Sprint in 2007, the company was rapidly losing customers. He made immediate changes in how call-center employees were trained and how they were compensated – only when customers’ issues were resolved.
“What are they doing with their call center people?” Harper asks rhetorically. “I mean, if you call in to the Indiana Department of Workforce Development and the person gives you a line, ‘We’re very busy sir, we’ll look into it, we’ll ah, we’ll get back to you and take care of it’ and they don’t, and then you’re the worker or you’re the employer and you call back and you try to find information during this time so you can do the right thing with your accountant and all of it . . . and . . . you can’t get through because all the other angry people are calling back because they didn’t get their problem solved either.”
“They could be having this exponential increase in call volume simply because they’re not solving anybody’s problem who calls in. And it feeds on itself until, it crashes,” Harper said.
Hesse’s call-center lesson, says Harper, is this: You have to solve a person’s problem, “or the angry people are going to call back.”
How many of the people calling every day and clogging the DWD phone lines are people who’ve called before, waited hours on hold, and finally got through to someone who couldn’t resolve their issue? We may never know.
The three people with whom I spoke all fit into this category. They’re continuing to call, because they person they reached after several hours on hold could not help them.
“The Workforce people may be just thinking, ‘Oh my God, we’re being deluged. We just have to work our way through it,’” says Harper, “and they’re not working their way through anything.”
From the third week in March until April 30, 572,574 claims were filed for unemployment compensation in Indiana, according to DWD reports. If only half of those claims have been approved, the other half represents 200,000 to 300,000 people in Indiana waiting to get a first weekly insurance payout from a government holding on to the pot of money known as the state’s unemployment trust fund.
Margaret Menge, an adjunct scholar of the Indiana Policy Review Foundation, is a veteran journalist now working from Bloomington. She has reported for the Miami Herald, Columbia Journalism Review, InsideSources, Breitbart, the New York Observer and the American Conservative. She worked as an editor for the Miami Herald Company and UPI.