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Grant helps call centers expedite unemployment claims

Two days after Hurricane Katrina rolled across the Magnolia State, the Mississippi Department of Employment Security (MDES) established a rudimentary claims call center consisting of 14 incoming lines manned by staff taking claims on paper. Within hours, the capacity for incoming calls was expanded to more than 50.

By the end of the week, Mississippi-based TempStaff had provided temporary staff to supplement MDES workers at the call center, and the work schedule had been extended to seven days a week, 12 hours a day. The existing telephone capacity was increased substantially to reduce busy signals and shorten wait times.

Then the Department of Labor stepped in with a $15.7-million grant to MDES to expand the state’s capacity to process claims and expedite unemployment insurance (UI) payments for those left unemployed as a result of Hurricane Katrina.

Of the $30.8 million in grants given to Mississippi, Alabama, Louisiana and Texas, the Louisiana Department of Labor received $11 million, the Texas Workforce Commission received $2.6 million, and the Alabama Department of Industrial Relations received $1.5 million.

“Each of these states is playing an important role as federal, state and local officials work together to help thousands of victims and evacuees access funding and other basic human needs in response to the destruction the Gulf region has experienced,” Emily Stover DeRocco, assistant Secretary of Labor for Employment and Training, said when announcing the grants September 8.

The $15.7-million grant specifically “will help repair or rebuild damaged facilities along the Gulf Coast … support new options, including telephone and Internet … expand capacity to accept unemployment claims … mobile field units with personal computer and telephone capabilities and options for electronic benefit payments.”

“We received the grant shortly after Katrina hit,” said Dale Smith, deputy director, customer operations support for MDES. “It has been used to establish an Internet-based system that has been utilized by MDES staff as well as staff from other states to facilitate the telephone claims process. The Internet application is not available to the public.”

Within 10 days of the storm, MDES contracted with a company to implement the Internet-based application, which allowed call center staff statewide to take claims online.

To assist Mississippi during the disaster crisis, several states sent staff to assist in call centers while others offered Mississippi the use of their call center staff to take claims via the Web-based DUA (disaster unemployment assistance) application. Combined, the states of Florida, Iowa, Massachusetts, North Carolina and Pennsylvania provided 120 personnel on a 12-hour day, seven-day-per-week schedule for approximately six weeks.

By mid-November, the Mississippi call center had handled more than a half million calls and input more than 40,000 claims, about one-third of all UI business.

“Initially, the volume of calls coming in was so great that our phone lines became jammed and people could not call in,” explained Smith. “As we began to move calls to other states for assistance as well as some technological enhances, that issue was resolved. Another issue we have had is lack of staff with employment security and call center experience. These concerns have been resolved by intensive on-the-job training of the staff and quite frankly, by trial and error.”

The new way of handling claims marked the first time Mississippians could file for unemployment without a face-to-face interview. “This was a first for Mississippi, although other states have done so,” said Smith. “We are proud of how we were able to respond so quickly and plan to continue using this technology to deliver service.”

The state’s permanent call center employs approximately 40 people.

“We are extremely proud of the response of our staff in learning new skills in a very short period of time and in meeting the needs of customers in what has been a stressful time for all of Mississippi,” said Smith.

Contact MBJ contributing writer Lynne W. Jeter at lwjeter@yahoo.com.


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