FSSA call center draws fire from employees

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Sandra Chapman/Eyewitness News

Marion - A statewide call center, set up to help Hoosiers down on their luck, is drawing fire from employees who work there.

Workers say the state is trying to speed up a billion dollar system, by delivering promises they can't keep. Some workers told 13 Investigates they're being dismissed from the job for veering off the FSSA script.

They went to work at the FSSA call center to help. The agency provides food stamps, cash assistance and Medicaid for the neediest Hoosiers. But now upset workers, some dismissed, are speaking out about internal policies that require them to give callers a line. Lines they say are helpless and in some cases misleading. 

One former employee said, "I was told to tell people that their benefits would be authorized there in 48 hours and they weren't."
It's a story other current and former employees back up.

"We were told to lie," said Gregory Guy, a former Tier 2 coach at the center.

Guy was dismissed as a supervisor for veering off script with an irate client. He himself had written up employees for failing to follow nearly 200 scripted responses.

Employees are told exactly what to say on everything from the status of a case, to a call from the governor's office, to a bomb threat.

Nearly a half dozen employees told 13 Investigates they were instructed in January to tell a backlog of clients they would receive their benefits within two business days, a 48-hour turnaround.  

"90 percent of the calls that came in that day were calling in 48 hours later asking where their benefits were," added another worker who wanted to keep her identity concealed out of fear of retaliation.   

"A lot of people were questioning it, but you had no choice," said Guy, explaining the possible repercussions. "You could get wrote up, you could get dismissed from the project. So you did what you were told to do."

ACS, a subcontractor hired by IBM to oversee the Marion call center, and FSSA spokesman Marcus Barlow dispute allegations that the state ordered workers to give misleading information.

"That's a false claim," said Barlow. "We review those calls to make sure our employees aren't rude to clients, aren't telling clients things that are lies."

But 13 Investigates obtained agency documents that do, in fact, show updated scripts for the January dates in question. In those documents, workers are told:

"Cases that meet certain criteria will be escalated to the FSSA PRT (Problem Resolution Team)...for processing within two business days."
That team would relay to callers after 4:30 pm that, "authorization will be made tomorrow and approved benefits will be available the following day."

While others got this line, "Final resolution on your case is expected to be completed within two business days."

Employees were also ordered to give the line to anyone who called with complaints from the FSSA Secretary's office, Governor Mitch Daniels' Office or the office of a state lawmaker.

 According to Barlow, the agency implemented the PRT in January and insists that the agency is holding fast to the time line.  

"They are turned over within 48 hours so their cases are solved within that amount of time. [The PRT team] stays there until all the queues they have for that day are done, that deal specifically with expedited cases of food stamps." Barlow said, adding that the only way anyone would not get their food stamp benefits within the 48 hours as promised, is if employees failed to transfer the calls
It's no secret FSSA's effort to privatize welfare hasn't gone as well as it projected. Last July, the agency stopped the rollout of the $1.16 billion system. The federal government said it wanted measurable improvement in food stamp processing.

Food Stamp recipient Sarah Kroft of Marion is one of the agency's dissatisfied customers.

"You never talk to anybody for about 10 or 15 minutes," she told 13 Investigates, describing her experiences with the call center.

"To transfer them to a specialist would be up to 30 minutes, sometimes 45 minutes," confirmed one of the former workers who spoke with 13 Investigates.
"It's important for us to do this right. Not necessarily fast," countered Barlow defending the efforts FSSA has made with it's welfare modernization program.

But that's not the message employees are getting.

They used to make $9.13 an hour.  Now they're paid for each call under a new pilot project. The more calls they take, the more money they make. That they say means cutting corners with callers.

Barlow says it's not that simple. He said employees must make quality calls. 

"You have to take the call and resolve the issue. You can't just take a phone call and cut someone off before you get all the information that you need," he added. 

But workers like Guy say it was obvious cases were getting overlooked.  

"You could look at a case and it could be months where their case hadn't been worked it just got lost in the shuffle," he recalled.

Barlow concedes the state has not gotten any faster. But he says the agency is processing a lot more applications.

"Our modernized system is working at about the level our previous system was working, but that's not our goal in this. Our goal is for things to get better," Barlow said.