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One nation, on hold

Call centers have never been more important — or more strapped.

Call centers have never been more important, or more strapped.
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The Nevada unemployment office was about to close, and Shanay, a 26-year-old Las Vegas resident, had been on hold for nearly 11 hours.

More than five weeks earlier, she was laid off from her position as an administrative assistant at one of the city’s top resorts and casinos. Her mom and stepdad — a guest room attendant and an employee at a floral business that largely serves hotels and conference centers — also lost their jobs as the Vegas strip went dark.

While all three filed claims promptly thereafter, and even waited in line at the UPS store to fax (yes, fax) requested pay stubs, it soon became clear they would need to get someone on the phone to move their applications out of “pending” status.

Shanay knew hers wasn’t the only household in Las Vegas to see its income disappear practically overnight in response to the coronavirus pandemic — a third of the city’s workforce is employed in leisure and hospitality — but she didn’t expect calling unemployment to become her family’s new part-time job.

Every weekday, they woke up and readied their phones to start dialing at 8 am, only to be told, after 200 or 300 calls each, that the queue was full. It wasn’t until April 22 that they finally connected. When an exhausted voice at the call center picked up late in the evening, Shanay’s mom broke down in tears.

“As soon as they answered, she started bawling, crying because she was just so relieved,” she told Vox in late April. “It’s been a month without pay. We have savings. But, you know, after a while it starts hurting.”

The problem plaguing millions of Americans struggling to get a hold of overburdened unemployment offices is the same that countless people have faced as they’ve tried to cancel plane tickets, defer credit card payments, and fix internet connections during the pandemic.

Just as demand has surged, the call centers meant to handle these queries have faced their own disruptions, leading to unprecedented delays.

Many call centers have scrambled to send thousands of customer service representatives to work from home for the first time, a process fraught with logistical and technical hurdles. Others have continued to tell employees to come into the office — which they can do, since call centers have been designated as an essential service — but at reduced numbers. A growing number have seen workers get sick with Covid-19.

The Covid-19 crisis presents a set of challenges that almost no company was prepared for, says Donna Fluss, president of the contact center market research firm DMG Consulting LLC. When there’s a natural disaster, companies typically shift their operations to an overseas outsourcer or a site in another region of the US. “There’s no precedent for a business continuity plan where people have to be more than 6 feet away from each other,” she says.

Relying on outsourcers has also proved to be a flawed strategy, as strict lockdowns have been imposed in India and the Philippines, the “call-center capitals of the world.” When the countries’ quarantine measures were announced in mid-March, the majority of the industry was forced to either go remote or close down. Even large companies saw their business cut in half overnight as tens of thousands of employees were unable to work from home, lacking essentials like laptops, high-speed internet, and a secure way to access sensitive customer data.

Today, capacity is back up around 80 percent, according to the technology research firm ISG, but even reaching that has been a struggle.

“I had a call yesterday with a service provider that said, ‘I never knew what a dongle was, and I just had to order 10,000 of them.’ So it’s even just getting people the hardware and the equipment that they need,” says Melissa O’Brien, a vice president at HFS Research, a business services consultancy. (Dongles, for the as-yet-uninitiated, are small, increasingly ubiquitous computer adapters.)

On the other end of the phone line, none of this is visible, though it may be audible as more representatives work from home alongside kids and pets. Most people understand that customer service departments are inundated right now: An analysis by ListenFirst, a social media analytics company, found that while customer service-related tweets around grocery delivery apps skyrocketed in March, the share containing negative words or phrases actually fell. For airlines and internet service providers, sentiment remained relatively stable even as volume spiked.

What’s changed is that the need is now more urgent than ever — and in a crisis, most people still tend to reach for the phone.

In the early days of the pandemic, “we saw a lot of people moving away from digital channels very quickly to the voice channel, trying to get certainty, assurances, empathy, making sure that they got commitments on the enterprise decision,” says Merijn te Booij, chief marketing officer of Genesys, a contact center technology company.

“What people don’t realize about contact centers is that they are the free psychological counseling centers in times of crisis,” says Fluss. “Often people call up and they dump their fears and their concerns.”

A Comcast call center, pre-pandemic.
John Leyba/The Denver Post/Getty Images

More than 33 million people — or about one in five American workers — have filed for unemployment claims in the past seven weeks, according to the Department of Labor. Desperate workers have placed hundreds of unanswered calls, spent hours on hold, and navigated archaic online systems that are buckling under the influx of traffic — and still, not everyone has been able to get through.

Leaha, a 26-year-old child care worker in Michigan, took a voluntary layoff in mid-March to lower the risk of bringing the virus home to her family, and has been trying to get in touch with the state unemployment agency almost ever since.

The agency’s live chat service is offline, and none of her calls have even been placed on hold, despite phoning more than 100 times per day.

“I was like, ‘Am I calling at the wrong time of the day?’” she says, “but pretty much anytime between 8 and 6 I’ve been trying.”

The ripple effects of record unemployment, escalating travel restrictions, and a rapid shift to remote school and work have led to similar headaches across a wide range of industries.

In most cases, says O’Brien, the delays are coming, “not just from the demand in contacts — people trying to get in touch with their bank or their insurer or find out when their order of toilet paper is coming in — but also just the fact that this major disruption has created [fewer] folks that are able to take phone calls and less time to do so.”

Can’t these companies just, you know, hire more people?

The staggering unemployment figures certainly suggest that call centers should have little trouble finding more workers to answer phones, respond to emails, and handle chat lines — but for many businesses, it’s not quite so simple.

Often, the companies that have been overwhelmed by calls and messages are the same ones facing massive revenue declines. Airlines, travel agencies, and department stores have furloughed or laid off millions of workers to conserve cash during the crisis, and for them, staffing up generally isn’t an option.

This may be why, apart from banks and insurance providers, more companies weren’t expanding their customer service teams as the crisis escalated across the US. According to Julia Pollak, a labor economist at the job marketplace ZipRecruiter, customer service job postings fell 16 percent in the week ending April 5 compared with four weeks prior.

The online travel company Expedia, which already cut about 3,000 jobs in February for reasons unrelated to the pandemic, is expected to see bookings slashed by half this year. Alexis Tiacoh, Expedia’s public relations manager, says the company has seen call volumes five to seven times higher than average, amounting to hundreds of thousands of calls beyond what it typically handles during its busiest season.

“We know it has created challenges for everyone, and first and foremost, we want our customers to know we’re truly sorry for the difficulty they might have experienced in trying to reach us,” Tiacoh said. The company has also shored up its self-service and virtual agent options and offers an online refund request form to free up phone lines for more complex problems.

Many businesses have also had to find more cost-effective alternatives to building an army of customer service reps. This is partly why your inbox has likely seen a deluge of emails with subject lines like “Checking in with our customers” and “An update from our CEO.” Companies would rather err on the side of overcommunicating if it means avoiding a backlog of individual queries.

Some have also reassigned employees from other areas of the company. For example, 8x8, a cloud communications software provider, works with one UK retailer that has recruited its sales associates to answer calls and respond to messages.

“You think about retail, those employees are not on the shop floor anymore to be face to face with customers,” says Janice Rapp, 8x8’s vice president of product marketing. Their skill sets, though, put them first in line for call center gigs.

In some pockets of the economy, companies are now on hiring sprees: The grocery delivery service Instacart has seen its business skyrocket in the wake of stay-at-home orders in the US and Canada, with order volume up 300 percent year-over-year in early April.

On top of adding 300,000 “shoppers” — the gig workers who pick out and deliver orders — the company is in the process of scaling up its customer service team to 18,000 people by this month, from 1,200 at the beginning of March.

While a spokesperson says it expects the majority of these hires to stay on as permanent employees, to fill shorter-term roles, Instacart is working with companies like Hertz and Hilton, which have been hard hit in recent months as travel has ground to a near halt.

Unemployment offices were operating with skeleton crews prior to the pandemic because their head counts are tied to the unemployment rate, which sat at 3.5% in February, a 50-year low. As that figure has ballooned to nearly 15 percent — with economists estimating the true rate at closer to 20 percent — call centers have struggled to meet even a fraction of the demand.

Nevada, like most states, has promised to significantly scale up its capacity to answer these queries, but its efforts haven’t kept pace with job losses. Its Department of Employment, Training and Rehabilitation, which until recently employed only 75 people, has seen as much as 90 times its usual call volume in recent weeks.

In Florida, meanwhile, the state’s Department of Economic Opportunity could only answer 2 percent of incoming calls as of mid-April, with an average wait time of more than six and a half hours, a local News 6 investigation found. Since the end of March, the agency has spent more than $119 million on contracts to add thousands of call center workers and improve the technological infrastructure supporting the system. Similar endeavors are underway in states like Michigan, Pennsylvania, New York, and Texas.

As much as states are ramping up these systems, they still need to train new workers to navigate them and make sure security measures are implemented, a process that experts say typically takes about two weeks for private companies. Because of the complexity of unemployment laws and benefit programs, these systems can take months to become proficient in, according to a Department of Labor survey, so new recruits may have a hard time responding to questions efficiently.

Why aren’t all customer service agents working from home by now?

Call centers are generally not well-designed environments for social distancing: Agents sit side by side and back to back in close quarters, often sharing a desk between shifts. At the same time, their jobs, at least in theory, are ultra-portable, requiring only a phone, a computer, and an internet connection.

By Fluss’s estimates, though, only about 5 percent of call centers were 100 percent work-from-home before the pandemic, while others may have had 10 percent of their agents working remotely. The pandemic, then, has forced a massive shift for many companies, while prompting scrutiny toward those still compelling their employees to commute to offices where they might put themselves at risk.

“Contact centers are petri dishes,” says Fluss. “When one person gets a cold, you just hope that person stays home, and if they come in — because in a lot of cases, if you don’t come in, you don’t get paid, right? — then the whole shop gets sick.”

A Times investigation found that more than 230 employees of the telecom giant Spectrum, owned by Charter Communications, had tested positive for Covid-19 as of April 21. More than half are call center workers. In response to outcry over the company’s labor practices during the pandemic — which reportedly included an initial policy prohibiting remote work — the New York Attorney General’s Office said it had opened an inquiry into the company.

In a statement, Charter spokesperson Andrew Russell pointed to the company’s Covid-19-related paid leave policy, which permits employees to take an additional three weeks off during the pandemic, and its pledge to raise its starting wage to $20 an hour by 2022, beginning with a $1.50-an-hour hike for customer service workers and field technicians.

Wells Fargo has likewise come under fire for not setting up more remote options for employees at its massive U.S. call centers, at least five of which have seen positive Covid-19 cases, according to news reports. While the bank said it would send “thousands” of call center workers home in mid-April from its Des Moines and West Des Moines offices, where two employees and a cafeteria worker tested positive for the virus, some agents at other locations said their offices only started transitioning agents to work remotely in the past two weeks.

One agent, AJ, who works at the bank’s Roanoke, Virginia location, says he’s been home since late March as he’s high-risk for the disease, but wasn’t able to get an answer from his supervisor about getting set up for remote work for over a month, nor were his colleagues in similar situations. While Wells Fargo continued paying him his full wages during that time, he says he’d rather have been able to use it to help customers — especially since now that he’s back on the job, the phone lines are swamped with hundreds of calls in the queue.

Hilary O’Byrne, a spokesperson for Wells Fargo, said in April the bank was working to add more remote work options: “We continue to do all we can to expand our work-from-home capabilities, and we are in the process of equipping some contact center employees with the technology needed to perform their jobs from home, while still meeting customer and regulatory commitments.”

Financial institutions, health insurers, and other companies that handle sensitive customer data undoubtedly have more hurdles to jump over in order to move their customer service departments out of office, experts say, but the fact that so many have already done it since the start of the pandemic is evidence that it’s possible.

Toronto-Dominion Bank shifted almost all of its 9,500 call center employees across the U.S. and Canada to work-from-home last month to comply with social distancing guidelines. Among Spectrum’s competitors, Verizon Communications Inc. had nearly 17,000 agents working remotely by late March, while Comcast’s chief technologist Tony Werner said on a March 30 call the company was targeting 90% work-from-home among its call center employees.

These transitions aren’t always smooth: At home, agents may have spotty internet or distracting background noise, supervisors need to figure out how to conduct ongoing training, and companies need to ensure they’re staying on the right side of privacy regulations — but for the most part, the adjustment isn’t dissimilar to what people across most industries have been facing.

One technical support agent in Oklahoma whose cable-internet call center moved almost all of its employees to work-from-home in early April says she’s considering going remote full time. With the rest of the country trying to manage telecommuting and remote schooling, the call volume has been so high she’s been working 12- or 13-hour shifts with little downtime between calls.

The company is usually strict about ensuring agents have a quiet room in which to work, she says, but during the pandemic, it has relaxed its rules. “Now we have talking points to say, ‘You know, with everything going on, we’ve had to do work-from-home. Sorry about this.’ But [most customers] don’t expect it to be 100 percent quiet right now, because they know we’re kind of all in this together. We’re all going through the same thing.”

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