A new call center to field Hawaii unemployment claim questions has gotten off to a turbulent start, with operators overrun by people needing help.
About 150,000 calls a day have flooded the virtual phone bank since it opened Sept. 30, according to the state Department of Labor and Industrial Relations.
That’s roughly 18,000 calls an hour, or 300 a minute.
And now, nearly two weeks into the service run by private contractor Maximus Inc. under a state contract paid for by federal COVID-19 aid, some residents needing help with unemployment claims are spending several hours waiting on hold while others can’t get through.
“Thank you for calling the Hawaii Department of Labor and Industrial Relations unemployment insurance call center,” said a recorded voice message at the operation Monday. “All agents are assisting other callers. Please try your call again later.”
Anne Eustaquio, DLIR director, said the operation is still ramping up with staff and that the agency and Maximus also are making changes to the system to better manage demand.
The virtual call center, which operates Monday through Friday from 7:45 a.m. to 4:30 p.m., started Sept. 30 with 50 trained workers manning phones outside the state. Another 70 call center agents outside Hawaii were added Oct. 5, and a third phase of 80 workers based in Hawaii should be ready to start at the beginning of next week and bring the planned operation to its full contingent of 200 operators.
“It has been a little slow going,” Eustaquio said.
The inundation of calls, according to DLIR, stems largely from frustrated claimants using computer and phone software to repeatedly redial in an attempt to get through to an agent.
This flurry of automated calls initially was crashing the phone system, in which many callers were waiting on hold in a queue and then became disconnected, according to Eustaquio, who also said that Maximus has since made adjustments to deflect robocall software applications from crashing or getting into a queue that as of Monday was limited to 100 people.
Eustaquio said Maximus estimates that about 8,000 different people are calling daily, as opposed to the number of calls, and that this is still a daunting number to handle given that the average length of a call with an agent has been 30 minutes.
“Two hundred agents is nothing for 8,000 calls a day,” she said.
Call center operators are trained to help with a wide range of issues that can include backdating claims and filling out forms properly. But they don’t process claims or adjudicate disputed claims.
Eustaquio said some claimants are calling the new center with issues over disputed claims, which is adding to the overload.
Maximus, which is being paid $4.9 million for the call center operation through the end of the year, also has a $2.7 million contract to add 100 claim adjudicators who are expected to start work at the beginning of next week and relieve demand on the call center.
Some of the more common issues that call center agents can handle include amending claims for people who were laid off after being furloughed by reporting a “job separation” and how to extend unemployment benefits 13 weeks with Pandemic Emergency Unemployment Compensation after a 26-week benefit period expires for normal unemployment insurance, according to the agency.
Bill Kunstman, a DLIR spokesman, said problems can involve not just new claims, but also existing claims that need weekly or biweekly validations.
“Issues are occurring all the time,” he said. “We have tens of thousands of people who haven’t been on unemployment insurance before, and now they’re on unemployment insurance. It’s a complicated thing with lots of moving parts.”
According to DLIR’s most recent report on claim volume from March to Sept. 24, the agency has received 294,943 claims. Of those, 107,780 were deemed invalid, in part reflecting attempts at fraud. DLIR said it has paid 96% of valid claims — 179,484 of 187,163 claims totaling $3.3 billion. Another 7,679 claims were awaiting a determination.
The new call center relieves about 15 to 20 DLIR staffers who were trying to handle questions from claimants by phone. Earlier this year the agency had about 100 people, including trained volunteers, taking claim inquiry calls at the Hawai‘i Convention Center, but that operation was discontinued.
Eustaquio said demand at the new call center, even with 150,000 calls a day, is an improvement from about 300,000 calls a day at the convention center operation.
DLIR advises unemployment claimants to carefully review instructions it has posted on the agency’s website for how to file various claims, and said many people who file claims haven’t been answering return calls from staff because they don’t recognize the caller number or believe it may be spam.
To reach the new call center operation, two local phone numbers and two toll-free numbers feed into the system. The numbers are 762-5751, 762-5752, 833-901-2272 and 833-901-2275.