A life on hold
Najwa Alsheikh is one of thousands who’ve given up trying to call the state Dept. of Social and Health Services for help
Najwa Alsheikh used to spend every free moment punching numbers into her cellphone.
During time between classes at Seattle Central Community College and breaks at her job as a bicycle courier downtown, she’d call a toll-free 877 number for the Department of Social and Health Services (DSHS). Alsheikh, 30, had applied for child-care support over the summer for her then 10-year-old son. But after two months of day care, the center sent Alsheikh a $900 bill; DSHS hadn’t covered any of the cost.
Throughout October and into November, Alsheikh called the DSHS hotline more than 40 times. She’d spend two minutes climbing a phone tree and inputting her personal information, only to be disconnected because the lines were busy. She was afraid of losing day care for her son. Without it, she wouldn’t be able to earn her political science degree and get a full-time job.
Not long ago, Alsheikh sat at Seattle Central Community College, where she is the student body president, poring over a phone bill to see how often she had called. One morning she called at 9:23 a.m., then 9:33, then 9:48. Another day she called at 10:28 a.m., then 10:32 and 10:42. It was as if she was rapid-dialing a radio station to win tickets to a concert: “It just became this routine part of my week to call and be hung up on,” she said.
In her fruitless quest, Alsheikh was far from alone. DSHS started the toll-free hotline in 2009. Since then callers and caseworkers say they have waited on hold for 30 minutes to an hour for help with food stamps, housing or cash benefits. But according to information obtained by Real Change through public disclosure requests, since 2011 many more never got that far.
More than half the time, callers never got the option to wait. They were disconnected by an overloaded automated system.
DSHS officials told Real Change they are well aware of the problem and are hiring additional staff this year.
They still see the program as a success, despite the fact that it fails more than half the time.
“In this day and age, phone is the preferred way of doing business,” said Rebecca Henrie, chief of operations for the DSHS Community Services Division. “The drop rate is certainly not desirable.”
State Sen. Bob Hasegawa, D-Seattle, called the disconnections “unacceptable” and said Gov. Jay Inslee needs to take action.
“It’s so far out there that it’s hard to believe it’s that bad,” Hasegawa said of the disconnections. The billions of dollars the state legislature has cut from social services over the last decade has created this situation, Hasegawa added.
Everyone hates waiting on hold, but in the case of DSHS, many callers may not have any choice. The hotline is where they turn for help with their rent, groceries and employment.
DSHS clients tend to face other challenges, too. Some have no access to phones, others have cellphone plans that charge by the minute. Many, such as Alsheikh, are working multiple jobs and going to school and don’t have the time to dial that number numerous times a day and wait on hold for up to 45 minutes.
“I’m trying so hard to do the best I can and to work really hard so I can one day have a job where I can afford both rent and child care at the same time,” Alsheikh said.
One call does it all?
Four years ago, before DSHS established the hotline, clients could call their caseworkers at one of the 53 local DSHS offices and leave a message, hoping for a call back. Many people lined up outside regional offices early in the morning only to wait hours to meet a caseworker.
To resolve the issue, DSHS created one phone number that anyone could call from anywhere in the state to get help from the Community Service Division. An automated switchboard takes information from callers, then routes them to an appropriate queue where they wait to talk to one of 150 to 300 caseworkers scattered across the state.
Under this system, every client is supposed to get help the day he or she calls on a first-come, first-served basis, Henrie said.
But the agency’s own data shows DSHS’s phone system hasn’t worked as intended — not even close. Since September 2011, the hotline for community services, such as food stamps and child care subsidies, dropped more than 100,000 calls every month.
In 2012, the automated system dropped three out of every five calls received. The rates were worse in months that had a high volume of calls. In January 2012, DSHS answered fewer than a third of the calls.
A variety of issues have hindered the hotline, Henrie said. When it went live in early 2010, the country was in the midst of a down economy, and demand for the services DSHS provided was high.
As tax revenues fell, legislators in Olympia cut funding to social services. Since 2008, DSHS has had two hiring freezes.
The technology has had its limitations. Until 2011, DSHS could not track how many calls were dropped. The system still lacks software that could determine the busiest times for calls.
Just a few states have created centralized hotlines before, so Washington built the system itself from the ground up.
“It’s been a monumental effort getting this program up and running,” Henrie said.
She expects it to improve. The latest hiring freeze has ended, and DSHS has started hiring caseworkers again. It can take six months of training before new hires can take calls.
Hiring more operators seems to have made a difference.
In November, DSHS added more caseworkers to field calls for child care programs. Every month since then, the department has dropped fewer calls from people needing help with child care. Later this year, when DSHS hires and trains as many as 100 caseworkers, the dropped-call rates for other services should also improve.
Henrie eventually wants to have front-end operators triage all callers as they come through, moving people with quick fixes to shorter lines to get them in and out quickly.
Human voice at last
After spending the month of October calling DSHS any chance she could, Alsheikh was shocked when, in November, she finally reached a human voice.
“I was speechless; I was in disbelief,” Alsheikh said. “I stumbled over my words, ‘Please don’t hang up the phone.’”
Caseworkers say they’ve had the same experience, even though they are well-versed in how DSHS works. At Solid Ground, caseworkers often call DSHS for their clients, waiting on hold while they do other work at their desks.
Michael Quinn, a clinical supervisor for Plymouth Housing, called DSHS 26 times in one week for a client who just needed information for a housing application. The client was homeless with chronic medical conditions and could not manage the calls herself, Quinn said.
Rather than continue to hold the line, Quinn and Alsheikh found help elsewhere.
Quinn worked the system for his client. He called caseworkers he knew at DSHS and finally got the issue resolved, but only because he spoke to a supervisor and had the clout that comes with managing a social service program.
Alsheikh had help from outside the agency. Her son’s day care gave her a scholarship to cover the $900 that DSHS never paid. She had scheduled a hearing to ask DSHS to cover the bill, but with the scholarship she was happy to put the whole situation behind her.
Alsheikh picked up the phone and called DSHS to cancel her hearing. Just like before, she never got through.
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