Tuesday, August 6, 2013

Contra Costa County disables Affordable Care Act Call Center, mistreats workers

2013-08-06 "Healthcare Reform: It's Comedy Central in Contra Costa County"
from "SEIU 1021 NewsWire":
It's the kind of story you know John Oliver (filling in for Jon Stewart) would love.
Last week we reported that employees of the Affordable Care Act Call Center in Concord were told the full-time jobs with benefits they started last month were in reality "permanent intermittent" (less than part-time) jobs with no health care benefits at all. The call center is one of three established in the state to help citizens enroll in new health care options under the Affordable Care Act.
"The confusion and the fact that some call center employees do not receive employer paid health care — despite their jobs enrolling citizens in a universal health care program — have brought national attention to Contra Costa," the Contra Costa Times reported [http://www.contracostatimes.com/news/ci_23787798/obamacare-call-center-fiasco-explained-by-contra-costa].
That irony got the Daily Show sniffing around in search of its next lampoon. Let the comedy begin.

2013-08-06 "Concord: State delays slowing Obamacare call center training"
by Matthias Gafni from " Contra Costa Times" [http://www.contracostatimes.com/news/ci_23807144/concord-state-delays-slowing-obamacare-call-center-training]:
MARTINEZ -- On Oct. 1, the day the state is scheduled to begin taking calls enrolling citizens in Obamacare, the controversial Concord call center may be the only one that is operational statewide, the Contra Costa official supervising the project said Tuesday.
Training material has been delayed, hiring has been slow in the two other state-run call centers in Fresno and Rancho Cordova, and the computer system is nowhere near complete, Kathy Gallagher, employment and human services director, told county supervisors.
In her report updating the county's much criticized hiring process, Gallagher said delays in getting other call centers up and running will not force Contra Costa County to subsidize its center's operations from the general fund.
"My concern is to make sure this remains cost-neutral to the county," Supervisor Candace Andersen said.
The delays are the latest bumps in the state's effort to implement the federal Affordable Care Act. The county, which won a contract to host the call center earlier this year, had championed its 204 jobs as a boon for the regional economy. But complaints that many newly hired workers only recently learned their jobs were part time without benefits has overshadowed the good news.
In its bid for the center, Contra Costa County stated that it would have 90 full-time call service agents and 90 agents who are "permanent intermittent," a classification below part-time where the worker is guaranteed no hours and pays 100 percent of their own health care to start. The county does offer health benefits for those employees as long as they work at least 50 percent of full time hours for three consecutive months. However, they contribute more toward their premiums than other workers.
That information was not always conveyed to job seekers, or to county officials. Public staff reports showed the 90-90 split, but in some charts all of the jobs were shown as full-time. The job listing also stated the positions were full time.
One call center employee, who wished to remain anonymous out of fear of job loss, said all call center employees received "verbal contracts."
"We were asked if we would accept the full-time employment in a phone call and were asked to respond that we would accept the offer," the employee said. "Which we did."
Many of those employees said they would have never left previous jobs to take the call center positions had they known they were not guaranteed hours or health care.
"At the end of the day, the impacts on those folks are real, and we need to be mindful of them," supervisor Mary Piepho said, adding there was a "lack of consistency in the flow of communication."
Supervisor Karen Mitchoff, whose district covers the call center, asked staff to return with a report by the end of September on what will happen to those affected employees.
"We have to fix the problem that we've created for the people who have left other jobs, who thought they were getting full-time jobs with benefits," Mitchoff said.
She said they may need workers who are "permanent intermittent" because of the long hours the center will be open to the public, and staffing needs to be flexible. She said the call center will gauge demand once Obamacare enrollment debuts.
In addition to the state delays that are out of the county's control, Gallagher said they are faced with an unprecedented implementation.
"There is no template, there is no guidebook," she said.
For instance, the computer system delay is causing the county to create "manual workarounds" so they can be ready for a soft launch Aug. 19 where they will start taking inquiries from the public. On Oct. 1, they will start enrolling citizens, and the program will start Jan. 1.
The confusion and the fact that some call center employees do not receive employer paid health care -- despite their jobs enrolling citizens in a universal health care program -- have brought national attention to Contra Costa. "I don't want to be a poster child out there," Mitchoff said.
"The ridicule is unfair. The system is new and there are bugs in it," Piepho said. She added that much of the national attention is from detractors of the Affordable Care Act in general.

2013-08-04 "Obamacare call center fiasco explained by Contra Costa County officials"
by Matthias Gafni from "Contra Costa Times" [http://www.contracostatimes.com/news/ci_23787798/obamacare-call-center-fiasco-explained-by-contra-costa]:
CONCORD -- Part-time Affordable Care Act call center employees who felt bamboozled in the expedited hiring process will remain without health benefits as the county, labor and elected officials sort through what went wrong in a story that has garnered nationwide attention.
Contra Costa's Employment and Human Services director, who oversaw the creation of the Concord call center, released a report Thursday detailing what led to the benefits controversy, acknowledging some mistakes, but calling it an overall success.
"Given the breadth and extent of the call center recruitment; the enormous interest and response of applicants; the short time frame by which to test, interview, select, conduct background checks, and make employment offers and hire individuals by July 10," Kathy Gallagher wrote, "the hiring process for the call center was very successful and relatively few complaints were received."
Meanwhile, many employees are still fuming over the experience, and union lawyers are investigating the hiring process, which included job listings announcing the positions as full time. Instead, many newly hired workers found out their jobs were part time, and that they would not be receive health benefits.
It was the latest speed bump for the call center, one of three in California but the only one not operated by the state. Even after Contra Costa secured the call center, Concord and Richmond battled for the right to host it and later labor threatened to bag the project without promises.
The call center is supposed to have a soft opening this month, begin fielding Obamacare calls Oct. 1, and enroll citizens Jan. 1.
With more than 7,000 applicants, the county was overwhelmed with the response, particularly because it also had to deal with moving deadlines from the state, Gallagher said in her report. The 152 customer service agents were hired "in spite of false starts, missteps and schedule changes by the state that are inherent in and expected as part of a new national initiative of this size and magnitude." She said the state's two other call centers have had troubles hiring employees on time.
A 52-year-old Brentwood woman who found out late in the process she would be part time was so fed up she resigned days later.
"It was very disappointing and they manipulated us and it's kind of maddening," she said, declining to give her name out of fear she could not get a future county job.
Many of the call center employees overcame long periods of unemployment or underemployment, she said, and cried when they were suddenly told they would be part time. She did the math and realized rather than paying $600 a month for health insurance as a call center part-time employee, she would return to her bookkeeping and accounting job from home and enroll in Obamacare for $243 a month.
"I'm going to be one of those people calling them once the call center opens," she said.
Contra Costa likely landed the call center because of its bid, which included 90 full-time customer service agents and 90 part time, to keep costs down and to provide flexibility during extended hours and as the center determined demand.
"In order to make it work, we needed that," said county Supervisor Karen Mitchoff, who represents the call center's district.
There are 42 part-timers left, Mitchoff said. Despite staff reports alerting supervisors and the public of the 90-90 split, the supervisor said she expected them to all have benefits.
"We were talking about this being good jobs and that's why we want them coming to the county," Mitchoff said.
One part-time employee, who did not want to be named for fear of losing the job, left a full-time position to take what many thought was a more secure call center position.
"This thing has been a nightmare," the employee said, adding that human resources officials came to the call center Thursday and apologized for how the process has gone.
Anna Bakalis, a spokeswoman for Service Employees International Union Local 1021, said the union was "pressured to say yes to the 50-50" split of full-time and part-time positions. As the county tried to secure the contract, the union that represents the call takers was told that fighting the ratio could derail the project, she said.
"The jobs had been championed as full time the whole time," Bakalis said.
She said the situation at the new call center follows a government employment trend of "part-timeization," where formerly full-time jobs are now part time so agencies do not have to offer health benefits and pensions.
Supervisors will discuss the report Tuesday at their 9 a.m. meeting.
"There was no intent to hire people with no benefits whose job it was to get people benefits," Mitchoff said.
That irony has drawn nationwide attention. Comedy Central's "The Daily Show," which is known to lampoon government, has started sniffing around. And Mitchoff has turned down an interview with Fox News.
"I was concerned they were going to use this story to criticize the Affordable Care Act," she said.

By the numbers
7,457: Applications received for call center positions
6: Civil service examinations administered
1,947: Passed exam
721: Indicated interest in part-time or intermittent work
600: Interviews conducted for customer service agent positions
152: Customer service agents hired

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