Sunday, June 25, 2006

Dallas Morning News: Transition is tough on state aid workers

Transition is tough on state aid workers
Move to privatization is driving many away, so they're paid to stay

12:08 AM CDT on Saturday, June 24, 2006
By ROBERT T. GARRETT / The Dallas Morning News

AUSTIN – Scores of state workers who help people sign up for public assistance are quitting every month, but not Alec Davis.

As the state turns to private companies to process applications, he stays to help tackle a mountain of daily tasks. The problems with the transition are so extensive that the state recently canceled plans to lay off 1,000 workers and scrambled to keep eligibility workers, offering bonuses of nearly $1,900 each.

As a "senior disposition worker," Mr. Davis helps determine who gets food stamps, Medicaid and welfare. The full range of the state's outsourcing experiment lies beyond his field of vision, though his south Austin office tower houses one of the private call centers.

But what he has seen, he said, is "a horrible mess" – slow computers, long electronic "queues" of applications and mistakes by the private companies' workers that create big hassles for those seeking state aid.

"It's going a lot worse than we thought," he said. "You can't work there and not know it."

Mr. Davis and other veteran state workers face Herculean tasks in helping the state move to privately run call and document processing centers. He agreed to speak candidly about problems that have roiled Texas' revamping of eligibility determination, though he said he speaks only for himself.

State leaders defend the overall privatization project, predicting more efficient services for less cost to taxpayers. And the state's main contractor, a group led by the U.S. unit of Bermuda-based Accenture Ltd., says the transition is smoothing out.

But some of Mr. Davis' colleagues in state field offices also note problems, even though privatization is so far limited to pilot programs in Travis and Hays counties. These workers say job insecurity and changing mandates hurt morale and drive co-workers to quit.

"It's a huge reduction in staff in the last few months," said Bridget Walker, a nine-year caseworker in Dallas. "I have more cases [and] I'm doing longer hours. It is a challenge."

Procedures and plans to roll out the new system change rapidly, causing confusion among applicants and employees, said 16-year caseworker Joan Barasch of San Antonio.

"People's cases are getting shifted around," she said. "It's hard to figure out who belongs to whom. People are having to turn in multiple applications to get taken care of."

State agency chiefs and politicians who defend the new system dismiss critics as shortsighted. The defenders point out that state employee groups have lost members to the outsourcing. They also say advocates of the poor who criticize the changes as poorly planned are overlooking benefits of the call centers, such as fewer trips to a field office and the convenience of applying by phone or Internet.

Mr. Davis, though, quit the Texas State Employees Union a year ago. The 39-year-old, who has spent much of his adult life working for the state, agrees that the old system relied too much on paperwork and in-person interviews. In fact, he jumped into the Austin privatization experiment from a field office in Athens because he wanted to "try something different."

Mr. Davis says that the Legislature's decision three years ago to push privatizing of eligibility services signaled to state workers that "we're expendable," but he still gets "a sense of gratification" from helping the needy.

Anger and guilt over the system's failings have led him to hand out cards urging people with call-center problems to contact state and federal agencies to complain.

"This is just a way to help people tell someone what they've experienced," he said.

Rollout on hold

Start-up problems forced Gov. Rick Perry's administration in April to postpone extending the new system beyond greater Austin-San Marcos. A scheduled start date for the Dallas-Fort Worth area of December is on hold.

If resumed, the rollout would close scores of field offices and shift many signups to four call centers run by Accenture; Maximus Inc. of Reston, Va.; and several subcontractors. The group won the five-year, $899 million contract last summer.

Mr. Davis says a lot of work needs to be done before that happens. He said public debate over the plan has missed key points:

• The Legislature repeatedly slashed funding for the old system. Today, the state has about a third of the 12,000 permanent eligibility workers it had in 1996. Nearly 1,200 temporary workers have been added, but they're poorly trained. Customer service has deteriorated.

• State managers should listen to line workers and fix flaws in an unwieldy computer program called the Texas Integrated Eligibility Redesign System.

• Federally created social safety net programs have very complicated eligibility rules. The vendor's call center operators – some making $8 an hour – can't possibly learn the ropes in just a few weeks of training.

"I'm not against the change," Mr. Davis said. But he said he was shocked by the start-up's tumult.

He said his state unit has lost half its workers in five months. He is just now reviewing food stamp applications made in February and March, though they were supposed to have been processed no later than April. He has spoken with aid applicants who had phoned call centers 20 times and still not gotten answers.

To reduce an applications backlog, the state has adopted a "quota" system, he said. Two weeks ago, Mr. Davis said, he and colleagues were required to sign a paper in which they agreed to decide 15 cases per eight-hour shift and work at least five hours a week of overtime. During overtime work, they must finish at least two cases per hour, he said.

But many cases handed to disposition workers are poorly prepared, and the computer program stalls if he and his colleagues add information. He said disposition workers sit in cubicles, and their phone conversations with applicants – required by federal law to be confidential – easily can be overhead.

'More work to be done'

Stephanie Goodman, a spokeswoman for the Health and Human Services Commission, said the state believes early flaws can be cured. She said the call centers have reduced wait times and how many callers hang up.

"We want to see them sustain that for some time," she said. Training of call center operators has improved "but there's more work to be done," she said. Ms. Goodman said her boss, Commissioner Albert Hawkins, still isn't satisfied with the Accenture group's work.

"If you're judging the system goals by the performance today, then I can understand why he would think that," she said of Mr. Davis. "Because it's not working the way it should."

She said the seven-year-old computer system was not designed for use in call centers but for a face-to-face interview, conducted after all needed information had been brought to a state field office. The state still believes a "long-term solution" will work, she said.

"It's the interim solution we put in place that's causing problems," Ms. Goodman said.

Jill Angelo, a consultant who recently was hired to speak for the Accenture-led group, acknowledged the early difficulties but said "we are making progress."

Ms. Angelo said the contractor is improving customer service and "call quality."

She noted that another company, Deloitte, built the $300 million computer system. And she promised improvements soon.

Back on the fourth floor of the Southfield Building in Austin, Mr. Davis said he is frustrated but can't chuck his $33,000-a-year job. He said he needs employer-based health insurance because he has diabetes and high blood pressure. Even with the state's relatively generous coverage, he said, he shells out nearly $200 a month for medicine.

Mr. Davis, a Tyler native, holds an associate degree in art, drafting and design from Wade College in Dallas. He worked for two years as an unpaid volunteer at the Athens eligibility field office before getting hired. He toiled three years there as a clerk, 10 as a caseworker.

In 12 of his 13 years with the state, he said supervisors gave him the highest job evaluation – "superior." The only other time was an "exceeds expectations," he said.

The good ratings mean he's eligible for the retention bonuses – $930 this month and another $930 at the end of the year.

But Mr. Davis said he would simply settle for less stress.