Calling Department of Social Services: Prepare to wait three hours

I was alerted to the impossibly long wait times to get through to the state Department of Social Services by a co-worker who was helping her mom inquire about a state program for Medicare help.

She had waited three hours and 10 minutes on hold to talk to someone and produced a screenshot on her phone to show the total time of the call. When someone finally answered, after all that time, she said, they promptly hung up on her before she could get her question in.

That was the end of the week before last. I started a new try in the office last week, and that time the wait lasted two hours and 45 minutes. On the positive side, when someone did finally answer, they stayed on the line long enough for my co-worker to get the answer to her question.

Given the misfire at the end of the first call, she had invested just six hours to get an answer.

When I reached David Dearborn, a spokesman for the department, he said that three hours is certainly not an acceptable length of time to wait. He followed up with a couple of emails explaining the high volume of calls and the department's phone system.

His answer to my principal question, "What does the department believe the monthly average wait time to be?" was "... a low of seven minutes in May 2016 to a high of 106 minutes this past February."

It's hard to take that as an honest assessment by an agency with an awareness of the depth of the problem, given the wait times of 190 and 165 minutes on both our calls, a wildly unacceptable number and far out of the range of what the agency believes to be the average.

By way of explanation, Dearborn sent along some statistics to indicate the number of people the agency assists: nearly 1 million residents, probably the highest number of the agency's 25-year history. From 23,600 to 34,600 callers get personal service on the line each month, he said.

He noted that the phone system, with only one number for the public to reach any division of the sprawling department, was installed in 2013. It serves as a full-service benefit center, with application interviews, for instance, making some calls "not necessarily short," Dearborn said.

Dearborn suggested wait times may be longer recently because the agency has sent out a lot of notices that have prompted calls from people with questions. He also blamed wait times on reduced staffing.

The response to a question about specifically how many positions are unfilled and when hires will be made: "bringing replacement staff on board in the telephone Benefits Center as quickly as possible," Dearborn wrote.

Not only are wait times of about three hours unacceptable, but it is troubling that the Department of Social Services, responsible for helping some of the most disadvantaged among us, doesn't seem to be acknowledging them, saying the longest monthly average wait time in recent years was a little over an hour and a half, two months ago. Of course, that's unacceptable, too.

You can't do this at work. Few employers would tolerate anyone being on hold on the phone that long. The line is only open for contact with representatives during business hours. You have to take a day off.

Dearborn says you also can visit field offices or conduct business online. That wouldn't work for my co-worker or her mother, nor would it, apparently, for all those other people making calls and waiting for hours on the phone.

I would have thought it would be hard to find a bureaucracy in the state more maddening in its slow responsiveness than the Department of Motor Vehicles.

I guess not.

This is the opinion of David Collins.

d.collins@theday.com

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