Calling for Contractors

Equal Employment Opportunity Commission officials choose a company to answer customers' questions.

There's little argument that the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission needs a fresh approach to customer service. "When individuals call our field offices, they get voicemail instead of people," EEOC Chairwoman Cari Dominguez said at a recent commission meeting. "Their messages sometimes go for hours, weeks, months, without a reply."

But disagreement swirls around the way commission leaders are going about solving the problem: by directing calls, as well as e-mails, faxes and letters, to 36 contract employees at a large center in Lawrence, Kan.

In September, three of four commissioners voted to test outsourcing customer assistance by giving Pearson Government Solutions, an Arlington Va.-based company, a two-year, $4.9 million contract to set up and run a national customer service center. Opponents of the pilot project include union officials, Democratic lawmakers and civil rights leaders. They'd rather see the commission hire more employees and invest in technology upgrades or an in-house service center. But Cynthia Pierre, EEOC's director of field management programs, is confident that the service center will pleasantly surprise its critics.

Mac Curtis, Pearson's president and chief executive officer, says the company has 20 years' experience running government call centers and boasts passionate, well-trained em-ployees, well-versed in complex programs such as Medicare.

Critics of the EEOC project say Pearson's track record is spotty. They point to a toll-free telephone line Pearson runs for Citizenship and Immigration Services, a Homeland Security Department bureau. Pearson was awarded the contract in February 2002; it's worth $140 million over five years. According to advocates for immigrants and CIS union leaders, the 800 number is understaffed and plagued by long wait times.

In September and October, call-ers waited more than 10 minutes on average for live assistance. In an effort to bring wait times closer to the 1.5-minute goal set in Pearson's performance-based contract, CIS is forwarding to federal employees 3 percent of callers placed on hold, says Michael Aytes, the agency's director of information and customer services. The solution is a temporary fix while Pearson and CIS work together to reduce the wait times. On all other counts, Pearson's performance is up to par, he adds.

But Crystal Williams, a spokeswoman for the American Immigration Lawyers Association, says the Pearson customer service representatives often inadvertently provide inaccurate or incomplete answers. Many questions are just too complex or nuanced for contract employees, says Mary Lynch, an American Federation of Government Employees official at CIS' Vermont service center.

Like immigration-related inquiries, civil rights questions can be complicated. "It's difficult getting to the nub of the problem" because calls often entail "complex and convoluted" stories about possible discrimination, EEOC Commissioner Stuart Ishimaru explains. As a consequence, contract employees will end up forwarding many questions to field office employees, predicts Gabrielle Martin, president of AFGE's National Council of EEOC Locals No. 216. She sees the customer service center as another layer of bureaucracy and vows to fight the project, but Ishimaru, the only commissioner who voted against the plan in September, pledges his support as long as Pearson is properly monitored.

EEOC's Pierre contends that Pearson employees will get plenty of training and oversight. Before the center opens in mid-March, Pearson staffers will attend classes for two weeks and spend a month handling practice calls. They'll also take periodic refresher courses after the center opens. "The agents are trained in such a way-and we've seen it demonstrated-that they're not just reading a script," Pierre adds. The company's compensation will depend on the accuracy of answers as well as the number of inquiries processed, she notes, providing a disincentive to rush through calls in pursuit of profit.

Pearson distinguished itself from competitors by offering a better educated and more stable workforce, Pierre says. At the Lawrence facility, 58 percent of employees have at least some college education. Pearson is the second-largest employer in the county after the University of Kansas, and its attrition rates range from 12 percent to 18 percent compared with an industry average in the Midwest of 25 percent to 29 percent.

Pearson's difficulties at CIS don't concern Pierre, because operators there face challenges absent at the EEOC, including restricted access to databases. Immigration benefits inquiries rank second only to tax-related questions in complexity, according to Curtis. CIS' toll-free number operators rely on more than 2,000 pages of scripts and the content changes as often as three times a week, fueling frustration and high attrition rates.

The EEOC scripts are much shorter and service center employees will focus on straightforward requests for general information, Pierre says. She's well aware that critics see the contractor-operated customer service center as the wrong investment for a cash-strapped agency. But she believes the center will relieve strains on field offices and expects it will "more than pay for itself in terms of benefits."

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