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Council to study moving call center staff from temp to permanent

Tuesday, May 31, 2011 by Josh Rosenblatt

In an effort to create more full-time city jobs, Council voted last week to limit the length of a contract between the city and an employment agency to provide temporary staffing services for two of the city’s call centers.

Staff had requested a one-year contract with AppleOne Employment Services with four 12-month extension options, but Council voted instead to limit the contract and direct staff to come back with recommendations on how to make those temporary jobs permanent.

Under the terms of the original agreement, AppleOne would have provided temporary call agents to staff the Citywide Austin 3-1-1 Information Contact Center and the Utility Contact Center for up to $4.5 million for 12 months with four 12-month extension options, for an estimated total contract amount of $22.5 million.

According to city staff, “This contract will allow the centers to meet staffing level requirements as they increase and decrease due to seasonal call volume demands and city-wide emergencies and power outages.”

But Council Member Laura Morrison didn’t care for that, suggesting instead they explore ways to spend that amount of money on permanent staff, which could do other work for the city during off-peak times.

“Spending $4.5 million on temporary staff, how do we compare that to spending $4.5 million on permanent staff who could be there during peak season but could also be doing other work in off-peak seasons?” Morrison asked.

J.J. Gutierrez, Austin Energy’s vice president of customer care, said that the nature of call center work, and the intensity of that work during peak times, makes using city employees difficult.

“The call center is a high-volume turnover environment,” Gutierrez said, “It’s so high turnover and so labor and skill specific that it’s tough to have a skilled workforce at the ready and then be able to move out so quickly and then back in as the demand rises.”

Gutierrez went on to say that call-takers’ experience moving from center to center means they’re able to adapt quickly and be trained in ways other, less specifically trained, workers can’t.

“Those people are professional call takers, call agents, and they work at many of the call centers in and around Austin, so those call takers will bounce between contracts, and so they are ready with the call taking skills that allow them to learn quickly,” she said. “Within weeks of training we can educate them on our particulars regarding the utility and 3-1-1, but they already come with the basics required for phone handling.”

Austin Energy General Manager Larry Weis said that the fact that the Utility Call Center is so high turnover makes it difficult to keep permanent employees there. “This is where a lot of employees come into the company and then they move up,” he said.

But Morrison said she was experiencing a “’level of discomfort” over hiring temps when full-time city employees could be hired to do the same work.

“We’re looking at spending a large amount of money for temporary contract employees,” Morrison said. “Shouldn’t we be careful and look at the opportunity we have here to provide full-time jobs with benefits for people as city employees?”

Addressing Weis’ concern about high turnover, Morrison said, “During off times maybe there would be opportunities for them to do fulfilling things that would mitigate whatever it is that makes the call center high turnover.”

Morrison then made a motion to approve the contract with AppleOne for one year “and in the meantime ask staff to go in and analyze … if they’re not working at the call center if there’s a way we can move them over to other jobs and really bring something good for the city and for 100 individuals,” she said.

Council approved the motion unanimously, 7-0.

According to staff, the Utility Contact Center experiences a volume of customer calls at an average of 120,000 calls per month from November through May, with an increase to approximately 155,000 per month from June through October. The center is staffed with 55 permanent staff and needs an extra 40 to 60 workers during that period.

 

The 3-1-1 Information Contract Center, meanwhile, receives an average of 100,000 calls per month from November through May, with an increase to approximately 130,000 per month from June through October. Staff reported that the 3-1-1 center will require between 20 and 40 contract staff to support peak periods.

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