Closure of Wilton DHHS call center raises questions

The Department of Health and Human Services instructed workers it is going to be closing the Wilton Call Center and transferring workers to its Lewiston workplace. The Franklin County legislative delegation is sad with the transfer and anxious the way it will impression the call center’s 45 workers and the native financial system. Kay Neufeld/Franklin Journal

WILTON — Bolstering the agricultural, native economies of Maine has been a spotlight of Gov. Janet Mills’ general agenda.

But Franklin County’s legislative delegation has issues that the Maine Department of Health and Human Services has not gotten the message.

On Jan. 14, the Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS) instructed workers it could be closing its Wilton Call Center and transferring them to the DHHS Lewiston workplace in April, in accordance with a letter acquired by the Sun Journal.

Around 45 workers within the area stand to be impacted by the transfer (and doubtlessly lose their job) when it comes time to make the lengthy, pricey commute to Lewiston.

The native delegation, which says DHHS didn’t inform it of the transfer, is anxious concerning the impacts the switch may have on workers and the native financial system.

The DHHS Wilton Call Center opened in May 2019. Locals have been enthusiastic concerning the opening following the 2019 closure of the Barclays call center, Wilton’s “largest employer,” which laid off 227 workers.

Though the call center was supposed to be short-term, DHHS employed the Wilton staff as everlasting workers in March 2020.

The Wilton Call Center fields inquiries about eligibility for DHHS packages, together with MaineCare, the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program and Temporary Assistance for Needy Families. For a time frame, workers have been additionally helping with COVID-19 contact tracing.

The call center, on U.S. Route 2 and state Route 4, shares a constructing with the Career Center owned by Randal Cousineau.

The call center’s lease in that constructing is now ending and DHHS has chosen to not renew it as a result of “the current site is inadequate for them,” Maine DHHS Commissioner Jeanne Lambrew stated at a Maine CDC Briefing Wednesday.

Lambrew stated it’s a “very crowded facility” with “only one bathroom for a lot of people.”

DHHS Communications Director Jackie Farwell added in a press release that there have been extra points with the power, akin to icy parking heaps and malfunctioning warmth and air-con that Cousineau has not resolved in a “consistent or timely” method.

The Franklin County legislative delegation — state Sen. Russell Black, R-Franklin, Rep. Randall Hall, R-Wilton, and Rep. Scott Landry, D-Farmington, discover the explanations to maneuver the workplace to Lewiston doubtful.

So does Tina Driscoll, a buyer service consultant on the call center, who stated there are two, two-stall bogs for women and men shared with the Career Center in a hallway that connects the 2 services. She stated she’s by no means heard any complaints about overcrowding earlier than, notably within the wake of the pandemic when round solely 15 workers are within the workplace at a time.

Farwell stated that the DHHS had checked out quite a lot of services within the Franklin County area, however that none have been appropriate.

However, Sen. Black does “not think that Department of Human Services did due diligence to check on what was available in this area.”

All three politicians questioned why the call center can’t transfer to the previous Barclays call center workplace, which is presently unoccupied.

Farwell wrote that they opted to not use the Barclays places of work as a result of “that facility is designed for a workforce at least twice the size of the Wilton call center.”

But constructing proprietor Travis Gray stated that he’d be keen to barter with DHHS — provide them the house they should run the power at an affordable value.

However, DHHS has not contacted Gray, nor his upkeep supervisor, he stated.

Landry suspects that DHHS is just not being forthcoming about its causes and desires to “consolidate” the 2 places of work.

Black thinks DHHS doesn’t wish to pay a lease and would fairly use the larger facility in Lewiston, the place there’s a “bigger work pool.”

“It’s cost cutting over employees,” he stated.

DHHS says “staff who are already successfully teleworking may continue to do so, at this time.”

However, Driscoll stated that distant work is just not a viable choice for her or quite a lot of workers on the call center. Employees that may’t work remotely as a result of unreliable broadband entry countywide and have nonconfidential workspaces (a necessity for the job) would finally have to start commuting come April.

The commutes will probably be time consuming at two to 3 hours each day for workers who reside throughout Franklin County.

Driscoll stated it can even be pricey with round $16 per hour pay to cowl prices of transportation and extra childcare.

Additionally, Driscoll stated call center administration instructed workers in February conferences that they’d be anticipated to return to the workplace full time as soon as insurance policies permitting distant work as a result of COVID-19 pandemic come to an finish.

Mills administration Legislative Director Tom Abello instructed Wilton Selectman Tom Saviello through electronic mail that “if they telework, they will be able to keep doing that.”

DHHS didn’t reply to questions on whether or not the employees of 45 workers would be capable to proceed teleworking completely.

“If that’s the case, no one has addressed that with us,” Driscoll stated.

Even so, DHHS teleworking coverage requires workers to be within the workplace twice every week.

The delegates, Saviello and Driscoll all raised issues concerning the potential impacts on the financial system.

They’ll be taking their enterprise, procuring elsewhere — maybe nearer to Lewiston, each Black and Driscoll stated.

The delegation finds the closure particularly irritating within the face of Gov. Janet Mills’s aim to bolster rural economies by way of numerous insurance policies and funding plans.

Mills has talked concerning the points that face rural areas. Franklin County is especially impacted by a childcare workforce scarcity and an absence of broadband entry, which she is looking for to handle in her insurance policies.

The delegates questioned how this transfer and Mills’s targets are lining up in a scenario the place each childcare and broadband entry are available to play.

Mills and Lambrew “are not on the same page,” Black stated.

Landry stated Mills was not knowledgeable of the closure till the delegation began talking out.

“I think it’s kind of embarrassing for the governor while she’s … promoting growth in Franklin and rural counties, to have (DHHS) go and pull something like this without her even knowing it,” Landry stated. “There’s a lack of communication somewhere.”

As it stands, it’s unclear what number of call center workers will probably be out of labor — whether or not in April or if the distant work coverage ever involves an finish.

Driscoll stated her impression from dialogue throughout conferences is that a lot of the workers will probably be out of labor if they’re required to journey to Lewiston.

But Black is working to avoid wasting these jobs. He stated he’s introducing a invoice within the Legislature that will cease the closure. The Maine Service Employees Association has requested call center workers to put in writing to their native legislators in assist of the invoice, Driscoll stated.

And Landry added that the delegation hopes to satisfy with DHHS someday within the subsequent week to discover a answer.

Driscoll is “disappointed” that she must depart the place as a result of unsustainable commute. She loves this job and “helping” individuals in want, she stated. She’s nervous about shedding her advantages. And, now her plans to work within the place till she retires in three years are out the door.

Landry stated he’s heard from one worker who will lose her childcare and must go on state welfare if she loses the job.

“We’re all very content in our jobs,” Driscoll stated. “We are working in a call center because that’s what we want to do, what most of them have done all of their lives.”

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