Wilton DHHS call center to shut, county involved

The Department of Health and Human Services advised staff it will likely be closing the Wilton Call Center and transferring staff to its Lewiston workplace. The Franklin County legislative delegation are sad with the transfer and anxious the way it will affect the call center’s 45 staff and the native economic system. Kay Neufeld/Franklin Journal

WILTON — One of Gov. Janet Mill’s focal factors on her total agenda has been bolstering the agricultural, native economies of Maine.

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) advised staff it will be closing its Wilton Call Center and transferring them to the DHHS Lewiston workplace in April, based on a letter acquired by the Franklin Journal.

Around 45 staff within the area stand to be impacted by the transfer (and probably 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 in regards to the impacts the switch might have on staff and the native economic system.

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

Though the call center was supposed to be momentary, DHHS employed the Wilton employees as everlasting staff in March 2020.

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

The call center, on U.S. Route 2 and state Route 4, shares a constructing with the ProfessionCenter 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 mentioned at a Maine CDC Briefing Wednesday, Feb. 16.

Lambrew mentioned 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 further points with the ability, corresponding 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 mentioned there are two, two-stall loos for women and men shared with the ProfessionCenter in a hallway that connects the 2 amenities. She mentioned she’s by no means heard any complaints about overcrowding earlier than, significantly within the wake of the pandemic when round solely 15 staff are within the workplace at a time.

Farwell mentioned that the DHHS had checked out a lot of amenities 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 at present 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 mentioned that he’d be keen to barter with DHHS – provide them the house they should run the ability at an affordable value.

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

Landry suspects that DHHS will not be being forthcoming about its causes and needs to “consolidate” the 2 places of work.

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

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

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

However, Driscoll mentioned that distant work will not be a viable possibility for her or a lot of staff on the call center. Employees that may’t work remotely because of unreliable broadband entry countywide and have non-confidential workspaces (a necessity for the job) would finally have to start commuting come April.

The commutes shall be time consuming at two to 3 hours day by day for workers who dwell throughout Franklin County.

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

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

Mills administration Legislative Director Tom Abello advised Wilton Selectperson Tom Saviello by way of e 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 staff would be capable to proceed teleworking completely. Abello didn’t reply the Franklin Journal’s calls by the point of publication.

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

Even so, DHHS teleworking coverage requires staff to be within the workplace twice per week.

The delegates, Saviello and Driscoll all raised issues in regards to the potential impacts on the economic system.

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

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

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

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

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

Landry mentioned 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 mentioned. “There’s a lack of communication somewhere.”

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

Driscoll mentioned her impression from dialogue throughout conferences is that many of the staff shall be out of labor if they’re required to journey to Lewiston.

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

Landry advised the Franklin Journal that on Tuesday, Feb. 22, he, Black and Hall met with Commissioner Lambrew, Abello and Molly Bogart, DHHS director of presidency relations, to debate the closure.

Landry mentioned he’s hopeful the officers are going to “work with us” to maintain the call center native.

“We got their attention, hopefully they’re going to work hard to make sure [the employees] stay in Franklin,” Landry mentioned.

However, he mentioned that very same day, Call Center supervisors gave staff questionnaires about how they’ll be shifting ahead within the switch. So it’s unclear presently what the long run holds for the Call Center and staff.

Driscoll is “disappointed” that she should go away the place because of the unsustainable commute. She loves this job and “helping” folks in want, she mentioned. 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 mentioned he’s heard from one worker who will lose her childcare and should go on state welfare if she loses the job.

“We’re all very content in our jobs,” Driscoll mentioned. “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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