The amount of time Connecticut residents had to spend on hold to reach a Department of Social Services worker by phone dropped last month, but the average wait time was still over an hour.
“We’re not where we want to be…but I think we’re trending in the right direction,” George Chamberlin, who heads the department’s benefits centers, told the council that oversees the Medicaid program Friday.
On average, callers to DSS who wanted to speak to a worker last month waited on hold for 66 minutes before their calls were answered. That’s down from 78 minutes in August and 87 minutes in July.
Nearly two thirds of callers who wanted to speak to a worker hung up before getting through, but that, too, was an improvement over previous months. In September, 64 percent of callers who wanted to reach a worker hung up first, compared to 71 percent in August and 75 percent in July.
Chamberlin pointed out that wait times vary considerably throughout the month. On some days in the middle of the week in late September, the average wait times were under 45 minutes. By contrast, wait times were higher during the first week of the month and on Mondays.
“A lot happens for our clients over the course of a weekend,” Chamberlin said. “Some folks get evicted, some folks lose their homes, some children move back in. A lot of things can happen to a family or an individual, and on any given Monday, you can see that the requests for our services or clarification is certainly enhanced.”
Nearly 900,000 Connecticut residents rely on DSS for assistance programs, including Medicaid, food stamps and cash assistance. The department’s phone system received 210,587 phone calls last month. Of those, 42 percent — 88,489 — were resolved through an automated system that provides information, without the caller seeking to speak to a worker.
The long phone wait times have been a persistent concern of DSS clients and advocates since the department launched a new system in July 2013. While in the past, clients were assigned to a specific worker and directed all their inquiries to that person, all clients now call a single phone number (1-855-626-6632). Callers can either use the automated information system or speak to a worker. Those who want to talk to a worker are routed to one of three benefits centers, where staff can access the person’s file electronically.
Some clients and advocates say the long wait times are especially problematic because many poor people in the state rely on cellphones with limited phone minutes, which can get eaten up while waiting on hold.
Department officials have said they’re looking into ways to reduce the wait times. They have also noted in the past that the new system replaces one in which it was often even harder to reach a DSS worker because their voicemail boxes were often full.
DSS is planning to meet with a consultant to determine how the system could be improved.
Chamberlin said Friday that workers spend a significant amount of time on some calls because clients have multiple concerns or complicated issues. It’s important to assure them that their needs are important and will be addressed, he said.
And he said there are some times when it’s easier to get through. During the third and fourth week of September, average wait times on Tuesdays and Wednesdays were less than 50 minutes. Chamberlin said that on Wednesday, Sept. 24, the wait time was less than 20 minutes for a long portion of the day, although the average wait time was 44 minutes.