When Tamarion Laney wants to check in with the Department of Social Services about her food stamps and Medicaid, she typically calls the DSS offices rather than going in person.
But in recent weeks, she hasn’t been able to reach anyone at the office by phone, so she and her roommate dropped in for a visit last week.
“I’d rather do it over the phone because sometimes I don’t have gas money,” said Laney, 35, of Charlotte, who was at DSS’s Freedom Drive office.
Laney, her roommate, Rico Griffin, and others trying to call the main customer service number say that, for about two weeks, they haven’t been able to reach a person and can only get a message that says, in English and Spanish: “we are experiencing very high call volume.” It then asks the caller to try again later in the day.
An Observer reporter called the number several times during the past two weeks and routinely got the recorded message.
After dialing the main number, 704-336-3000, callers have several menu options from which to choose. Option two, for people who want to report child or adult abuse, neglect, dependency or exploitation, is the only option where an assistant picked up when an Observer reporter called.
If callers press other prompts – for example, option five allows you to ask questions about your DSS case, six is for phone interviews for nutrition services’ re-certification, and seven is to report an address change or request a different manage-care provider – they get the same message: “we are currently experiencing very high call volume.”
“Every time I call, I get that message. I thought, ‘you might as well come down,’ but I don’t got no gas money to be wasting,” said Griffin, 29, who receives food stamps, formally known as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, and Medicaid services.
Rodney Adams, the director for economic services for DSS, acknowledged that some callers do have trouble getting through but said the phone system’s problems are sporadic and seasonal and in part due to the fact that the number of people needing services in Mecklenburg County has “drastically increased.”
“I don’t think anyone else handles the volume of customers that we handle,” Adams said, “because we are known as a hub of human services information.”
Since the economic downturn nearly four years ago, the number of people receiving all forms of public assistance has risen 40 percent, according to the DSS, while those receiving food and nutrition services in particular rose 80 percent since December 2008.
That month, when the county first began to see a surge in the need for services, the number of food-stamp recipients in Mecklenburg County was 76,615, Adams said.
By February 2012, that number had swelled to 135,421, according to Adams. Similarly, the number of people receiving Medicaid benefits was at 116,426 in December 2008, compared to 151,932 last February, Adams said.
DSS staff answer approximately 28,000 calls a month, but Adams said the current system does not track deflected calls.
To help assist with some of the phone calls, the county has sought requests for proposals for an interactive voice recognition system – to be operating by mid- to late fall, Adams said.
The automated system will allow callers to access information without needing a computer, Adams said. A caller would say his name and benefit information, or when he is due for a review of his services. Those are the bulk of the calls DSS receives currently, Adams said. The system would allow those with more specific questions to talk to a DSS representative.
Customers could also reach out to DSS by sending an email to firstname.lastname@example.org, and staff generally respond within 24 hours. DSS receives about 6,000 emails a month, Adams said.
While many people try to call the department, many others choose to visit one of DSS’s two offices, on Freedom Drive and Billingsley Road. The number of visitors to the two locations ranged from 15,576 in July 2011 to 14,326 in May 2012, Adams said.
Adams said DSS anticipates that the calls will still work while transitioning to the new program.
Sadé Willis, 26, an unemployed Charlotte resident with two young children who was at DSS’s
Freedom Drive location last week, said she usually calls to find out whether she needs to re-certify to receive food stamps. Willis, who lost her medical billing job six months ago, also receives help as part of the Work First Family Assistance or Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, which provides money to families with minor children, and short-term training to help parents become employed.
When she does go to the office, Willis said, the wait times are long. But she has mixed feelings about a new automated system.
“It would be more efficient – I wouldn’t have to wait to speak to someone. But it may not be accurate (information). The benefit of talking to someone is that you could ask them about other things,” Willis said.