The Covid-19 pandemic’s arrival and its many economic consequences highlighted by unemployment quickly changed life and work for nearly everyone in the Hoosier State. The effect was widespread, but not all of them were readily visible. Take the case of a state agency charged with providing critical support to Hoosiers at some of their most difficult times. Most of us don’t give much thought to the Indiana Department of Workforce Development (DWD), but when people find themselves furloughed, laid off, or otherwise unemployed, the agency becomes the lifeline connecting them with the state’s unemployment benefits.
DWD is a well-managed agency that has embraced technology to provide faster and more efficient support to workers in need, but nothing could have prepared the agency and its staff for sudden changes. “The pandemic led to closings in various community agencies, like our WorkOne offices and public libraries,” recalls Regina Ashley, DWD’s Chief Unemployment Insurance and Workforce Solutions Officer. “Those were the places workers typically filed claims for unemployment if they didn’t own a computer or smartphone.”
Recognizing that many of the people who most desperately needed benefits no longer had easy access, DWD quickly established a file-by-phone application. “We knew we needed staff to answer the phone and walk people through the file-by-phone application,” Ashley adds. The agency didn’t have time to staff up for the historic deluge of calls, which strained the existing workload. Nor was its staff trained to take applications directly. “We had to look outside the agency for an entity that could assist us.”
A History Of Government Work
Netfor had long supported other state agencies with help desk support and related activities, and one of those agencies recommended the company to Ashley. “On a Saturday, we received a text from one of our contacts saying DWD was overwhelmed with calls and may want some help,” explains Beth Medley, Vice President, Client Success for Netfor. “We talked with DWD that Sunday, began aligning our service on Tuesday, and a week and a half later were handling calls for unemployment benefits.”
Typically, Netfor onboards new clients over a 60-day period, but the team recognized the urgency of DWD’s situation and stepped up its response. “Anytime we add a new client, we have to get the knowledge database in place,” Medley adds. “State agencies deal with so many issues and have to answer so many difficult questions. To help us get up to speed faster, DWD gave us access to their system. We trained our team to be the eyes and ears and fingers of the people who were calling in.”
Ashley was impressed with how rapidly Netfor’s agents were able to respond. “They were able to work with our team to gain an understanding of both the technology and the subject matter knowledge extremely quickly so they could assist us in getting those applications filed,” she notes.
The call volume was relentless in the first few weeks, but as Netfor’s agents listened to the stories from callers, they became committed to helping them get the benefits they needed as quickly as possible. “We had agents who started crying on the phone or needed to take a couple of moments afterward because the impact on the callers’ lives was so upsetting,” says Medley. “Our team had so much empathy and wanted to treat callers the same way they hoped their own family members would be treated.” Given the frustration expressed by many callers, Netfor shared de-escalation techniques the agents could use to help tone down any anger. “You can’t get short with someone just because they’re upset at the situation and calling you names.”
Everyone Has A Part To Play
Medley made sure the Netfor team was aware of the outcomes so they could see the impact they were having, especially when a particular case was unusually challenging. “In early August, we talked with a gentleman whose family had been living out of their vehicle for 20 weeks,” Medley recalls. “We brought the situation to DWD’s attention and they were able to process the claim and get benefits to the family the very next day.”
DWD’s website offers information about a variety of community resources for people who are struggling, but since the callers lacked internet access, they were unaware of what was available. Netfor copied those resources into its knowledge base so agents could share the information. “We could tell callers about places that provided shelter, how to access SNAP benefits, job search opportunities … all sorts of resources they could use but didn’t know about,” Medley says.
Pleased with the way Netfor handled the phone application process, DWD began to direct calls for general questions to the company, as well as calls that required special handling. As the agency was able to reopen its WorkOne locations and people began returning to work, the number of phone applications has dropped. “Netfor’s team has been extremely flexible in serving as a help desk,” DWD’s Ashley adds, “and they’ve been very quick to learn the new subject matter.”
While Covid-19 continues to create challenges for Indiana’s residents, the pressure on DWD’s resources has eased. And although nobody anticipated the pandemic or its effects, the agency is proud of how it stepped up to help fellow Hoosiers when they needed it most … with a little help from its new partners at Netfor.