NC employment agency cuts costs

dranii@newsobserver.comOctober 30, 2013 

Shutting down a high-speed data line that was no longer needed – and wasn't even being used – is saving the state Division of Employment Security $24,882 a month.

Switching the call center to an automated answering system reduced the agency's monthly bill for its toll-free number by $30,000.

Canceling a single magazine subscription is saving the agency $4,738 a year.

"For everything we fix, there are probably two or three opportunities that we learn about," said Dale Folwell, a former Republican legislator who was named head of Employment Security n March.

Folwell redundantly describes the agency, which collects unemployment taxes from employers and pays unemployment benefits to the jobless, as "broken broken."

He's referring to, first, the more than $2 billion in debt that the state owes the federal government – money that was borrowed to pay state-funded unemployment benefits after the recession struck, prompting the legislature to pass a law that overhauled the unemployment system. Second, he's referring to the agency's daily processes.

Folwell credits the staff he inherited with leading the charge to upgrade its operations.

"We are making progress," he testified before a legislative oversight committee earlier this month, "not because I'm the leader but because the team that was there has rallied instead of being on their heels as they had been for the last 20 years."

The agency pulled the plug on its high-speed data line, which was used at one time to convey unemployment claims information back-and-forth between the U.S. Department of Labor, in June after a routine operations review indicated it was no longer being used. That data is now transferred via the Internet.

Although the agency tested the line to ensure it was no longer being used, there was a sense of relief when it was shut down and absolutely nothing happened.

You can test something all you want, said Folwell, "but at the end of the day it's faith.”

The data line hadn't been used for six to eight months, according to the agency, a figure that doesn’t include the several months the agency spent testing the line before shutting it down. Taking into account that the monthly bill for the line was “only” $22,040 until the price rose in November 2012, the agency conservatively spent well over $130,000 unnecessarily.

Installing an automated phone answering system at the agency’s call center wasn’t designed to save money. Instead, the goal was to improve what the McCrory administration is fond of calling “customer service.”

The problem with the old system, which required callers to interact with a human being from the outset, was that just 21 percent of calls were being answered. The rest of those callers never got through or were on hold so long that they abandoned the calls.

But after a staff of five or six employees worked with AT&T to develop an automated system that was installed in August, the percent of calls answered rose to 89 percent last week.

Unclogging the lines and reducing the wait time reduced the agency’s monthly bill for its toll-free number by $30,000.

“There was less waiting and less redials,” Folwell said.

AT&T’s work to develop the new system didn’t cost the agency anything. Nor did the agency need to add to the staff that handles incoming calls at the call center.

Ranii: 919-829-4877

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