Obamacare call center hiring process questioned

rgiwargis@mercedsunstar.comOctober 4, 2013 

Those working at the Merced regional call center handling enrollments for the Affordable Care Act had a litany of issues to deal with this week: program changes, computer glitches and software crashes.

Despite the challenges, it was a job that was highly sought after in Merced County, but often misunderstood, according to county officials.

The Merced County Board of Supervisors approved 42 additional family services representative positions for the new $5.6 million call center in June, but some residents who applied for the jobs said the hiring process wasn’t fair.

Merced native Ashley Nelson, who applied for one of the call center jobs in August, questioned whether the jobs were actually open and available at the time.

“When we went to take the test (to go to the next level of interviews), we were told it was a call center family representative job,” said Nelson, 21. “Then we heard they were already training for those jobs.

“It just seemed kind of misrepresented because everyone thought they were going for a call center job,” she added. “But those jobs were all taken.”

Nelson also questioned whether the hiring process was fair. “People were already being trained in July, and it doesn’t add up,” she said. “A lot of people are hurting out there, and it’s just unfair to people.”

Human Services Agency Director Ana Pagan on Friday acknowledged the process can cause some confusion but said the agency didn’t hire workers only for the call center. The agency recruits people for the family services representative position all year long.

“We interviewed for eligibility workers that can work in either the HSA building or the call center,” Pagan said. “Some of those people may end up at the call center and some might end up at the main building.”

The agency is required to use the merit system, Pagan explained, a program that screens applicants against the minimum qualifications. The process begins when the agency opens a “recruitment” for the job, which must be posted for five days.

The last recruitment in September garnered more than 500 applications, Pagan said.

The applicants that meet the minimum requirements are given a written exam and oral exam. Once the scores are calculated, the merit system compiles a list of the top candidates and sends it to the agency.

The agency then sets up face-to-face hiring interviews from the list; this is the first time the county’s Human Services Agency staff interviews the jobs hopefuls.

Karen Joseph, staff services manager, said the agency can hire only the people ranked in the top 10 of the list.

“We always have to hire within that top 10,” Joseph said. “If we have one position, we have 10 people to select from. We can hire off that same list multiple times; the list is typically good for a year.”

Two recruitments were done this year for family services representatives, Joseph said, but those candidates weren’t considered just for the 42 openings at the call center. “The hiring was not specific to any one location,” she said.

Since the agency was hiring for other vacancies, some of those workers were trained and sent to work at the call center. Then the agency backfilled open positions, like a revolving door.

“If we didn’t have the call center, we would have been doing the recruitments anyway,” Joseph said. “The last two recruitments that we did, we told everyone we interviewed that there was a possibility to work at the call center.”

Overall, the agency now has 30 openings for family services representatives. During the last recruitment, 70 people were invited for face-to-face interviews over five days.

Of the 42 openings, Joseph said, 26 positions have been filled. Another recruitment won’t be held until next year because the agency still has applicants on the most recent list.

Pagan said the positions are not just call center jobs. They require knowledge of all family services programs and six months of training.

“It’s hard work; not everyone is suited for it. You have to be incredibly organized and detail-oriented,” Pagan said, adding that there’s a high dropout rate. “We looked for certain characteristics in all of our people.”

Sun-Star staff writer Ramona Giwargis can be reached at (209) 385-2477 or rgiwargis@mercedsunstar.com.

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