My life as a Public Servant

Thursday, March 10, 2011

"I call and call and I never get through to a real person..."

During my years at the Child Development Bureau, I heard that complaint more times than I care to count. We were, you see, the people that you called in the State of New Hampshire when you either received child care assistance as a Parent through the state OR received child care payments as a Provider of child care for those parents.

We were generally not popular. We got yelled at A LOT. Occasionally threatened. Seriously Threatened. By people with backgrounds that indicated they were not afraid to carry out their threats.

Receiving assistance in the State of New Hampshire ( or ANY state)  can be like a complicated dance. There is paperwork to be filled out - correctly, or it is returned and benefits can be denied. There are verifications that have to be provided, by employers, by banks, by agencies outside of the individual - within the time limits, or the benefits can be denied. There are re-determinations visits which must be made and kept - Or benefits will be denied. As difficult as it can be to obtain benefits such as food stamps and child care assistance, it can be lost with the missing of one appointment.

Outside of my feelings regarding the inherent punitive nature of many social assistance programs ( and boy, I could go on and on...) the topic on my mind this evening is the people who answer those phones. The "overpaid" Unionized Public workers, of which I was one for nearly 5 years.

In my department, which during the years that I was with the State oversaw 24 million dollars  in child care assistance, we had three staff. Yes, we also had an Administrator. And a Financial Person who managed the money for our department within our division and also oversaw the bidding and contracts processes. We had two people, subcontracted through the training division, who were responsible for the Early Childhood Credential for the entire State ( and was part time)....And a Trainer who arranged and managed all the training for Child Care Professionals in the State.

No bloat there, I assure you. 6.5 positions for a 24 million dollar budget. But wait, there is more.

The three of us who answered phones took, on average, about 1500 phone calls per month.  We know because we logged every call, every return call, and every resolution or answer we gave parents, child care providers or anyone else we talked to day to day. We did this because the easiest complaint to make was "they never return my call" or "I can never get a real person when I call".

One phone call is not a simple yes or no answer either. Often, one phone call would kick off a flurry of emails to district office staff, coordination with the Data Management folks who were processing billing, more calls to parents or providers to clarify information or eligibility, and consultation with each other so we all knew what was going on in these cases - Just in case one of us took the next phone call we would be prepared and up to date. We did have clients who liked to play the "Well, DAWN said that I was eligible..." game and our excellent documentation was the best way to make sure that our message was consistant.

In addition, we each also had individual areas of specialty.

I handled the @1200 license-exempt child care providers. I got them enrolled, linked with clients, processed their criminal background and central registry checks for themselves and anyone over the age of 13 living in their house. If they, or other household member, failed the background check, I had to inform them of this and give them their appeal information. I had to inform the parent that their selected provider did not meet the standards for child care.

I worked with the foster care division to certify some child care providers for care for foster children. I did a lot of persuading of providers to open a space for a foster child. I promised them that their billing would go through and then I would work to make sure that the authorization was in place ( with the person who did that) so that the child care provider could receive payment. Of course, payment is much lower than the going market there was a lot of persuading.

For three years, I also helped manage the central registry for Child Abuse and Neglect. I entered names into that registry, as well as reviewed the case files to verify the appropriate people were linked in the case and the final documents were in order. I then filed those documents by finding date so we could access them in case someone applied to be a child care provider who was ON the registry. I mean, we wouldn't want people who were abusing their own children to be paid for child care by the State, would we?

I also removed people who had been on the registry for the prescribed seven years and shredded the records, per public law.

Let's just say that the amount of phone calls I have had which would shake you to the core are innumerable. People with long term, hard core drug issues, people convicted of felonies, serious domestic abuse issues, not to mention the abuse and neglect cases. Try explaining to someone who can not understand why you won't allow her to provide child care....when her own children were removed from her care and her parental rights terminated.

I did not lose my temper. I was never rude. I often had to remind clients that I would not be spoken to with such disrespect, because I was trying to help them.  Not liking my answer was not reason to scream at me. I was tolerant because I understood what stress these individuals were often living under - from paycheck to paycheck. I was not condescending or rude. I was, however, firm. I took my responsibility seriously.

My workload was not unusual, for my counterparts all had their own pieces and parts assigned to them. One worked on the web billing module with the designers to reduce the amount of paper and expedite payment. The other had assigned roles in advocacy and the revision of our rules, which had to be approved through a legislative body.

The most senior of us earned about 40,000. Of course, we also got excellent health care benefit, sick leave,  and vacation time of about one week (5 days)  for every three years we served. Most of us ended up losing time at the end of the year because we didn't take it all off. We got a pension too after a prescribed number of years of public service.

Most of us had Master's Degrees in our field.

Now, were there people in public service who were really awful at their jobs? Of course. However, no more so than what I have experienced anywhere else.  I have had some pretty terrible customer service in the private sector from people who are far more than neophytes at their job but there are assholes every where.

Did I believe that I was "safe" because I was in a Union? No, I just knew that there were rules that governed the "Hows and whys" of my job. I knew that if I ended up with a supervisor who did not personally like me that he/she could not simply dismiss me. I knew that if I got Ill with a chronic illness, then my employment was not able to be terminated at will.  I knew that if I screwed up and did something that was out of bounds that there was a procedure to follow for my discipline.

This idea that Teachers - of which I am fundamentally one - and other public servants are living some kind of  Enron-esque high life thumbing our collective noses at the Private sector is ludicrous. Most departments, and school districts, are cut to the absolute bare bones. This is why we have family case workers with caseloads of 300-400 families. This is why we have one teacher in a classroom with 30 children. This is why 5 people might be the child care licensing staff for 1200 facilities and homes.  This is why three people in my department took 1500 phone calls from parents and providers Per Month.

And, I can assure you, No teacher I have ever known...No public worker has EVER gotten a million dollar bonus at the end of the year...after they have gutted the infrastructure of the country.

Villainizing the people who are working their asses off to make sure your children are safe and educated is despicable. And I, for one, will not stand for it.

4 Baleful Regards:

yarnwhore said...

One of my best friends is non-union working for a state agency dealing with at-risk youth in a live-in facility, counseling sex offenders, mediating supervised visitation, dealing with drug addicts of every stripe, and so on. In short, she works with the people that make me wish for a panic room.

She had a gun pointed in her face by a methed-out teen and still talked him down. She had to use a vacation day to stay out of work the following day. No counseling covered; nothing. She's been injured by the kids during freak-outs. She's had to move twice because people found out where she lived. She's living in total poverty, had to take a third job to survive, and none of her medical has been covered, even when she was hurt on the job.

She is one of the people keeping you safe.

On the general union issue, if you've never seen the movie Matewan, watch it.

Anonymous said...

thank you.

Justin said...

I think the weird thing is that by breaking unions in the public sector the benefits and protection offered now seem like a really good thing to lots of people who no longer have them, but for some reason so many seem to think that taking them away from others will help them. Sometimes I wonder what the long term outlook for our species is.

Ginnysicle said...

I live in Ohio. This is an imminent reality for our public sector employees. I'm literally sick over it. I have a child in school, and one about to start, many friends who are teachers, and I work with law enforcement every single day. It boggles the mind how we can tell the people who spend more waking hours with our children than we do that "You're not worth it, you don't get a say." And don't even get me started on law enforcement. Even in my rural area, they go to work every single day knowing that they could die to keep someone safe today, but they don't deserve to negotiate decent benefits? REALLY?! Our new governor is an idiot, and unfortunately, it sounds like it's not his own special brand of idiocy, he has idiot friends in Wisconsin and elsewhere.

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