Heading into the busiest time of year for Washington’s unemployment-claims call center, the Employment Security Department has added a telephone service that gives customers the option of being called back instead of waiting on hold, without losing their place in line.
Some airlines, utility providers and other businesses have been using this queuing technology – called virtual hold – for some time now. Employment Security Commissioner Karen Lee says the technology is a perfect fit for Washington’s unemployment claims line, which at times during this recession has been flooded with hundreds of thousands of calls each week.
“No one likes to wait in line,” said Lee. “Virtual hold allows people to go about their lives, and maybe even fill out a job application, while they wait to be called back.”
How virtual hold works
An unemployed worker calls the unemployment telecenter to file a claim. If the wait time is more than a few minutes, the phone system informs the caller about the approximate wait time, asks if the caller would like to be called back, requests the caller’s name and phone number, and provides an estimate of when the call will be returned.
As the caller approaches the top of the queue, the call-back is made. If there’s no answer, the phone system will make several additional attempts to reach the caller.
Despite more than doubling the number of intake agents since the recession began and recently extending call hours, wait times are increasing due to the recent federal extension of benefits, continuing high unemployment and the typical winter peak. The average phone wait time in November was about 13 minutes. The call centers are busiest in the winter months, when industries such as construction and agriculture are in their off-season.
In addition to the growing call-center workload, Employment Security’s Web-based claims system and automated phone line also have been overwhelmed at times as some 250,000 people attempt to file their weekly claims beginning at midnight every Sunday. Employment Security has added phone capacity and is in the process of adding Web capacity to improve customer satisfaction.
Even with virtual hold, the call-center phone lines may be overloaded at times and unemployment-insurance claimants will be asked to call again later.
To avoid the longest wait times, people should call later in the week. For new applications, Thursday and Friday mornings are the least busy times in the call centers. The best time to file weekly claims via the automated phone system is Tuesday through Thursday after 5 p.m.
In addition to saving time and cell-phone minutes for unemployment-insurance claimants, Employment Security itself expects to save money by reducing the amount of time customers are using the phone system. The department is charged for every minute a caller is on the line – whether on hold or talking to an agent.