New Mexico Department of Workforce Solutions is a trailblazer

New Mexico Department of Workforce Solutions is a trailblazer in scaling the mission to handle the unprecedented call volume brought on by COVID-19.

 

“We realize, that there are a lot of challenges ahead, and we as a team are working very hard to meet those,” said Sue Anne Athens, CIO State of New Mexico’s Department of Workforce Solutions. “The team is committed to the public service we provide our citizens who, in this small state, are our family and friends.” 

New Mexico Department of Workforce Solutions (NMDWS) works to educate, empower, and employ residents statewide to improve employment rates, reduce poverty rates, enhance services for employers, and ensure fair labor practices and protections for the (citizens of) New Mexico. This includes running efforts such as- business outreach and support, facilitating delivery and disbursement of federal services,  and —with the current onset of COVID-19 — managing the surge in the state’s unemployment insurance program. 

“Our work has changed significantly in light of this crisis,” Athens continued. “The increase in the unemployment claims combined with the expansion in pandemic-specific financial relief programs offered by the federal government hit the state within a matter of weeks. The team found itself receiving as many as 900,000 calls in just one day — a huge jump compared our average of 4,000 calls a week.”

 

A call-center ringing off the hook.

The country’s unemployment rate has skyrocketed in light of COVID-19, forcing teams like Athens’ to find a way to expand call center capacity overnight in an effort to keep up with the demands for help in the face of widespread unemployment. The Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis estimates that 47% of Americans who can work are currently unemployed,[1] and the U.S. Department of Labor estimates that unemployment benefits claims filed by citizens seeking immediate relief and services-have reached almost 47 million in the a period of 14 weeks alone.[2] In New Mexico specifically, NMDWS estimates that as of August 2020 nearly 103,000 people were unemployed, resulting in an unemployment rate of 11.5% statewide.[3]

And the emotions that are behind this intensify each and every conversation. Many face uncertainty about when they will return to work — if they will be able to return to the same job at all — as shelter-in-place protocols are ever-changing. In addition, the magnitude of this pandemic has forced many people out of work, indefinitely, for the first time, leaving them to navigate an entirely new process. When someone does finally reach a call center agent, after waiting in a in queue or dialing in 100’s of times, more often than not this all comes pouring out. 

“When COVID-19 hit, we only had 100 active call center agents,” said Athens. “We assigned all of our staff to working the phones. We borrowed employees from other state agencies that suddenly found themselves on a pause (like tourism) to try and mitigate burnout from all the long hours. We hired temporary agents, and we increased our call-center capacity to over 300 agents in fewer than two weeks. Despite all of this, we still couldn't answer every question.” The team had people and process in place to manage the effects of this crisis — and now needed a technological platform to support it.

 

More More Resilient, Together: How Today’s Recovery Efforts Prepare Us for Tomorrow’s Wellbeing

Sue Anne Athens shared more perspective on the ways she and the NM DWS team are supporting New Mexico’s residents through  the COVID-19 crisis in Episode 2 of our Global Government Summit.

New Mexico scales to meet an unexpected spike in volume.

 

Athens and her team took their contact center platform — which was launched on Salesforce Service Cloud a few years prior — and layered on Chat and along with an Einstein chatbot solution that takes down basic information, suggest self-help resources, categorize questions so that they can be tagged and routed for follow up, and more.

The team named its bot Olivia and integrated it across NMDWS’ customer service channels. One week later, Olivia was answering standard unemployment questions, offering up information on the new Pandemic Unemployment Assistance program, and reducing the number of calls overall.

Employees have been able to work remote, allowing Athens to fully empower both full time and borrowed staff from anywhere, at anytime, eliminating potential COVID-19 exposures. “We are keeping our workforce home, healthy, and productive,” said Athens. “Being user-centric in our solutions while also addressing the immediate needs of our customers was paramount.”

New levels of efficiency are unlocked while solving for the people and the process

In the first few days, Olivia managed over 65,000 chat conversations, and is now averaging 7,500 chat conversations per day. Following the success of Olivia, Athens and team launched a sister bot, Dorothy V, to help with technical support and agent interaction (think: I forgot my password can you help? I can’t log in). Dorothy V has managed over 100,000 interactions, proving the strategy’s success for the second time around.  Dorothy V also provided the ability for citizens to get transferred to a live agent for technical support.

The additional scale and capacity brought on by Olivia and Dorothy V. has enabled Athens and team to continue to manage the workloads and begin the process of returning borrowed staff to their respective departments, and focus more time and energy on delivering the kind of details, personalized customer experience any service needs — let alone one focused on such an emotional journey. To date, Athens, her team, and her chat bots have processed unemployment insurance applications for over 180,000 New Mexicans, and are continue to manage this workload on a weekly basis.  In total the Agency has distributed over $1.5 billion dollars in benefits.. 

“By focusing on the people at hand, the processes involved, and the technology supporting both, New Mexico was able to meet the unprecedented demands on the mission,” said Athens. “We were able to rise to the occasion and support citizens though the pandemic.“

 

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