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Editorial: Don’t leave 211 callers hanging

Los Angeles County supervisors are preparing to hand over the operation and management of a key resource information service to a company that has taken on similar work for the state’s Department of Employment Development at the start of the pandemic, when business closures and layoffs were rampant – and did so poorly. Deloitte’s EDD call center has left millions of unanswered calls and hundreds of thousands of newly unemployed California workers with no connection to their missing payment information.

Deloitte’s proposal hinges on automating 211 calls. not be the right approach for a service that has historically relied on the human touch to successfully connect callers to services.

211 is a little-known hotline for people who don’t need it and an essential lifeline for many who need it – the county’s most vulnerable residents, including the elderly, the unemployed, the shelter residents and the homeless.

In LA County, 80% of the roughly 400,000 calls were from women and 85% from people of color. A quarter of all callers dialed the number each month, according to a county-commissioned study over a five-year period ending in 2017. Anecdotal but unverified evidence suggests that figure has held steady during the pandemic.

This is the number anyone in the United States and much of Canada can call when they urgently need food, addiction counseling, childcare, financial assistance , housing, and other services provided by government and non-profit organizations (the bulk of referrals are to non-government providers, not county agencies).

At the other end, in theory, are resource counselors who help explain to callers what services are available to solve their urgent problem. For example, “I just got kicked out and I have no place to sleep tonight and I don’t know where there is a shelter bed available.” Or: “Coming home from work, I met a homeless woman who didn’t know where to find a bed for the night and shelter from the rain. Can you tell me how to help her?

It’s also how the government connects people to help in the event of a disaster, such as a hurricane or an earthquake, helping victims find immediate shelter, clothing and food, or helping them when they have to evacuate their neighborhoods or towns.

Unlike 911 and the new 988, 211 operators do not send emergency responders to the field.

But neither is 211 just a departmental version of 311, which is a sort of directory assistance for city services such as garbage collection and graffiti removal.

988 may be the best emergency number for people struggling with suicidal thoughts, but a 211 operator can also connect callers who need psychiatric services. Confusing? 211, 911 and 988 callers need not worry if they press the correct buttons on the phone. Emergency numbers are linked together and callers are directed to the most useful resource.

The current operator of LA County’s 211 service is appropriately but confusingly called 211 LA. The organization is understandably unhappy at the prospect of losing the contract it has held in one form or another for the past 40 years, first as the “Info Line” before 211 went live. in California. Although company executives acknowledge that its service is far from perfect, they blame underfunding by the county. They say they provide a level of personalized care and expertise that gets those in desperate need the right resources with minimal frustration and wasted time.

Meanwhile, the county is looking for efficiencies, and Deloitte is offering an automated system that would be familiar to anyone who’s called a bank or credit card company with a billing question.

But sometimes you really need a live human voice and an experienced phone counselor to figure out what you need and what’s available, and to connect to it. As with many automated systems, it would be possible to speak to a representative, but experienced call center operators note that at this point call volumes often drop because callers are frustrated. This means lower costs for the contractor, but also potentially less service to callers.

Before finalizing LA County’s new 211 contract, county supervisors need to remember the reasons for creating 988, which began operating over the weekend. It’s not just about having an easier-to-remember suicide hotline, but about responding to those in need with a living human being trained in the special needs of those in distress.

The desperation of 211 callers may be a little less urgent, but it is urgent nonetheless. This is something council should keep in mind when making their final decision on who will answer the phone when residents in need call.