CONCORD -- Earlier this year, Contra Costa County won the right to run a health care call center, where workers will answer questions to help implement the president's Affordable Care Act. Area politicians called the 200-plus jobs it would bring to the region an economic coup.
Now, with two months to go before the Concord operation opens to serve the public, information has surfaced that about half the jobs are part-time, with no health benefits -- a stinging disappointment to workers and local politicians who believed the positions would be full-time.
The Contra Costa County supervisor whose district includes the call center called the whole hiring process -- which attracted about 7,000 applicants -- a "comedy of errors."
"The battle for the call center was over jobs with good working wages and benefits; I never dreamed they would be part-time," said Karen Mitchoff, who has heard from complaining constituents and expressed her "extreme displeasure with how it was handled" to call center supervisors.
One recent hire, who last week learned the job would be part-time, said the new "intermittent" employees feel like they've been used as a political tool, and many now regret applying for the positions.
"What's really ironic is working for a call center and trying to help people get health care, but we can't afford it ourselves," said the worker, who asked for anonymity out of fear of losing the job. The county says it had been telling the public and supervisors all along that some positions would be full-time and some part-time. However, portions of staff reports list all 204 jobs as full-time, and a job posting said the same.
It's the latest controversy involving the call center, one of three created statewide to help citizens enroll in various new health care options under President Obama's Affordable Care Act when it goes live at the start of next year.
Contra Costa was selected early on by the state to run the call center, but the deal mandated the county run the operation itself, with state funding, or lose it to another county. Once Contra Costa secured the call center, Concord and Richmond battled for the right to host it. Unions nearly derailed the project before some last-minute wrangling to ensure workers weren't transferred needlessly and would receive appropriate benefits.
The state budget allows for 180 customer service agents, half of them part-time, when the call center opens Oct. 1, said Contra Costa Deputy County Administrator Theresa Speiker. The full-time employees, she said, will handle the core 40-hour work week, while the part-timers will handle the extended hours. For the first three months, the call center at 2500 Bates Ave., off Highway 4 and Port Chicago Highway, will be open 72 hours a week. After that, it drops to 59 hours a week.
"In open session and in (staff reports) we've been pretty clear that not all will be full-time jobs," Speiker said.
Speiker said the 7,000 applications were "totally outside what we anticipated with the demand for these jobs. We were blown away."
The new hires, many of whom left other full-time jobs for the call center positions, were told they were the "cream of the crop," the recent hire said.
Orientation and training started in July, but stopped on the afternoon of July 18, when employees were told they would have private meetings about their positions, the employee said.
"It reminded me of that George Clooney movie where he goes around the country firing people ('Up in the Air')," the employee said. "The woman said, 'I know you were led to believe you would be full time, but things have changed. ... You are actually 'part-time intermittent.'"
The worker said no clear reasons for the change were given.
Those who became part-time were told they would have to pay full freight on their health plans, ranging from $600 to $1,200 a month for a single worker and between $1,400 to $2,900 a month for an employee with a family. That is a steep bill for employees with part-time jobs paying from $15.33 to $18.63 an hour.
Another applicant said he ditched another job offer after getting a congratulatory hiring letter from call center operators in June, only to be given the runaround in the months since.
During negotiations months ago, Service Employees International Union Local 1021, which represents the customer service agents, demanded 80 percent of health insurance premiums be paid by the county, and 20 percent be paid by the employee. SEIU did not return a call for comment.
"It is very disappointing. I was under the impression these were going to be well-paying, well-compensated positions," said County Supervisor Mary Piepho. "We were really hopeful these would be jobs meeting the unemployment needs in our county and offer them the ability to make a living and support their families."
Contact Matthias Gafni at 925-952-5026. Follow him at Twitter.com/mgafni.