CONCORD -- Part-time Affordable Care Act call center employees who felt bamboozled in the expedited hiring process will remain without health benefits as the county, labor and elected officials sort through what went wrong in a story that has garnered nationwide attention.
Contra Costa's Employment and Human Services director, who oversaw the creation of the Concord call center, released a report Thursday detailing what led to the benefits controversy, acknowledging some mistakes, but calling it an overall success.
"Given the breadth and extent of the call center recruitment; the enormous interest and response of applicants; the short time frame by which to test, interview, select, conduct background checks, and make employment offers and hire individuals by July 10," Kathy Gallagher wrote, "the hiring process for the call center was very successful and relatively few complaints were received."
Meanwhile, many employees are still fuming over the experience, and union lawyers are investigating the hiring process, which included job listings announcing the positions as full time. Instead, many newly hired workers found out their jobs were part time, and that they would not be receive health benefits.
It was the latest speed bump for the call center, one of three in California but the only one not operated by the state. Even after Contra Costa secured the call center, Concord and Richmond battled for the right to host it and later labor threatened to bag the project without promises.
The call center is supposed to have a soft opening this month, begin fielding Obamacare calls Oct. 1, and enroll citizens Jan. 1.
With more than 7,000 applicants, the county was overwhelmed with the response, particularly because it also had to deal with moving deadlines from the state, Gallagher said in her report. The 152 customer service agents were hired "in spite of false starts, missteps and schedule changes by the state that are inherent in and expected as part of a new national initiative of this size and magnitude." She said the state's two other call centers have had troubles hiring employees on time.
A 52-year-old Brentwood woman who found out late in the process she would be part time was so fed up she resigned days later.
"It was very disappointing and they manipulated us and it's kind of maddening," she said, declining to give her name out of fear she could not get a future county job.
Many of the call center employees overcame long periods of unemployment or underemployment, she said, and cried when they were suddenly told they would be part time. She did the math and realized rather than paying $600 a month for health insurance as a call center part-time employee, she would return to her bookkeeping and accounting job from home and enroll in Obamacare for $243 a month.
"I'm going to be one of those people calling them once the call center opens," she said.
Contra Costa likely landed the call center because of its bid, which included 90 full-time customer service agents and 90 part time, to keep costs down and to provide flexibility during extended hours and as the center determined demand.
"In order to make it work, we needed that," said county Supervisor Karen Mitchoff, who represents the call center's district.
There are 42 part-timers left, Mitchoff said. Despite staff reports alerting supervisors and the public of the 90-90 split, the supervisor said she expected them to all have benefits.
"We were talking about this being good jobs and that's why we want them coming to the county," Mitchoff said.
One part-time employee, who did not want to be named for fear of losing the job, left a full-time position to take what many thought was a more secure call center position.
"This thing has been a nightmare," the employee said, adding that human resources officials came to the call center Thursday and apologized for how the process has gone.
Anna Bakalis, a spokeswoman for Service Employees International Union Local 1021, said the union was "pressured to say yes to the 50-50" split of full-time and part-time positions. As the county tried to secure the contract, the union that represents the call takers was told that fighting the ratio could derail the project, she said.
"The jobs had been championed as full time the whole time," Bakalis said.
She said the situation at the new call center follows a government employment trend of "part-timeization," where formerly full-time jobs are now part time so agencies do not have to offer health benefits and pensions.
Supervisors will discuss the report Tuesday at their 9 a.m. meeting.
"There was no intent to hire people with no benefits whose job it was to get people benefits," Mitchoff said.
That irony has drawn nationwide attention. Comedy Central's "The Daily Show," which is known to lampoon government, has started sniffing around. And Mitchoff has turned down an interview with Fox News.
"I was concerned they were going to use this story to criticize the Affordable Care Act," she said.
Contact Matthias Gafni at 925-952-5026. Follow him at Twitter.com/mgafni.
7,457: Applications received for call center positions
6: Civil service examinations administered
1,947: Passed exam
721: Indicated interest in part-time or intermittent work
600: Interviews conducted for customer service agent positions
152: Customer service agents hired