News : Fired VA Employees Question Time Limits on Veteran Calls
San Diego Nov 13, 2014 -- They risk their lives for the freedom many of us take for granted. They face bullets, rockets, improvised explosive devices, and most of them do it without ever hearing a "thank you."
But, are our veterans, men and women who stare down death, worth 10 minutes of our time?
Some former employees of the Veterans Administration’s benefits call center in Phoenix say they lost their jobs for giving vets too much of their time.
"It's a disgrace, a total disgrace," said the former employee who first brought the issue to the attention of ABC15 and Team10 investigators.
There are seven VA call centers across the U.S. When veterans in San Diego call the 800 number, they will often be transferred to the Phoenix call center.
He and another former employee did not want their identities revealed. They said the VA will not like what they have to say.
Both feared talking publicly could hurt their chances of landing another job.
Until recently, both worked answering calls from veterans and their families who had questions about benefits. Both men were also recently let go.
They claim it had nothing to do with the service they gave veterans. In fact, both said they never had a complaint. They said the problem was they gave the veterans too much of their time.
"Everyone in the call center has a specific time which they have to meet," one of the former employees said.
The investigators obtained copies of the VA’s policy on call times at the center.
The documents, which you can read for yourself, spell out the specific amount of time call center employees are supposed to spend on the phone with veterans or their families.
Those times range from nine minutes and 30 seconds for new employees to eight minutes and 30 seconds for employees with more experience.
Certain calls, specifically those about pensions, were allowed some extra time.
The former call center employees say the times just are not enough to help all the veterans who call.
They said the times were not generous. "You hit that time, or you'll be penalized for it," one said.
In fact, both men said they were eventually fired for spending too much time helping veterans who reached out to the call center.
"They will release you if you don't meet the standard," they said.
Terry Ybay also worked at the Phoenix VA call center, averaging just over 12 minutes a phone call with veterans or their families who called.
He says the two-and-a-half minutes he averaged over the VA standard eventually earned him his walking papers.
He decided to speak out after hearing the frustration of the men and women who called. "You hear somebody say, tell you, 'I served my country and this is what I get?’" he said.
In all, ABC15 and Team10 investigators spoke with four former employees of the Phoenix call center.
All of them said the same thing, claiming that while the VA touts "world-class customer service," its policy speaks louder than words.
"You just want to get the veteran or the veteran's family member off the phone as quick as you can," Ybay said. "Answer their questions, just get them off the phone and pick up the next caller."
The former employees said that often meant withholding information veterans could have benefited from.
One of the workers who wanted to remain anonymous said, "The policy is, if they don't ask, you don't bring it up."
Another worker said the policy "did the veteran an incredible disservice."
The VA would not sit down for an interview with the ABC15 and Team10 investigators, but did issue a written response to some questions.
Only two veterans were terminated from the Phoenix call center for reasons related to call time standards, according to the VA.
The VA denied the claim that extra information is withheld from veterans. In fact, a VA spokesperson said call center employees are provided with a script that ends with the question, "Is there anything else I can assist you with today?"
That question is meant to ensure they have provided every opportunity for the caller to ask additional questions, according to a spokesperson.
The VA also defended the call time policy, saying, "Timeliness of Client Contact Management is a performance element in place to ensure VA is effectively serving the many Veterans, Survivors and others calling about benefits."
But, the former call center employees say they were pressured to get vets off the phone, adding some workers were even given bonuses for getting through calls quickly.
"You listen to them on the phone and you think, I would never want my mother or father treated like that on the phone," one former employee said. "These individuals get 80 calls a day, and they're able to do that because they have to cut the veteran off."
The employees also say it was not just veterans who were rushed off the phone. They often fielded calls from widows or surviving family members of veterans who passed away.
"In order to effectively do your job properly within their parameters…you'd have to cut that widow off," they said.
All of the workers Team10 spoke to are veterans themselves. They said saving their jobs would have cost them their dignity.
"For myself, I'm embarrassed to be part of that system. I'm ashamed," one said. "I apologize to any veteran out there who didn't get the help they deserved. I am hoping in the future that they will."
A VA spokesperson told Team10, "We are pleased to provide a team of employees dedicated to responding to the questions Veterans, Survivors and other have about VA benefits," adding that their calls centers achieve high caller satisfaction scores from J.D. Power and Associates.
Posted by Veronica Silva Cusi, news correspondent
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More Editorial From Department Of Veterans Affairs
About Department Of Veterans Affairs:
The United States Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) is a government-run military veteran benefit system with Cabinet-level status. It is the United States government’s second largest department, after the United States Department of Defense. With a total 2009 budget of about $87.6 billion, VA employs nearly 280,000 people at hundreds of Veterans Affairs medical facilities, clinics, and benefits offices and is responsible for administering programs of veterans’ benefits for veterans, their families, and survivors. In 2012, the proposed budget for Veterans Affairs was $132 billion. The VA 2014 Budget request for 2014 is $152.7 billion. This includes $66.5 billion in discretionary resources and $86.1 billion in mandatory funding. The discretionary budget request represents an increase of $2.7 billion, or 4.3 percent, over the 2013 enacted level.
Published: Monday, November 17, 2014