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Despite improved jobless numbers, Missouri looks to outsource unemployment call center

Despite improved jobless numbers, Missouri looks to outsource unemployment call center

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JEFFERSON CITY — Although Missouri’s seasonally adjusted unemployment rate has returned to pre-pandemic levels, Gov. Mike Parson’s administration is looking to continue outsourcing a call center to assist in processing jobless claims.

Under a bid proposal offered on Nov. 23, the Missouri Department of Labor and Industrial Relations is seeking a contractor to bring in as many as 150 workers to respond to calls and emails from people who are seeking the agency’s assistance.

Those duties are now being handled through a contract with California-based consulting firm Protiviti, which has been paid $18 million since it was hired for the same purpose in October 2020.

Under terms of the bid proposal, the call center stands to continue to be a busy place.

“The contractor shall understand and agree that the State of Missouri may need the contractor and each of the contractor’s call center support agents to answer a minimum of 25-30 calls per day, per support agent,” the request notes.

At times, Protiviti has had as many as 300 employees working in Missouri at the department.

According to the latest report from the Missouri Economic Research and Information Center, which researches and compiles employment numbers, unemployment in Missouri dipped one-tenth of a percent to 3.7% from September to October.

The monthly tally matches the March 2020 unemployment rate, which also was 3.7%, before the impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic increased the state’s unemployment rate to 12.5% in April 2020.

The state added more than 72,000 jobs compared to last October, including 3,500 in October 2021 in non-farm employment.

Manufacturing jobs led the way with 3,200 jobs gained last month, but year-over-year leisure and hospitality showed the largest gains, adding more than 28,000 jobs, according to MERIC.

The improved numbers haven’t lessened the pandemic’s effect on the agency.

“We are working through pending appeals items as quickly as possible, and continue to adjust staffing levels to assist with pending matters,” said Labor department spokeswoman Maura Browning.

The department has been paying Protiviti out of the state’s share of federal COVID-19 relief funds amid the “historic, unprecedented increase in unemployment claims since March 2020.”

Despite the millions of dollars paid for the outside assistance, the agency has faced harsh criticism from lawmakers and the public for attempting to recoup millions in overpayments sent out in response to the pandemic.

Parson also raised eyebrows in early November when he signaled his support for awarding unemployment benefits to people who are terminated from their jobs for not complying with a COVID-19 vaccine requirement.

Browning did not say if that policy has been implemented.

“Vaccine-related claims, like all claims, are handled on a case-by-case basis. Any denial would be processed like any other denial,” Browning said.

The governor’s suggestion came as workers at businesses with more than 100 employees face a Jan. 4 deadline to get vaccinated against COVID-19 or face mask requirements and weekly tests.

The Biden administration has been encouraging widespread vaccinations to bring an end to the pandemic, which has killed more than 15,000 Missourians.

Under Parson, consultants have collected millions of dollars to assist the state in various tasks.

In 2020, the administration paid a consultant nearly $800,000 to help design a new way to evaluate and recognize state employees. Among the tasks undertaken by Deloitte Consulting was a study of how other states offer rewards and “incentives for superior performance.”

Parson also hired a Virginia-based consulting firm to help the state respond to the pandemic.

Parson said the money paid to the McChrystal Group has helped on numerous fronts, including planning for the distribution of medicine across the state and the creation of computer models that help track the spread of the deadly disease.

The state also has had to turn to outside companies to provide workers for other state operations, which are plagued by high turnover because of low pay.

The Department of Mental Health, for example, has signed contracts with at least six temporary staffing companies to supply clinical social workers at its facilities to address worker shortages.

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