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The Department of Health and Human Services told employees it would close the Wilton call center and transfer employees to its Lewiston office. The Franklin County Legislative Delegation is unhappy with the decision and concerned about its impact on the call center’s 45 employees and the local economy. Kay Neufeld/Franklin Journal

WILTON — Strengthening Maine’s rural and local economies has been central to Governor Janet Mills’ overall agenda.

But the Franklin County legislative delegation is concerned that the Maine Department of Health and Human Services did not get the message.

On Jan. 14, the Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS) told employees it would close its Wilton call center and transfer them to the DHHS office in Lewiston in April, according to a letter acquired by The Sun. Newspaper.

About 45 area employees are at risk of being affected by the move (and potentially losing their jobs) as they make the long and costly journey to Lewiston.

The local delegation, which says DHHS did not notify them of the move, is concerned about the impacts the transfer could have on employees and the local economy.

The DHHS Wilton call center opened in May 2019. Locals were excited about the opening after the 2019 closure of call center Barclays, Wilton’s ‘largest employer’, which laid off 227 employees.

Although the call center was designed to be temporary, DHHS hired the Wilton workers as permanent employees in March 2020.

Wilton’s call center responds to inquiries for eligibility for DHHS programs including MaineCare, the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, and Temporary Assistance for Needy Families. For a time, employees also participated in COVID-19 contact tracing.

The call center, on U.S. Route 2 and State Route 4, shares a building with the CareerCenter owned by Randal Cousineau.

The call center lease in this building is now ending and DHHS has chosen not to renew it because “the current site is inadequate for them,” Maine DHHS Commissioner Jeanne Lambew told a briefing. from Maine CDC on Wednesday.

Lambew said it was a ‘very crowded establishment’ with ‘one bathroom for a lot of people’.

DHHS communications director Jackie Farwell added in a statement that there were additional issues with the facility, such as icy parking lots and faulty heating and air conditioning that Cousineau failed to address in a meaningful way. “consistent or timely”.

The Franklin County Legislative Delegation – State Sen. Russell Black, R-Franklin, Rep. Randall Hall, R-Wilton, and Rep. Scott Landry, D-Farmington, find the reasons for moving the office to Lewiston questionable.

The same goes for Tina Driscoll, a call center customer service representative, who said there are two men’s and women’s two-cabin bathrooms shared with the Career Center in a hallway that connects the two facilities. She said she had never heard complaints about overcrowding before, especially in the wake of the pandemic when only about 15 staff are in the office at a time.

Farwell said DHHS reviewed a number of facilities in the Franklin County area, but none were appropriate.

However, Senator Black does not “believe that the Department of Social Services did their due diligence to check what was available in this area”.

The three politicians questioned why the call center could not move to Barclays’ former call center office, which is currently unoccupied.

Farwell wrote that they chose not to use Barclays’ offices because “this facility is designed for a workforce at least twice the size of Wilton’s call center”.

But the owner of the building, Travis Gray, said he would be willing to negotiate with DHHS – offer them the space they need to operate the facility at a reasonable price.

However, DHHS did not contact Gray, nor his maintenance manager, he said.

Landry suspects DHHS isn’t giving its reasons and wants to “consolidate” the two offices.

Black thinks DHHS doesn’t want to pay leases and prefers to use the larger facility in Lewiston, where there is a “larger labor pool.”

“It’s about reducing employee costs,” he said.

DHHS says “staff who are already successfully telecommuting may continue to do so, for now.”

However, Driscoll said working remotely was not a viable option for her or a number of call center employees. Employees who cannot work remotely due to unreliable countywide broadband access and who have non-confidential workspaces (a necessity for work) are expected to finally start moving in April.

Commute times will take two to three hours per day for employees who live in Franklin County.

Driscoll said it would also be expensive with around $16 an hour to cover transportation and extra childcare costs.

Additionally, Driscoll said call center management told employees in February meetings that they should return to the office full-time once policies permitting remote work due to the COVID pandemic. -19 would end.

Legislative Director of Mills’ administration, Tom Abello, told Wilton Selectman Tom Saviello via email that “if they telecommute, they can continue to do so.”

DHHS did not respond to questions about whether the 45-employee staff could continue to telecommute permanently.

“If that’s the case, no one has raised this with us,” Driscoll said.

Even so, DHHS telecommuting policy requires employees to be in the office twice a week.

Delegates, Saviello and Driscoll all raised concerns about potential impacts on the economy.

They’ll take their stuff, shop somewhere else — maybe closer to Lewiston, Black and Driscoll said.

The delegation finds the shutdown particularly frustrating in the face of Governor Janet Mills’ goal of supporting rural economies through various policies and funding plans.

Mills talked about the issues facing rural areas. Franklin County is particularly affected by a shortage of child care staff and a lack of broadband access, which it seeks to address in its policies.

Delegates wondered how this decision and Mills’ goals align in a situation where childcare and broadband access come into play.

Mills and Lambew “are not on the same page,” Black said.

Landry said Mills was not informed of the closure until the delegation began speaking out.

“I think it’s a little embarrassing for the governor as she … promotes growth in Franklin and rural counties, to have (DHHS) go and pull something like this without her even knowing it,” a said Landry. “There is a lack of communication somewhere.

As it stands, it’s unclear how many call center workers will be out of work, either in April or if the remote work policy ends.

Driscoll said his impression from discussions at the meetings is that most employees will be out of work if they have to travel to Lewiston.

But Black is working to save those jobs. He said he was introducing a bill in the Legislative Assembly that would end the shutdown. The Maine Service Employees Association has asked call center employees to write to their local lawmakers in support of the bill, Driscoll said.

And Landry added that the delegation hopes to meet with DHHS sometime next week to find a solution.

Driscoll is “disappointed” to have to quit her job due to the unsustainable commute. She loves this job and “helping” people in need, she said. She is nervous about losing her benefits. And, now, his plans to work in this position until his retirement in three years are abandoned.

Landry said he had heard of an employee who would lose her child care and who would have to go on state welfare if she lost her job.

“We’re all very happy with our jobs,” Driscoll said. “We work in a call center because that’s what we want to do, which most of them have been doing all their lives.”

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