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For Immediate Release: April 24, 2020

DCF Response to Senator Janet Cruz’s Letter Regarding ESS Customer Call Center Performance

Thank you for your letter regarding the Department of Children and Families' efforts to support Florida’s vulnerable populations during the COVID-19 pandemic. I assure you, our commitment to these families is stronger than ever and the DCF team is working earnestly to connect the people of Florida with the resources and support they so critically need.

Let me begin by saying that significant financial and administrative relief has already been deployed to individual Floridians, with more to come. At Governor DeSantis’ direction, DCF has already taken the following actions to ensure Floridians get the help they need.

  • We released maximum benefit allotments for Florida’s nearly 3M current SNAP customers who were not authorized at that level (roughly two-thirds of the SNAP households saw an increase). March maximum benefits have already been distributed. Likewise, April’s maximum benefits have been distributed according to schedule.
  • We waived work requirements for the SNAP and cash assistance programs for March and April. 
  • We approved recertification extensions for over 600,000 Floridians on SNAP, Medicaid and TANF. This means that individuals scheduled to recertify in April or May will not have to worry about that process for the next six months and ensures the continuity of benefits during this public health emergency.
  • We allowed SNAP customers to use their EBT cards to purchase groceries online from major retailers. Florida is participating in the USDA’s Online Grocery Purchasing Pilot program. The program started April 16, in two pilot locations; Tallahassee with Walmart and Tampa with Amazon, then was implemented successfully statewide on April 21, 2020.
  • We are actively working to finalize a federal state plan in conjunction with the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services to initiate Pandemic-EBT payments to families that lost the benefit of free and reduced lunches for their children when schools were closed.

Your letter raised specific concerns about our “readiness to handle the influx of new applications.” That is a fair concern that I address below.

Are Floridians able to apply for benefits?

ACCESS houses a universal application for SNAP, Medicaid and TANF (CHIP and WIC are handled by other agencies). This application is available online at https://www.myflorida.com/accessflorida/ 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. You can also apply with a paper application or over the phone. Over 90 percent of Floridians choose to apply online rather than use the paper or phone application process.

Ability to apply online

The ACCESS system has not experienced any performance issues that affect applicants. As you surmised, there was a significant increase in system transactions (typically around 15 million per day, now up to approximately 24 million), but we were prepared.

Emergency capacity was purchased during a previous hurricane season enabling the system to handle the increased load with some capacity to spare. Since the onset of COVID-19, we added an additional 20% capacity systemwide (mainframe, servers, etc.) and are currently working to add more capacity as we staff up to process these applications.

Ability to apply using paper

The ability to apply using a paper application is also unimpeded. DCF closed its storefront locations on March 18. We installed lock boxes and provided paper applications outside of our storefront and lobby locations so applications can be both picked up and dropped off at any time. We collect these applications multiple times per day and key them in using our regional staff. Note that we also mail paper applications directly to applicants if needed.

Ability to apply by phone

Call volume has grown exponentially since the public health emergency declaration. The week ending March 6 we received 280,000 calls. By the week ending April 3 that had more than doubled. As you can imagine, call center performance was negatively impacted.

In response, DCF has developed a plan to meet or exceed “blue-sky” call center performance levels by the end of April. Key activities underway include:

  • Increasing call center agents from 300 to 1,000 by April 27. The additional agents have been identified and are in the process of being trained (200 were hired from an external vendor). There are more than  700 agents taking calls.
  • Added additional call center hours and workdays. Agents are now available from 7 a.m. – 6 p.m., Monday through Friday, 8 a.m. – noon on Saturdays, and 1 p.m. – 5 p.m. on Sundays.
  • Two of the top reasons for calling are checking application status and how to apply. Most callers are not intending to apply by phone and could be better served online or through enhanced Interactive Voice Response (IVR) capability. There should be no need to talk to an agent for these types of calls. Reducing these types of calls would have the biggest, fastest, impact on wait times.
  • Using more aggressive messaging techniques to inform participants about how to get information on their case without having to wait. For instance, we are sending customized text messages to participants regarding benefit information and key events. We are also being more deliberate with our social media and email content.
  • To better serve those applying online and keep them from having to call, DCF deployed a chatbot feature to help clients troubleshoot and answer questions.

Ability to apply using community partners

The agency uses a network of local community partners to help Floridians navigate our system to fill out applications for benefits. I’m pleased to inform you, that two-thirds of the community partner network are still open and serving customers. Furthermore, we continue to hold regularly scheduled calls to ensure strong communication and provided resource guides and a FAQ document. 

How long will Floridians wait for assistance?

DCF received a significant increase in new applications over the last month. For the week ending March 6, we received nearly 60,000 applications and by the week ending April 3, that number was approximately 200,000. The net effect was that time to payment moved from an average of 8 days to 14 days. Florida is usually one of the fastest states to payment in the United States, as the federal standard is 30 days.

Similar to the call center, a “blue-sky” plan was created to best or meet pre-pandemic processing performance by the end of April. Key activities underway include:

  • Increasing the number of DCF eligibility specialists from 1,700 to 2,400 by the end of April. The majority of these staff are existing DCF employees who have been redeployed for this mission. There are already 2,200 DCF employees deployed to this effort.
  • Early on, the Governor enabled me to reduce administrative burdens on Floridians. We have instituted a series of 15 policy initiatives to ease the work required by applicants and improve DCF’s daily output. These policy changes range from prioritizing or suspending back end processes to providing greater flexibility for clients to provide documentation or information needed to process their benefits. For instance, the example you cited, most applicants will not need to interview with one of our staff during the pandemic.
  • To achieve our goal, in combination with the activities listed above, we must increase our output to 16 processed applications per day, per employee. We have already achieved a level of 15 per day, up significantly over normal processing.

Outlook

Senator, data suggests we reached peak volume levels the week ending April 10 and demand is starting to subside. The number of calls into the call center and new applications has been trending below peak levels for nearly two weeks. I also believe strongly that the operational “blue-sky” plan is having an effect. Already, the call center has been trending towards pre-COVID performance and the average time to payment is ranging between 10 to 14 days.

Again, I appreciate your concerns and advocacy for Florida families. My ask of you and your team is to help provide clear information on the best way for clients to access their benefit information. We have asked several members of the Legislature to share with their constituents that the fastest way to check the status of their benefits, report changes, receive information faster by electronic notifications, and upload documents 24 hours a day, 7 days a week is by logging into their MyACCESS account here: https://www.myflorida.com/accessflorida/.

If you would like to schedule a meeting or have regular updates sent to you, please let me know.

See Senator Cruz’s Letter

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