IRS gives home-based jobs to disabled

IRS breaks barriers to provide home-based jobs for disabled workers

For once, the IRS is the hero of a story. If you dial 1-800-TAXFORM this tax season, your call won't go to a centralized IRS call center. Instead, your request will be handled by a disabled agent working at home.

In the first project of its kind, the IRS has partnered with the National Telecommuting Institute (NTI ) and the Colorado virtual call center outsourcer Alpine Access to employ more than 280 home workers, more than 200 of whom are disabled.

For most, this is the first job they've held in years. People like Peter Catanese, 45, who at age 15 was hit by a car and has since endured more than 60 operations. And like Edward Grabowski, 56, whose severe diabetes has resulted in extended hospital stays, operations, kidney failure and six months in bed at a stretch.

Of the 1.2 million disabled workers in the U.S., about 12% could handle a job if it meant working at home, says M.J. Willard, director of NTI - a not-for-profit organization that works with state, vocational and rehabilitation agencies to train and employ disabled people for home-based jobs.

Funded by an annual grant of $238,000 from the Department of Education's Partnership with Industry Program, NTI has put people to work by indexing and transcribing medical records; performing phone-based work verifying insurance information for hospital admission and billing; and placing appointment reminder calls. However, the call center industry, with its high turnover and poor performance, always has showed the most promise.

"Since 1992, we've been following the predictions that the call center world would go virtual. It was always 'in the next five years,' over and over," Willard says. "Now I think it's finally going to take off." Today, NTI focuses 90% on call centers, 8% on medical transcription and 2% on other areas.

NTI and Alpine Access jointly handled the hiring process, which was done entirely online. NTI screened the initial 2,000 candidates, then Alpine screened them for voice quality and technical competency. The new hires then were trained on a hybrid system using NTI's high-end conferencing system and Alpine Access' trainers and Web-based materials. When they log on, Grabowski and Catanese function exactly as do other Alpine Access agents.

Both workers walk with canes and struggle to lead productive lives. In the past, Catanese was a sportscaster then an entrepreneur; Grabowski, a restaurant manager then security guard at an Atlantic City casino - until their conditions made work outside the house impossible. They are exceedingly grateful to be working again.

"This is a super program," Grabowski says. "It's customer service, which I always enjoyed. And a refreshing change of pace. Otherwise - what would I be doing?"

"Every day of the last 30 years I've been trying to live my life like I don't have a disability," says Catanese, who works about 16 hours a week, in short shifts. "If it was raining out, I couldn't go to work. And if I had to sit at a desk for 40 hours a week, I couldn't do it. Working all those years put a heavy toll on my body. Eventually, I just couldn't stand up."

As in any good partnership, all parties benefit. The IRS, which declined comment for this story, gets a flexible pool of nationwide workers who can handle peaks in call volume much easier than those working in a bricks-and-mortar call center. NTI and Alpine Access each win their first big government contract, with more presumably to follow. The federal government's Javits-Wagner O'Day (JWOD ) program mandates that government work that can be redesigned so it can be performed by people with disabilities must be. JWOD made it easier for NTI to win the five-year IRS contract by letting it bypass many of the barriers to doing business with the government.

This, in turn, made NTI more attractive to Alpine Access, as a way to get its foot in the government's door. Until this year, it has served mostly small companies. But now, in addition the IRS, Alpine has announced Office Depot and a large financial services firm as new clients. Alpine also gets a tax credit of $2,444 for each disabled worker it employs.

In a complex arrangement, the disabled workers technically are employed by NTI. NTI serves as contractor to the IRS, with Alpine Access serving as sub-contractor. To date, NTI is a registered employer in 42 states, which also makes it attractive to other outsourcers that want to extend their reach without registering as an employer in each state.

Willard also credits the advent of flat-rate, long-distance calling plans for making her nationwide workforce attractive. Before flat-rate calling, call center outsourcers tended to keep their agent pools close to the service provider's network, so as to avoid the $2.40 per hour, per call, in long-distance charges. But with flat-rate calling, that barrier is removed. Willard's employees make only two or three calls per day, dialing in for each shift then staying connected for its entirety, three or four hours. "As long as it's legal, we hope it'll tide us over until VoIP comes along," she says.

Virtual vaults

New research from Booz Allen Hamilton finds nearly 20% of U.S. companies use home-based call center agents, although only in a limited way. It also found:
More than 80% of current adopters are satisfied with the home-based model.
22% of non-adopters plan to use home-based agents within two years.
27% of non-adopters would consider outsourcing to providers with home-based agents.

Grabowski puts in about 15 hours per week. He logs on to the Alpine Access ACD system and from there, signs up for the hours he is available - working typically in two-hours on/two-hours off increments. He runs through independent training exercises, accesses reference materials and attends live online training sessions with Alpine Access trainers. When he's on duty, he logs on using a hard phone and a soft phone, and is supported by a supervisor who fields tough questions via a chat room.

"When it's not very busy, at 7 a.m. Eastern time, we have a little fun in the chat room," Grabowski says. "Someone will say, 'Who brought the doughnuts?' or 'I'll put on a fresh pot of coffee.' "

People on disability can earn up to $830 per month without affecting their monthly benefits. "For me, the money makes a huge difference in everything," Catanese says.

The program's launch was a bit bumpy. Initially scheduled to begin nearly a year ago, some last-minute red tape and regulations resulted in a seven-month delay. And this tax season, NTI employees are supplemented by Alpine Access' call center staff because the process of registering employees to work for the IRS is extensive. In addition to full background checks, each NTI employee was required to be fingerprinted at a police station that still used real ink rather than electronic scanning. This meant many of the disabled workers had to arrange transportation to police stations as far as an hour's drive away.

Nevertheless, the program, which launched last September, is running smoothly, Willard says. When tax season ends, some of NTI's workers will continue to answer the 1-800-TAXFORMS number. Alpine Access plans to employ others to serve different clients until tax season ramps up again next January.

NTI has launched two other small pilots with the federal government, with the Department of Labor, and Centers for Medicaid and Medicare (CMM ) Services. Of CMM's 3,000 onsite call center agents, only two are disabled home workers. At the Labor Department, three of its 100 agents are. However, Willard says the Labor Department promises to employ disabled workers in all new jobs (created through attrition and growth) moving forward.

"The most important thing about this job? At 45 years old, I've made my mother proud," Catanese says. "To finally see me doing something that actually works, she's a happy person right now."

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