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IRS gives home-based jobs to disabled

By , Network World
February 21, 2005 12:11 AM ET

Network World - 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."

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