Idaho’s 2-1-1 CareLine is staffed Monday through Friday, 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. MDT, to assist Idahoans seeking resources for free or low-cost services within their community. 2-1-1 agents can assist callers by referring them to resources such as rental assistance, energy assistance, medical assistance, food and clothing, child care resources, emergency shelter, and more.
On a normal day at work answering calls on the 2-1-1 CareLine, Erika Vasquez sits at her work station in one corner of an open plan room. She is happily surrounded by the chatter of her six CareLine colleagues as they take back-to-back phone calls from Idahoans reaching out for information, resources, and services.
The calls are as varied as the services that Idahoans need from the department and beyond. Callers may be reaching out for help paying for rent, utilities, food, clothing, or other basic essentials. Callers might be fellow DHW employees, looking for phone numbers for department programs. Callers from the public are often looking for services offered by programs outside the department, such as social security or unemployment benefits.
When it comes to services and information available to Idahoans, Erika and her team know a bit about everything. And while it may seem they can help with most questions, they do have their limits. “We do get calls asking for the phone number for Burger King, but we won’t give them that. We might suggest they look for it on Google or in the phone book,” says Erika.
These phone conversations are punctuated by quick chats among the CareLine team members. Any time any of them need anything, they shout out to each other and help each other out. Perhaps they are stumped by a question. Perhaps they’ve just had a difficult conversation with a caller who was emotional and in crisis. Erika and her colleagues work together like clockwork, and support each other through every work day.
On any given day at work, Erika and her six colleagues each take around 60 to 100 calls per day. While the average call is one minute and forty seconds, calls can range from just one minute, to over 20 minutes. The team stagger their working hours to keep the CareLine open from 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. MST. This way, the line is open during business hours for all Idahoans, whether they are calling from the north, on Pacific Time, or from the south, on Mountain Time.
The CareLine team are there to provide information and resources, so their calls are a bit different than people might expect. “We don’t do case management like social workers do, so our calls are usually over pretty quickly. We are trying to work with our callers to get them the information they need,” says Erika.
In the true spirit of coronavirus-era social distancing, we are meeting for this “Day in the Life” story on the phone. But Erika’s laugh is infectious, and I can tell from her voice that she is often smiling on the other end of the line. Her voice is warm as she talks about why she does this job: “I’ve always been a helpful person. It’s just my nature to help people from all walks of life.”
A team effort – in the office and beyond
The CareLine team is based in two suites at the Stargate office in Boise, just across the road from the Westgate office. The team works in one suite, while the suite across the hall houses a conference room, a lunch area, and the Family and Community Services (FACS) library.
When call volume is lighter, the CareLine staff keep themselves busy in between calls with training and extra responsibilities. Erika’s extra tasks involve checking and returning voicemail calls and answering the emails that come into the CareLine mailbox. She trains new hires and temp staff.
The staff also manage the FACS library, which is in the suite across the hall from the CareLine team. The library houses books, DVDs, videos, and audio resources for foster families, kinship families, DHW employees, and community partners. Library membership is free and can be completed online.
Normally, one of Erika’s extra duties is to manage the clearinghouse, which is a wealth of resources the team sends out to callers and partners, such as poison prevention fliers, child abuse information, foster care information, and outreach materials for resources such as food banks. But today is not a normal day. Like so many other department employees whose work has been affected by the COVID-19 crisis, Erika is working from home. Recently set up with the Meraki system, which connects to her home internet router, she can securely receive and answer CareLine calls at home.
Erika and her support network are still there for each other – she and her co-workers frequently communicate in their Jabber chat room, and they are still in regular contact to give and receive moral support and share resources such as talking points. But at Erika’s home work station, she can’t help but notice how quiet it is without her colleagues sitting close by.
Erika didn’t take the decision to work from home lightly. “Honestly, I do miss going in to work. Seeing my colleagues, having our little meetings and chats. We work great together and enjoy each other’s company. I’m home alone most of the day now, and it’s hard,” Erika says. The difficulty of the situation comes through in her voice. “It was a tough decision, but I’m a new mommy, so I decided it would be best for my family to work from home.”
Does this mean she gets to spend more quality time with her newborn baby, Clara? “Not much,” says Erika. “I still take her to day care, because she is so little, and I can’t give her the attention she needs while I’m working. And, she has ‘found her voice’,” Erika says with a laugh. “I do get a little more time with her, but only because I don’t have to do my normal commute.”
The changes over the past few weeks have affected Erika’s work in more ways than just her work station. “It’s been a lot to take in. I’ve been going with the flow, but I didn’t have time to reflect on what’s going on everywhere,” Erika says. “Work got even busier. Even though I was answering so many questions about the crisis, it has only been in the last couple of weeks that I’ve been able to process everything and think … this is really happening.”
At the beginning of the COVID-19 outbreak, Erika and her team quickly became overwhelmed by the increased call volume. They had never seen the call queue number so high. But since the launch of the new COVID-19 Hotline, most of the calls from Idahoans seeking information related to the outbreak are being handled by the DHW staff throughout the state who have stepped up to help out.
Erika is grateful for the impact this has had on the 2-1-1 CareLine, because they are back to receiving their regular calls from people asking about rent, utilities, and other services. But even with the help of the COVID-19 Hotline taking some of the pressure off, the CareLine call volumes have been high. “This reminds me of when I started this job, during the recession. People are calling who have never needed assistance before – they don’t even know who to call for assistance. So now they are calling us,” says Erika.
There are times when callers aren’t quite sure what they need, so the CareLine staff help them to problem solve and get on track to figuring out what they need help with. The team is also the point of contact to take childcare complaints, reports of welfare fraud, daycare providers enrolling in training, and people requesting referrals to the Navigation program. They also receive calls to provide information in support of various campaigns, such as the yearly campaign to offer Idahoans access to low-cost radon testing kits.
The phone lines are usually busiest at the beginning of the week. Toward the end of the week the CareLine staff have some time between calls for meetings and training sessions. There is a lot of information to keep on top of – the team manages and uses a database that houses 11,000 resources, such as phone numbers for any resource you can think of, from getting a birth certificate, to renewing a nursing certification. Every resource in the database is vetted to meet strict criteria and is verified before it is entered into the database.
Recently, a new feature has been added to the 2-1-1 CareLine so callers can directly transfer to the Idaho Suicide Hotline by choosing option “3.” But Erika and her colleagues continue to make warm transfers for callers in distress who make it through to the CareLine because they haven’t made it through all the menu options. “Sometimes, people get lost. Honestly, even I do sometimes, and I’ve been here a long time. We try to get them to the right place.”
Pointing Idahoans in the right direction
Erika knew she wanted to work on the 2-1-1 CareLine when she came to Boise to visit her sister, who worked on the CareLine. Her sister’s supervisor gave her a tour, and she knew straight away she could see herself working there. Nearly 11 years later, she still loves what she does. “It’s difficult to explain our job, because there are so many aspects to it. When someone asks me what I do and start to explain that I work at 2-1-1, I tell them … it’s going to take a while!” says Erika.
With the varied and often urgent nature of the work answering calls on the CareLine, there are good days and difficult days. Sometimes callers are having a rough time with depression, life challenges like being evicted, or losing a loved one. “A lot of people are literally in tears, and it’s rough to hear people in that type of situation,” says Erika.
But the good days make it worthwhile. Once, Erika answered a call, and the person on the line was frantic because a man from the power company was at her door, telling her they were shutting off her power. But he let her call the CareLine for help. As Erika talked to her, the caller was in tears, and explained that she had a small child in the house who was on a breathing machine. She was distraught about what might happen, and she said to Erika … “Please don’t let him shut off our power.” Erika was able to call over a Navigator, who took over the call and began working out a plan.
Erika usually doesn’t find out the outcomes for callers she helps, as the calls are confidential. In this case, however, she found out that there was a happy ending. A few weeks after the call, the caller reached out to the Navigator she had worked with, and told her how grateful she was for their help – and that she had been able to keep the power on.
Erika often thinks of this story and realizes the impact of what the CareLine does to help Idahoans. “Even though we’re not doing the direct funding or help,” Erika says, “we are helping to point that person in the right direction. And that’s awesome.”
About the 2-1-1 CareLine
- The 2-1-1 Idaho CareLine is a statewide, toll-free information and referral service that links Idaho’s residents to health and human services resources.
- 2-1-1 was created through a national initiative for an easy to remember, three-digit phone number to provide confidential access for callers to obtain local community health and human services information.
- In 2002, the Idaho CareLine was designated as the statewide 2-1-1 call center in Idaho.
- In State Fiscal Year (SFY) 2019, 2-1-1 facilitated 93,261 information contacts and provided 115,591 individual resource referrals.
- 2-1-1’s referral database currently has 11,767 active services relating to 3,471 programs
- Agents assist callers 8:00 a.m. – 6:00 p.m. MST Monday – Friday. Emergency and crisis referral services are available before and after hours. Resources can also be found by visiting http://www.211.idaho.gov or by texting a zip code to TXT211. Voicemail is available before and after business hours.
- Common examples of referrals include rental assistance, utility assistance, food pantries, Medicaid, and low-cost health care providers.
- While 2-1-1 has previously served as a referral source for Idaho’s Suicide Prevention Hotline, the newly enhanced partnership assures that callers to 2-1-1 can access the help they need through an automated and direct connection between 2-1-1 and the Hotline before, during, and after business hours.
- With the enhanced collaboration between 2-1-1 and the Suicide Hotline, 2-1-1 has made the following updates:
- Training for the team has been provided to create a heightened awareness in recognizing and responding to callers who need suicide-prevention and crisis mental health supports.
- The 2-1-1 protocols have been updated to reflect that staff now consistently warm transfer callers who need resources to help with suicidality directly to the Suicide Hotline.
- The 2-1-1 phone menu has been updated to provide the ability for callers to be directly transferred to the Suicide Hotline during, before, and after business hours.
- 2-1-1 continues to work closely with the Suicide Hotline and the Mobile Crisis Unit to provide support to the team on assisting callers with crisis mental health and suicide-prevention supports.
- The department recently implemented a new Idaho COVID-19 hotline for Idahoans to call with questions about COVID-19 or the statewide Stay-Home order. The number, 1-888-330-3010 is staffed Monday through Friday, 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. MST. The 2-1-1 team is actively supporting the hotline, and several of the options that callers have from the hotline menu are transferred directly to 2-1-1. To provide additional support to 2-1-1 and the hotline, multiple support staff from the department have been trained on and are answering calls that are coming in to 2-1-1 from the COVID-19 hotline.
Story by Lori Gilbert, Office of Communications