COVID-19's unemployment legacy - how the State of New Mexico tackled a rise in citizen needs with cloud, cellphones and chat bots

Profile picture for user slauchlan By Stuart Lauchlan July 22, 2020
Soaring unemployment is another side effect of the COVID-19 crisis and one that's being met head on in New Mexico with a tech-enabled agile response.

sue ann athens
(Sue Anne Athens. CIO at the Department of Workforce Solutions, State of New Mexico)

A painful side effect of the COVID-19 crisis has been a sharp rise in unemployment and claims for social benefits.

In the US, this reached a peak - so far - back in April when 6 million people filed a claim in one week. That’s eased off week by week since then and according to US Department of Labor statistics, 4.8 million jobs have been restored. That said, the unemployment rate still stands at 11.1%. With the crisis not yet contained and a number of US states which rushed to re-open their economies now contemplating or enacting full or partial lockdowns again, the potential for the jobs crisis to get worse remains high. 

Someone on the frontline here is Sue Anne Athens, CIO at the Department of Workforce Solutions, State of New Mexico, in which role she's responsible for policy procedure, technology and operations for New Mexico's unemployment insurance and re-employment services. Inevitably, she and her team have been working flat out for months. As of this week, a total of 481,531 people had been tested for the virus in New Mexico, according to the state's Department of Health, with a total of 17,517 cases identified and 588 deaths to date. She says: 

Our work has changed significantly in light of this crisis. The increase in the unemployment claims, combined with the expansion and pandemic programs offered through Federal assistance, hit the state within a matter of weeks in the early part of March. Our call volume shot up dramatically. We were handling 3,000 to 4,000 calls on a weekly basis, and this increased to hundreds of thousands of calls a day, peaking at over 900,000 calls in a single day. 

There was an urgent need to scale up capabilities to deal with the demand, she adds: 

We had to expand our call center operations to handle the volume. We had all our staff working on the phones. We borrowed employees from other state agencies. We hired temporary agents. We increased our call center capacity from about 100 call center agents to over 300 in less than two weeks. Because we had a cloud-based contact system using Salesforce, we were able to do this scale up and allow this kind of on-boarding. Despite all that increase in call center capacity, the agency still couldn't answer all the questions and all the requests from our constituents, so to reduce the strain on the call center, we went ahead and tried to create additional channels for them to get in touch with us. 

One such channel was enabled through chat bots, developed using Salesforce’s Einstein AI tech, she explains: 

Within a matter of a week, we created Olivia using Salesforce Einstein bot. Olivia was able to answer frequently-asked questions related to standard unemployment, as well as the new pandemic unemployment assistance and what that meant for folks. Within a week, the chat bot for Olivia had taken almost 100,000 interactions. Following that success, we also then implemented a chat bot for our technical support which interacted with agents. We implemented a live agent transfer for the technical support team that has taken over 100,000 interactions, and we're averaging about 60 live agents a day.

Pre-crisis work pays off

While these were responses to the immediate challenges presented by COVID-19, the Department of Workforce Solutions had put in a lot of effort over the past decade to upgrade its technology stack to be more agile. This was an investment that was to pay off in recent months, but dates back to when Athens took up her post: 

Early on when I first started here at the Workforce Agency in 2010, the organization embraced a modernization approach. Back then the unemployment insurance system was a mainframe system. The agency was able to transform that into a web-based platform. After that successful implementation in 2013, the agency embraced a Continuous Improvement strategy. We also looked at our call center technology. It was based on a Fujitsu PBX system and was really in the same situation [as the insurance system], too rigid to incorporate any technical changes. 

The result was a review and evaluation of call center capabilities and operational needs, explains Athens: 

We looked at that old legacy system and we evaluated which way we wanted to go. So with its scalability and speed of delivery advantages, cloud technology to us was the answer. So following an assessment of cloud commercial off-the-shelf products...we chose a combination of Salesforce and a Five9 cellphone to replace our legacy call center operations. This enabled us to shift our call center operation to a virtualized one in under a week and allowed us to add more agents. We actually had to get teleworking [underway] so one of the other changes that we did was to ensure that we actually got all of our staff on the call center operations working virtually from home. So we transferred call center operations through this cloud technology enabled by Salesforce and Five9 to a virtualized call centre operation in a matter of weeks.


As to learnings from the events of recent weeks and months, that’s still under assessment unsurprisingly. As Athens observes, she and her team have been working pretty much non-stop since March and there’s a need to take a pause for breath to recognize burnout. But some conclusions can be drawn: 

I think we've learned the importance of what we do as public servants. Focusing on the citizens and their needs, understanding and empathising with them, was really an important thing. During this time, everyone took phone calls. All of us knew someone who was struggling and we needed to ensure that their needs were met. So being user-centric in our solutions and addressing those needs was primary. I think I would advise public servants and government service agencies to work towards agility and drop their bureaucracy. You need to focus on the service. You need to use your resources and create partnerships in order to face the challenges that will continue to arise and in order to face what we think is going to be a very different future of work and government service.

She concludes: 

We realise that there are a lot of challenges ahead and we as a state in the nation are going to have to meet those. The team is committed to the public service we provide our citizens who, in this small state, are our family, they are our friends. And we are going to work very hard and continue to do that, to meet these challenging times.