Message from the executive director: Responding when you need us
It’s been 18 months since I first wrote about the impact of COVID on our lives and routines. Since then, the Employees Retirement System of Texas (ERS) has provided uninterrupted service to state employees and retirees, first adapting operations to a work-from-home environment, and now transitioning staff and services back to our Austin building as it is safe to do so.
Still, one area of our member service has yet to return to what it was pre-pandemic—namely, our response time when members try to reach us by phone and email.
Most people have had a frustrating customer service situation at some point in their life, and maybe more so recently. If you’ve felt this while trying to contact ERS, please know that we are doing all we can to address the situation and we value your patience. I may not be able to lessen any dissatisfaction you’ve felt, but I’d like to share some of the reasons behind the issue. I can also offer suggestions for you that might shorten your wait (or avoid it altogether) if you need our help.
Staffing: Maintaining the staff needed to respond to our large volume of calls and emails has always been a challenge, even before the pandemic. Like many businesses, ERS is dealing with staff shortages. We are actively recruiting and hiring staff, but the workforce pool is stretched, and hiring takes time. Once hired, our benefits counselors must complete weeks of training to develop a broad and deep knowledge about our complex benefit plans.
Phone call/email volume: From April 2020 through September 2021, ERS’ Contact Center handled an average of 26,126 calls monthly. This compares to a typical monthly average of about 27,000. Although call volume did not increase, staffing issues have made it difficult to manage. Some calls are for relatively simple matters. But others require benefits counselors to spend time researching a member’s individual situation, answering their questions and anticipating any that may come up later. This is what contributes to wait times when you call.
Callers wanting to avoid phone wait times may have opted to email instead, as emails increased by about 50% during the period. The same benefits counselors who answer phones also respond to emails. The phone call volume plus the large increase in emails has added up to considerable work for our already-stretched customer service staff.
Survivor benefits processing: Sadly, we’ve had a higher-than-usual number of death benefits to process during the past year, and ERS staff has worked overtime to process survivor benefits in a timely manner. This includes processing “Chapter 615” benefits for survivors of law enforcement officers and others killed in the line of duty (see Supporting fallen heroes). Those too have increased dramatically because of COVID.
Retirement account processing: Through virtual meetings, ERS counselors continued to provide important guidance and information to those planning to retire or wanting to withdraw their retirement account. These activities also involve processing several member-submitted documents. With fewer staff, this processing took longer. Fortunately, with ERS staff continuously working overtime, as of this writing, our retirement processing times have returned to pre-COVID levels.
When you need help
You may be able to avoid long waits on the phone by trying these alternatives:
Contact your plan administrator or insurer: Plan administrators, such as UnitedHealthcare® for HealthSelectSM Medicare Advantage or Delta Dental for dental insurance, can address questions about your benefits or a claim. Find their toll-free number on their website (see a list a plan websites) or find them on the back of your plan ID card.
ERS OnLine: Log in to your ERS OnLine account to update your contact information, change your beneficiary information, manage your annuity payments and much more. If you didn’t set up an ERS OnLine account before you retired or if you are having difficulty accessing your online account, call (877) 275-4377.
When you need to reach us, call (877) 275-4377 (TTY: 711) for matters relating to your retirement account. Take advantage of the interactive voice response system: Using as few words as possible, describe what you need to do, such as “Update my direct deposit.” When it is offered, accept the callback feature and remain available until you hear from us.
Finally, bear with us. Delays are an increasing part of our everyday life. We remain committed to addressing these issues to provide the help you need in a timely manner. In the meantime, I encourage you to continue to stay informed through communications from your plan administrators, this newsletter and the ERS website.