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Insights From a Week as a 311 Operator in New York - NYTimes.com

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Jun 6, 2004
Manhattan, New York
This is a fascinating look into the life of a 311 operator in NYC from the NY Times.


Insights From a Week as a 311 Operator in N.Y.

CALL CENTER Operators at the city's 311 help line answer questions and direct calls about the government and beyond.
Published: May 14, 2010

THE lovely sounding gentleman on the other end of the line was simply trying to improve his corner of the world. Instead, he was rapidly losing faith in city government. As I placed him on hold for the third time, I heard him mutter: “She’s having a hard time finding it! It was on 1010 WINS this morning!”

Indeed, how could an operator at New York City’s vaunted 311 help line be utterly clueless about a tree giveaway program that was just talked up on the radio? (Then again, why didn’t the lovely gentleman just call the radio station?)

I swallowed hard, mindful of a fellow call-taker’s sage advice: “Smile through that phone!” It was my third day in a week sitting in as a 311 operator, a reporter’s gamble that the questions, concerns, fears, suspicions, frustrations and gripes of city residents would paint a revealing portrait of the city itself. So there I was, wildly typing phrases the caller heard on 1010 WINS into 311’s extensive, continuously updated database: “Free tree,” “Earth Day,” “Jamaica Bay Wildlife.” Finally, something clicked.

“Free trees will be available to individuals, families and community groups for planting on private property on a first-come-first-served basis,” I cheerily, if bureaucratically, reported. “Limited quantities of small flowering trees and larger shade trees will be available.”

With each morsel, his skepticism melted away. Flowering trees? Fantastic! First come first served? No problem! He would get there early. When I informed him that “horticultural specialists will be on hand to answer questions and provide species selection recommendations,” I thought he was going to jump through the phone and embrace me, or at least invite me to some sort of tree dedication ceremony.

I thanked him for calling 311 and wished him a wonderful day, thereby earning some bonus points if the call was evaluated by the quality assurance team. For a few seconds, I reveled in having brought a fellow New Yorker so much joy, and pondered the positive ripple effects that a free tree — plus first-class customer service, if I may say so — can have on the life of a New Yor —

Beep. “Hello, thank you for calling 311. This is Elissa. How may I help you?”

Last week, Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg celebrated the 100 millionth call to 311 since its creation in 2003, saying the system, which costs $46 million a year to run, “has truly revolutionized how people deal with government.”

The city’s 306 full-time operators (starting salary: $27,349) take an average of 90 calls per shift, consulting a database of 3,600 pieces of information — including, because so many people call to request it, the current date and time.
Sometimes they transfer callers to other city or state agencies; sometimes they take down the details and file official reports. Sometimes they are stumped.

“We spent a day, 15 of us, figuring out who’s responsible for a dead seal floating in the water off Brighton Beach,” recalled Chenda Fruchter, who is in charge of 311 content and relationships with the other city agencies. (Answer: the Police Department’s harbor unit.)

More than half of the time callers hang up before reaching an operator, presumably after getting the information they need from the recorded greeting.

The hot line has also proved useful in unanticipated ways: last year, the city tracked the time and location of 311 complaints to trace a mysterious maple syrup smell to factories in New Jersey.

“Taking calls is like a box of chocolates,” advised Michelle Bravo, who condensed the four-week training session into two days for me. Chocolates? Really? Wasn’t this going to be about people yelling at me, or demanding the phone number for a supervisor at the Human Resources Administration?

But I came to appreciate the analogy. You never know what you’re going to get, and helping 133 strangers over the week turned out to be kind of delicious. I felt as if I was putting good karma into the world by treating callers with the respect that their landlord or that guy at the towing company had lacked. Maybe when they hung up they would be a little more forgiving of their girlfriend or their upstairs neighbor or the person who accidentally tripped them on the subway.

I wondered what people did before 311 when, say, they did not know what jail their husband was in, or needed a dermatologist in the Bronx who took Medicaid, or could not figure out why the water streaming out of their sink was suddenly brown, or wanted to file a complaint against a home health aide who had stolen from their aunt. I imagined the lives of 311’s “frequent fliers”: Streetlight Mike, who calls to report broken streetlights so often that call-takers recognize his voice; “the Mumbler” and “the Screamer,” whose motivations are unclear because they are either mumbling or screaming. I vowed to pay my parking tickets posthaste, lest my car land in the same pound as one of my least happy callers.

I had my moments of doubt: should government, for example, really be in the business of telling people when museums are open?

But I came away thinking that in a city where it can be tough to make it, or even just make the rent, it makes a lot of sense to have a 24-hour line where people can report potholes, yes, but also vent.

Monday, 4:30 p.m.

I am convinced that my first caller will be Mayor Bloomberg — who reports trash on the street every six weeks or so — and that I will make some rookie mistake like thanking him for calling 911. I do make this mistake, on Tuesday; the caller did not seem to be the mayor, and did not seem to notice.

Another fear: Calling a sir “ma’am,” or a ma’am “sir.” Call-takers are instructed to address callers by “ma’am” or “sir” at least once during the call. If you can’t figure out which to use, I was told, just pick one and “go for it.”

And: What if someone I know calls? Anonymity is a cornerstone of 311, but would I have the fortitude of the operator who declined to greet his own mother when she called?

“Jason!” she exclaimed. “I gave birth to you!”

“Ma’am, this is Jason,” he responded. “How can I help you?”

Monday, 4:31 p.m.

After all that fretting, my first caller is clearly a man, and presumably not the mayor, as he is calling to report police misconduct. After some fumbling, I give him the 800 number for the Civilian Complaint Review Board. Easy enough.

My second caller sounds like a young child. She says she’s trying to call a friend. My mind races to those true-crime TV shows about children who call 911 to report that their parents have been killed. “Is your mommy home?” I ask. “Can you put your mommy on the phone, please?”

The “mommy” also sounds like a child, or perhaps a teenager using a child’s voice. She informs me that she would like to order a pizza. Ms. Bravo, who is listening in to make sure I don’t flub anything, instructs me to “put your mommy voice on” and notify the callers that if they do not hang up, I will have to call the police. They hang up.

A man needs to find the Bank of America branch closest to 19th Street and First or Second Avenue. I know that 311 does not provide addresses of businesses, so I advise, per the script: “If you need directory assistance, call 411 or check a phone book.” He sounds perturbed.

The next day I regale the quality assurance supervisor with the story of the man who confused 311 with 411. She does not laugh. Sometimes, she says, people don’t know why they’re calling. A call-taker should ask “probing questions,” thinking to herself, “Is it beyond every reasonable doubt in your mind that this person just needs an address?”

Tuesday, 9 a.m.

The first order of business is a warm and fuzzy team meeting. Our leader passes a stack of pennies around the room. We call-takers have to say something we experienced during the year on the penny, as a team-building exercise. (Mine is 2002: The year my husband and I decided to get married.) Call-taker camaraderie is crucial, my teammates tell me. Whatever happens, one advises, “don’t take it personal.”

Around lunchtime, a restaurateur calls, seeking the address of a health department building where his employee is set to take a food-handling test. I do not have the address, but I transfer him to the health department, which presumably does. I think the call goes well, but this turns out to be my lowest-scoring call (80 points out of 100). I apparently was supposed to point out that the food-handling course could also be taken online. And I said “tryina” instead of “trying to.” Sheesh.

That afternoon I get my first noise complaint — 311’s most common category, accounting for more than two million calls over the seven years. Mine is from a woman being driven to the brink by her neighbor’s barking dogs. Later in the week, there is a man so upset by the crying and thumping from a nearby apartment that he wants to file both a noise complaint and a report of possible child abuse. And a desperate woman whose daughter cannot sleep because of “a lot of banging and bouncing and skateboard and basketball and everything.” Then there is a noisemaker, who wants to know his rights. Are there rules about when he can listen to his radio “a little bit loud,” or enjoy his home theater? What if one’s neighbor is “a little bit nuts?”

Wednesday, 9:40 a.m.

A caller would like to know whether one’s landlord can enter one’s garden without one’s permission. Good question. I would hope not, but who knows? I offer to e-mail her a brochure detailing landlord-tenant rights and obligations. Other disgruntled tenants call to report their landlords for renting out illegal basement apartments, and for funneling electricity to other tenants. Note to landlords: Tenant complaints are the fourth most common calls to 311. And that doesn’t count inadequate-heat complaints, which are second only to noise.

Wednesday, 3:03 p.m.

A woman calls, apoplectic. She says she mailed a letter that was not received. I transfer her to the United States Postal Service hot line.

Wednesday, 3:41 p.m.

A woman calls looking for a charter school near her home. She proceeds to spell it: C-H-A-R-T-E-R. Having spent six years covering local schools, I could give this woman an earful. This, however, would be a major no-no. Call-takers are prohibited from imparting information from our previous jobs, our daily lives or the top of our heads, lest it be outdated or just plain wrong.

Thursday, 3:32 p.m.

Half an hour into my 3 to 11 p.m. shift, and calls are fast and furious. A woman in need of a homeless shelter in Brooklyn. A man in search of a fishing license who, when I ask him what else I can help him with, laughs and says, “Pay my bills!” A man desperate to quit smoking.

A woman calls, audibly agitated, from a crowded bus. The driver is refusing to budge because one passenger is refusing to pay. I transfer her to the Metropolitan Transportation Authority’s bus customer relations center. I wonder what she would have done pre-311. 911? Not exactly an emergency, but a situation that could put a busload of people in a really bad mood, thereby sending more bad karma out into the —

Beep. “Thank you for calling 311. This is Elissa. How may I help you?”

A woman from Queens says her husband has taken the exam to be a census-taker; she is eager to learn whether he has snagged the job. I give her a phone number and a Web address, then ask how else I can help. Forty-eight minutes later I have enlightened her about two Queens job-training centers, three adult-literacy programs and three senior centers, plus a television show for English-learners called “We Are New York.” When we part ways, she sounds so grateful that I think I may have made up for all of that bus driver’s bad karma.

Then: “The poor animal is howling,” a woman says of the dog on her neighbors’ porch. The neighbors appear to be home, but lacking in pity for their dog. Luckily, the hot line of the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals is open for 17 more minutes, until 9 p.m.

Next: It starts about bedbugs, then meanders into a discussion of how she has no lights in her kitchen or living room, how she used to live in a homeless shelter, how she owes almost $16,000 to someone. Richard, the 311 veteran listening in, scrawls a talking point: “What is it that you are calling to do tonight?”

I ask, but the conversation strays further: more bedbugs, her husband’s infidelity. “He likes young girls,” she says. “What am I going to do?”

Richard scrawls me another note: Lifenet — a confidential, toll-free help line. Phew.

Friday, 9:27 a.m.

A woman has an old refrigerator that she believes to be an energy guzzler. Her query: Is she entitled to a new refrigerator without an increase in rent? Before referring her to the New York State Division of Housing and Community Renewal’s rent information telephone line, I read her a detailed description of it. She is overwhelmed, exclaiming: “This whole story! I want an answer. Am I entitled, or am I not?” Alas, I cannot say.

An hour later, a woman would like to contact Chemical Bank. She thinks she may have some money in an old account there. But she has no idea what the bank is now called. I transfer her to the New York State Banking Department, whose mission, I inform her, is to “supervise and regulate banks.”

A man feels he has been mistreated by the staff of a senior center. “I am sick and tired of being persecuted. I want reparations,” he says. More than half an hour later, I have filed a complaint and connected him with a seniors’ lawyer referral center. I have not determined whether he has actually been wronged or is somewhat delusional, but at least I have listened.

Then communication difficulties ensue. The caller has not received his HEAP. I think he has no heat. “No, my HEAP!” he snaps, exasperated. Sharon, the call-taker listening in, whispers that HEAP is the Home Energy Assistance Program. Oops. I type it into the system and ask the caller whether he is a senior citizen. “I was born in America,” he replies. Next, he asks me to help him find a new apartment, confiding, “Me and my mom, we’re not getting along.”

Beep. At 4:47 p.m., a man calls to report being harassed by employees of a city housing complex. “She scandalized my name,” he says of the main culprit. I try to follow the details of his story; with each turn it becomes less comprehensible. I eventually input what I believe to be the essence of his complaint and give him the public advocate’s telephone number.

Then, vowing to have more compassion for New Yorkers who bump into me on the subway — because maybe a barking dog has kept them up all night, their water was brown that morning or they still haven’t gotten their HEAP — I call it a week.

After 133 chocolates, some serious coffee is in order.

A version of this article appeared in print on May 16, 2010, on page MB1 of the New York edition.
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