Virus Puts Timely Service on Hold

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Complex calls related to COVID-19 increase wait times for 311 assistance

Virus puts timely service on hold

By: Joyanne Pursaga  Posted: Aug. 18, 2021

WAIT times to answer Winnipeg 311 calls grew longer last year and the city says COVID-19 is to blame.

The average wait time to have a phone call answered by the 24-hour, seven-day-a-week city service line rose to five minutes and 27 seconds in 2020, up from two minutes and 56 seconds in 2019, according to a city report.

The city says wait times increased last year because many inquiries involved complicated requests about COVID-19 closures and health-order enforcement, even though the total number of 311 phone calls fell from 674,011 in 2019 to 475,233 in 2020.

“The pandemic presented additional challenges and contributed to longer wait times. Call volumes fluctuated based on events outside of our control, such as changes to public health orders, large-scale protest events, etc. We found that it was taking more time to handle calls related to COVID-19,” said David Driedger, a city spokesperson, in an emailed statement.

One councillor said those growing wait times pose a major concern, since the three-digit telephone line is often citizens’ first point of contact to file complaints or seek information about city services.

“What this ultimately does is it provides really poor service for citizens,” said Coun. Janice Lukes.

Lukes (Waverley West) said her office has received multiple complaints of half-hour to one-hour wait times for 311 calls placed during peak periods in recent months, well beyond the average delay.

She said that often leads residents to divert unanswered questions to their ward councillor, which can stretch limited office resources.

The pandemic fuelled a surge in complex requests, which sometimes “inundated” her office, as well, she said.

Lukes said the city should have beefed up 311 staff levels to handle pandemic queries more efficiently, such as by transferring staff who work in pools, recreation facilities and libraries when those facilities were closed under public- health orders.

“We should be (providing) better service to the residents when there’s a crisis… unfolding,” she said. “People should be able to reach the front line in a timely manner.”

However, she noted some transfers may not have been possible under the city’s collective agreements.

Last year, the 311 service included 75 full-time positions, down from 105 in 2019. That number is expected to remain frozen through 2023.

Back in 2018, the city blamed a staff shortage for increased 311 wait times, after many workers transferred to other city jobs. During that year, the average wait time rose to seven minutes and 36 seconds.

“Many customer-service representatives move on to other civic departments, having developed transferable skills and a solid background on city operations,” Driedger said.

The statement did not blame a staff shortage for 2020 wait times.

Driedger said the city does adjust 311 staff levels to match expected seasonal changes in call volumes, such as for snow clearing, spring street cleaning and Leisure Guide registrations.

Lukes said it’s not clear if the city needs more staff to cut 311 wait times. She believes the wait could be reduced if the city found ways to ensure information flowed more efficiently between 311 and other city departments.