Ga. taxpayers funding offshore call centers

by: Justin Farmer Updated:

ATLANTA,None - Despite high unemployment in the state, a Channel 2 Action News investigation has uncovered Georgia taxes creating jobs offshore.

As a food stamp consumer, Caprice Johnson considers herself a careful grocery shopper. When Johnson had a question about her funds, she called the toll-free number on her Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program electronic benefit card.      

Johnson said she had trouble understanding the man on the other end, and the man on the other end refused to tell her where he was located. Channel 2's Justin Farmer learned that phone call was routed to India.

The state hired J.P. Morgan Chase to handle Georgia’s food stamp program, and Chase uses taxpayer money to hire call center workers. State officials acknowledge that food stamp recipients who speak English are routed to India.  Customers who speak Spanish are routed to Mexico.

A Georgia Department of Human Services representative said only 3 percent of calls go offshore, but that’s enough to upset Johnson.  

"I think it's wrong to take the jobs away from your own, when you've got people right here that really need it," Johnson said.

In Everetts, N.C., which has a 12 percent unemployment rate, taxpayers used to fund food stamp call centers in India.

"When we started this job, and we trained in this same room here, we had to listen to the phone calls. They let us listen to some phone calls from India. And they were like robots,” said Candy Silverthorne.

The call centers have now moved to the states. Silverthorne works at one of them.

“Here, at the call center, it's more personable. We can relate. We're in the economy. We see every day what people are going through. We see there are no jobs out there," she said.

But a government accountability office report showed that when North Carolina brought its call center back to the United States, it cost the state another $1 million a year.

"Government's job is to do things as efficiently as possible, with a smaller burden on taxpayers as possible. We're not supposed to be ‘make work’ agencies. We're supposed to be efficient agencies and guardians of our taxpayer dollars," said Benita Dodd, of the Georgia Public Policy Foundation.

State Sen. Nan Orrock said it's more complicated than that.

"I think it's very, very foolish spending our taxpayer dollars, creating jobs in India, creating jobs in Costa Rica, rather than creating those jobs here, because we will be employing people who will then put their paycheck back into our economy and there's a multiplier effect of that," Orrock said.

Georgia also outsources all of its IT work. Because of privacy issues, the contract requires the all the data to stay in the United States. But when police or others have a computer problem during the night shift, the first point of contact is a call center in India.

"It's about bringing value to the taxpayer and making sure that we're spending every dollar that's entrusted to us in a very wise manner," said Calvin Rhodes, of the Georgia Technology Authority.

Back at Johnson’s home, she's looking for full-time work. She said she'd love a call center job like the ones sent overseas. 

Orrock plans to introduce legislation next session to stop state contractors from offshoring any work.