You are currently viewing Women on the other end of the line — ProPublica

Women on the other end of the line — ProPublica

For nearly a decade, ProPublica has reported on how TurboTax has fought efforts to make tax preparation easier and less expensive. As part of this series, we’ve published an article on how to get your money back from TurboTax if you’ve been charged for a service that should have been free.

People flooded the TurboTax customer service line – maybe you were even one of the callers. Some of them told us that all they had to do was mention ProPublica to get a refund.

Suddenly, customer service agents heard a lot about ProPublica. Some of them started calling us.

It turns out that TurboTax customer service agents were part of a much larger group of agents who work as independent contractors for big companies like Disney and Airbnb with no benefits or job security. Previously, our reporters investigated the layers of corporate insulation that prevent those companies from being held accountable for the working conditions of those officers. This month, journalists Ariana Tobin, Ken Armstrong and Justin Elliott published an article highlighting the voices of customer service agents themselves.

Our reporters have heard from hundreds of customer service agents with similar experiences. People were insulted or called racial slurs. The male callers made sexually explicit comments or masturbated on the phone. One told an agent, “I really like the way you type.”

Almost all of these agents felt they had no right to hang up. Arise said in a statement, “Service partners who interact with individual customers through the Arise® platform are protected by customer and Arise policies and processes which include the ability to disconnect callers without penalty or transfer those calls. to assistance resources if they are unable to – make the situation worse. Other companies have made similar statements saying agents are free to disconnect callers.

We spoke with Ariana about the project as well as the unique role gender plays in the world of customer service. Portions of our interview have been edited for length and clarity.

How did you decide on the style of oral history for this play?

In this case, we are literally talking about the people who talk to us. It is therefore a voice which You know – it’s just the voice telling you something about themselves instead of what you’re used to hearing. For us, what was really interesting was these people as characters, these people as people.

And the customer service agents talk for a living, so I had a lot of fun talking to them too. Some of these people are so incredibly descriptive and nuanced and just good storytellers of their own lives, and I was like, “There’s no version of this where I tell their story better than they do.”

Gender was an unexpected element for me in this piece. This comes up a lot in people’s accounts.

Arise actually boasts that 89% of their contractors are women and a large percentage are women of color.

We know from talking to different analysts and industry experts that most customer service representatives are women. There are many different theories as to why.

Many people we spoke to were doing this work even before the pandemic. One of the promises many of these entrepreneurs make when hiring is flexibility. And the people who need the most flexibility in their lives are often those with caretaking responsibilities. So maybe they have kids, maybe there are older relatives, maybe they have some kind of disability. [Like] Christine Stewart, she needed to get her kids on and off the bus every morning.

Many times that [caretaking] the work falls to the women. So I think that’s part of why these jobs attract more women.

Potential recruits are promised both money and a “work-life balance”.


Credit:
Screenshots of Arise’s Facebook page

There are cultural critiques that say people feel calmer talking to a woman in a customer service role. Different types of labor sociologists would call it pink labor.

But another interesting historical reason is that, from the days when we were talking about textile factories, there is the big business that is going to have employees and have this core business line. But underneath, what happens is this process that labor economists call “cracking”. Like a rock where you start breaking stuff. And if something isn’t right like a core part of that rock, you can take all those other things and just hire other people to do it. Hiring other people to do it is cheaper because you don’t have to pay their labor costs, you don’t have to develop that kind of specialty in-house, you don’t have to bear all the expenses of hiring and taking care of the workers. It has quite a long history that is specifically gendered.

For example, in the 1970s, a company called Kelly Services had this whole ad campaign for women who needed pocket money. And it was like, “Hire this temp for a few hours. Hire this secretary, you don’t have to worry about giving her vacation days, she’s just a temp. And that was that way of bringing in part of the labor market and to create these jobs specifically for women.

But it was presented as perfect for married women who didn’t want their husbands threatened by them having a job, or for women who had other obligations and social pressures in their lives, which meant that it was the kind of job they could get. We know that’s the origin of some of these companies.

The Kelly Girl ‘never takes a vacation…never gets a cold…never costs you unemployment taxes,’ reads an advert reproduced by University at Buffalo sociology professor Erin Hatton , in his book “The Temp Economy”.


Credit:
Courtesy of Erin Hatton

Some companies seem to recruit women of color specifically. Did you find out why they were targeting those kinds of workers?

I couldn’t say with authority. An agent we spoke to who is featured in the story – herself not a woman of color – I really thought she had some insightful comments on this.

She was part of a cohort where almost everyone was a woman of color. His whole theory is that black women, by the nature of racism, have to spend a lot of time figuring out how to make people calm and comfortable, and how to appease people who might otherwise be hurt or upset. And that [customer service] is basically a professionalized version of doing this.

Anything else people should know?

A few people have asked me the question, “How has this changed your behavior when talking to customer service reps?”

There are a few things that now I really make sure to do.

  1. You absolutely must complete the survey at the end of the call – and the survey is not about the service you received. It is the agent, that’s how this thing is going to be treated and perceived. So unless the agent was legitimately unhelpful and something bad happened, I really want to give my feedback generously. Then, if I have a follow-up complaint, I might email or tweet it later.
  2. If you ever do chat customer service: After getting your question answered, they’ll ask you a follow-up question like, “Is there anything else you need help with today? ” And you always, always, always have to say, “No, thank you.” That’s it, close the conversation. Otherwise, the agent rings. We spoke to an agent who lost his job because of this.
  3. I also try to be really organized before calling as one of the tightest parameters is how quickly they can contact you as the phone is constantly ringing. Just trying to get all my papers in order before calling ends up being really helpful to the agent.

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