Pennsylvania Democratic Rep. Chrissy Houlahan’s office has seen a 138% increase in normal call volume.
“We’ve really reorganized ourselves pretty radically,” Houlahan tells CNN about how her Washington, DC, office and her two district offices in Pennsylvania are making changes to adapt.
All the calls between the congresswoman’s three offices have now been rerouted to one Washington, DC, number. The 18-person staff now have to sign up for an hourly shift daily just to answer the calls.
Three rapid response teams have been created to answer the calls — one for handling unemployment calls, one for small business-related calls and one for handling all rebate questions.
“They are triaging the ones that are really important and pushing ones to these different response teams,” Houlahan said earlier this week.
California Democratic Rep. Jackie Speier’s office has seen 70-100 calls an hour at a high point. On Mondays, staff have 600-700 voicemails waiting for them to wade through.
Democratic Sen. Dianne Feinstein’s office is receiving about 210,000 emails, letters and calls per week — that’s six times the 35,000 they received over the same period last year.
That has necessitated extra manpower, pulling in everyone from all levels within the office — from office assistants to even their chiefs of staffs who are jumping in to help answer calls, rotating the duty of answering the phones among those in the office. Relevant staff follow up with callers who have specific needs and questions.
Republican and Democratic congressional aides all said that compounding the enormity of the task is the type of calls that are coming in.
“What has gone through the roof is the personalized, individual outreach from constituents. And they really are not traditional, congressional casework,” Democratic Rep. Katie Porter of California tells CNN.
Constituents are now bringing problems that require specific, individual attention and follow up — which takes a lot more time to answer. Problems applying for unemployment insurance, assistance or small business funds which many offices said are among their highest call volume.
What people need and how they respond is a constantly “moving target,” an aide tells CNN, given how quickly the needs change as the pandemic does.
A House legislative correspondent, responsible for drafting letters in response to constituent concerns, estimates that before the pandemic, 80% of their responses would be a form letter of some type, and 20% of their responses would be individualized. But now, they estimate 80% of their responses have to be individual to meet the specific questions, problems and needs that constituents are asking about. The aide estimates that now only 20% of their correspondence to constituents are form letters.
Many offices say they are fielding a great amount of calls too about just fears and worries — including people’s family members are sick and needing help or people calling in after seeing other people have parties or shopping in businesses without masks.
A congressional aide CNN spoke to says that has been emotionally draining, especially to those untrained for handling those calls.
“It is taking a toll,” said a congressional aide who has had to recently step in to help field phone calls in their office. “Not one of us are trained therapists or social workers. This requires people-to-people skills that we’ve had to learn on the fly.”