Career Confidential: On The Phone With A Government Hotline Operator

One time, Brian Williams called.

I worked as a 311 operator in New York City for seven months. 311 is the city service number — basically a hotline you can call for non-emergency, municipal needs. So you get complaints about noisy neighbors, potholes, someone blocking your drive way —that kind of thing. We had a saying, “We’re not 411!” because people would always call and ask for the number of Papa John’s pizzeria or something. Anyway, I was getting a graduate degree at a city university, and they had a program where you could work part-time for 311, so I applied.

I worked on Sundays and Mondays, which meant I dealt with a lot of hungover people. I’d get a call from someone saying they left something in a taxi cab and as you’re filling out the complaint form, you have to ask them what time it was, where they were picked up, and where they were going. When someone says they lost their wallet in a cab at 3 a.m., after leaving the Meatpacking District, where are there are a ton of clubs, you’d know the person was probably drunk.

A man once called to report a taxi driver who had been talking on the phone, which is illegal. When I asked where the cab had been headed, he said, “Rockefeller Center.” Then I asked for his name.

“Brian Williams.” he said.

“THE Brian Williams?” I asked.

“I’m afraid so,” he said. He was extremely polite, and I told him how much I liked his appearances on 30 Rock.

I spent a lot of time on the phone with homeless people when the Department of Homeless Services ended a state-funded program under which homeless people could get money for rent if they were able to hold down a job. While I was working for 311, the state cut funding for the program and the city decided they couldn’t support it. They did send out letters to the homeless recipients, but in a lot of cases, they didn’t receive the letters. Suddenly, recipients were calling in to ask why they hadn’t gotten their checks, so it fell on me to tell them they would no longer be getting their checks. They would be angry, panicky, and sad. It was awful. They’d ask what options they had now, and I’d tell them about trying to get public housing, but I’d also tell them to reach out to their public officials. A lot of them asked who to call next.

The most common calls were about noise complaints. A woman once called to complain that small children playing in a city playground were being too noisy. It was the middle of the day, and she was in a family-friendly neighborhood. But you had to take every complaint seriously. So I had to fill out a noise complaint request for her, but I felt bad about that — what a waste of tax dollars. It was just some grouchy old woman who didn’t like kids.

On Sundays, you could get a few hundred calls in a six hour shift. On weekdays, it was around 60 or 70. Around 100 people were usually working at any given time in the call center. Most calls only took three minutes or so, but there were some that took longer.

There were a lot of older people who called with various problems and a lot of them just wanted someone to talk to. It was nice when people wanted to have a conversation, but often they’d just want to complain. We weren’t allowed to insult city agencies at all, so we’d just have to listen. You couldn’t say, “Oh the people in that department are complete morons.” The calls were recorded.

Every month, you had to attend a personal evaluation session. They would choose three calls at random and tell you how you did, scoring you on a scale from 0 to 100. I was once reviewed on a call about a parking ticket, where a woman said that the license plate number on the ticket didn’t match the license plate number on her car. I had said that a policeman may have made a mistake and then gave her a number to contact. They gave me a zero, because I suggested that a city official might have made an error. The evaluations in general were kind of ridiculous. They’d deduct points if you said “gonna” instead of “going to.” But still, I mostly scored in the 90s.

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