Utah's welfare recipients who have a question about their accounts unknowingly dial up someone 8,300 miles away in India.
The state is one of many across the country that contracts with eFunds, a private company with more than 900 call centers and one of the top three "business process outsourcing" companies in India.
Sending state services so far away when 8 million Americans remain unemployed and so few jobs are being created is sparking public policy debates across the country and demands that some states stop the practice.
"This is a real discussion we need to have," said Rep. David Clark, R-Santa Clara, and chairman of the Utah Technology Commission. "Our message has always been to do things efficiently and cost effectively, but how far do we want to go? Do we feel comfortable if it is a state away, three states away or around the world?"
Elsewhere, states are stopping the practice.
In New Jersey, welfare administrators paid out nearly $1 million to operate a call center rather than continue doing business with eFunds, while North Carolina officials want lawmakers to spend $1.2 million for a call center in its state. Several other states, including Alabama, Minnesota and California, are considering legislation to ban states from outsourcing jobs overseas.
Ironically, Iowa balked at sending its calls out of country and required its contractor to field the work to a call center here in Utah.
Utah has a five-year, $7.8 million contract with eFunds, which had been handling the calls through a Wisconsin office until it sent the business to Mumbai (formerly Bombay), India, in February 2003.
Department of Workforce Services spokesman Curt Stewart said the contract had been with Zions Bank, which decided it would no longer offer the service associated with electronic benefit transfers or EBT cards.
About 40,000 Utah households have the Horizon card, which offers recipients, depending on qualifications, food, cash and child-care assistance.
The cards can be used at businesses for food items, at automatic-teller machines for cash and to pay for child care, Stewart said.
"EFunds handles all those transactions, something certainly as a state we are not set up to do," Stewart said.
But Clark joins lawmakers in other states in questioning the message it sends to have state services performed by foreign workers when the U.S. economy continues to struggle.
"We are doing better, but the part that has not been real healthy has been the job creation," Clark said. Utah continues to have more than 60,000 residents who are unemployed.
Clark, who chairs the Utah Technology Commission, said the decision to use taxpayer money to send jobs oversees needs to be examined.
Heather Tritten, with the advocacy group Utah Issues, said she hopes the issue gets the attention of Utah's lawmakers.
"Certainly sending jobs overseas is a huge issue, especially as we are trying to grow the economy. Those jobs, once they are gone, they are gone."
The group's recent report, "Poverty in Utah 2003," said that 80 percent of the jobs lost in the last recession aren't coming back.
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