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updated: 11/6/2013 10:23 AM

Tollway call center puts visually impaired, veterans to work

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  • Megan Craig, a visually impaired worker at the Illinois State Toll Highway Authority's new customer call center, uses special technology to enlarge records of an I-PASS customer with a question.

       Megan Craig, a visually impaired worker at the Illinois State Toll Highway Authority's new customer call center, uses special technology to enlarge records of an I-PASS customer with a question.
    Marni Pyke | Staff Photographer

  • About 190 employees from The Chicago Lighthouse, which serves the visually impaired and people with disabilities, are working at the Illinois tollway's new customer call center at the University of Illinois at Chicago.

       About 190 employees from The Chicago Lighthouse, which serves the visually impaired and people with disabilities, are working at the Illinois tollway's new customer call center at the University of Illinois at Chicago.
    Marni Pyke | Staff Photographer

 
 

Based on experience, many I-PASS users wouldn't get the impression the person on the other end of the line at the customer call center was (a) grateful to the point of tears about having the job or (b) really excited to hear their complaints.

But if Marin Okreglak is anything to go by, that could change.

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"Only after you've experienced the pain of unemployment do you realize how wonderful it is to have a job," said Okreglak, who is visually impaired. Recently hired to work at the tollway's new customer service call center on the University of Illinois at Chicago campus, he fought back tears during an opening ceremony Tuesday.

The tollway is partnering with UIC, which is leasing the call center space, and The Chicago Lighthouse, which is providing the employees. The Chicago Lighthouse is a regional social service agency that assists the visually impaired and also operates an employment program for people with disabilities and those from underserved communities, including veterans.

Tollway, Lighthouse and UIC officials along with Congressman Danny Davis dedicated the new call center, which used to be the site of a swimming pool.

It will employ "people who have skills but limited opportunities to use those skills," tollway Chairman Paula Wolff said.

The agency previously contracted with a private company to operate its call center but in 2012 signed a five-year $61.5 million contract managed by The Chicago Lighthouse. The space is twice as big as the previous site in Lisle, and the tollway is paying UIC $3.7 million over 10 years.

About 190 employees are working currently and about 200 more will be added by next fall, Lighthouse Executive Director Janet Szlyk. Of that workforce, 50 percent will be visually impaired or veterans.

The extra staff is necessary as the tollway builds two new all-electronic projects: an interchange at the Tri-State and I-57 in the south suburbs and an extension of the Elgin-O'Hare Expressway with a western bypass.

The changes mean "there will be even more customers calling into customer service," Executive Director Kristi Lafleur said. The center is wired to accommodate about 500 inbound calls simultaneously, depending on staffing.

Customer service representative Megan Craig, who was born with glaucoma, listened to a caller's question, then typed information onto a screen that magnified tollway records.

"I wouldn't be able to help customers without the Zoomtex, it enlarges everything," she explained, referring to the software program. Craig, a 24-year-old suburbanite, graduated from UIC with a degree in sociology and sees the job as a steppingstone to a future career as a family lawyer.

"I get a lot of calls from people who are complaining, but I don't take it personally," she said.

Along with technology that assists the visually impaired, work stations are also large enough to accommodate wheelchairs.

Employees with disabilities "seemed to jump on the system pretty quick," said Cornelius Humphries, a floor assistant at the call center from Aurora. "They're moving faster than I can."

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