A Department of Veteran Affairs call center opening in November will add $5 million and 175 jobs to the VA Regional Office’s $40 million annual payroll in Muskogee.

The new center is to be located in a former grocery store space at 800 E. Okmulgee Ave. Starting wage will be about $28,000. Their pay will increase to about $35,000 in one year. Forty-five employees have been hired for the call center and are in training at the VA Regional Office on South Main Street, said Regional Director Sam Jarvis.

The center is expected to receive 3 to 4 million calls per year.

“This is an awesome gift to Muskogee,” Mayor Wren Stratton said of the call center locating in Muskogee. “These are good-paying jobs with good benefits.

“We’re very pleased that they chose Muskogee. I think it speaks well for our community that we were able to provide that skill level from our workforce,” she said.

Questions answered at the call center will include what schools are approved, eligibility requirements for veterans, whether the caller has been approved for VA benefits, how much money the veteran will get to go to school — “questions run the gamut,” said Phyllis Curtis, customer service section chief.

A building permit with the city of Muskogee lists total cost of construction on the renovated facility at $300,000, with the work on the existing building to be done by Architects Collective of Tulsa Eastside Blvd. LLC is listed as owner of the building.

The additional boost in employment will mean the VA Regional Office will employ more than 700 people in Muskogee.

Muskogee has the largest of four VA Education Centers in the nation. Muskogee’s center handles claims for veterans in the Western Region, which consists of 14 states, Guam, Samoa and Manila. Employees at the Muskogee center already handle 37 percent of the education calls nationwide.

The Muskogee center pays out more than $1 billion per year. The other three processing centers — Buffalo, N.Y.; Atlanta; and St. Louis — pay out a combined total of about $2 billion, for a nationwide total of about $3 billion.

“We’re a big operation here, and a lot of people don’t know we’re here — unless they’re in the job market,” Jarvis said.

The calls now going to Buffalo will be added to the new call center in November. Then the other calls from Atlanta and St. Louis will be added in, Wright said.

Muskogee was chosen to receive the call center for several reasons — it has had a very low turnover of employees, and the VA Regional Office is an employer of choice in the region, Wright said. One reason for that is that the pay is higher at the VA than for comparative jobs in other areas, helping with the number of job applicants, Wright said.

“We’re not going out of business — we’re here to stay,” she said.

Only the calls on education will be consolidated at the new call center.

Veterans will learn they can receive benefits for 36 months, in most cases, depending on their time in the service and what kind of enlistment. The maximum benefit is $1,075 monthly for those who were in the military full-time. That is tax free, Jarvis said.

Those receiving the funds have to verify each month that they attended school before their check is issued. Some will be eligible for a work-study program to earn additional funds that are tax-free.

The GI Bill (educational funding for veterans) has been in existence since 1944 in some form, Wright said.

The center in Muskogee has been averaging an 18-day turnaround on processing original claims and eight days on supplemental claims or changes on claims.

The education center processes 15-20 percent of its claims without human interchange at all — via eight computers, which automatically processes claims sent in by schools in an electronic form, Jarvis said.

New jobs

WHAT: Department of Veterans Affairs call center.

PAY: Starting wage of about $28,000 per year.

HOURS: 7 a.m. to 6 p.m. weekdays.

TO APPLY: All applications for jobs at the new call center must be submitted via the Internet. Notice of when and how to apply will be found by accessing www.usajobs.opm.gov. Applications will not be taken at the VA Regional Office in Muskogee.

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