The original publication of the project is embedded below. Underneath, find the full text.

On Friday 5th May, at 9.30am, a voice answers the phone: “Good morning, how can I help you?” And thus a miracle was performed. After 18 days of trying to call every half an hour without fail, a human being finally picked up at the other end of the helpline for the Minimum Living Wage (MLW). Phone no. 900 20 22 22 is advertised on the MLW’s own website under the heading“ “Do you need help? Contact us and we will clear up any doubts”. But the fact is that getting in touch with them is virtually impossible.

A robot attempted to do just that, across the full working hours of the service, from 9.30 a.m. to 2 p.m., Monday to Friday, every half an hour. It made calls from the 12th of April all the way until the magic happened on the 5th of May. A grand total of 150 calls (not counting the 20 made on the 1st and 2nd of May, which were public holidays in Madrid), before finally, on call no. 151, the robotic answering machine message was replaced with a human voice.

Of the 150 calls, on 26 attempts the automatic system didn’t even pick up – there was simply no answer; for the calls that did go through, only a recorded message was received: on about a dozen, a short version was heard, in which the robotic voice, having informed you of your data protection rights, goes on to explain that there is currently high demand and that all operators are busy. The rest, some 114 calls, were given the long version, which keeps you on hold, with music playing, only to reach the same result: try again later, none of our operators are available at this time, apply online…

The helpline was launched in June 2020, when the MLW was initially rolled out. The aim was to address the queries of anyone applying for the benefit, and there were plenty. “The complexity of the regulations and the fact that this is a new service entails the need for dedicated support”, concludes a report published by the Taula d’entitats del tercer sector social a CatalunyaThe Impact of Administrative Procedures on Access to Social Benefits, in which they criticise that fact that such support is not being provided as stipulated. Evidence of this complexity can be found in the submission of erroneous or incomplete documentation, one of the main causes of rejection, while to this day, just 611,000 households have at some point gained access to this subsidy, according to the most recent Social Security data, while it was initially announced it would reach 850,000.

This complexity has forced social organisations to dedicate a large part of their resources to helping others apply for the MLW. Óscar Deleito is a lawyer and volunteer at Caritas Madrid. After more than 2 years, they’re well versed in how to tackle the regulations and, more specifically, the procedures involved and the most common obstacles. However, he admits that “for someone with no experience trying to do it themselves, it would be impossible.”

Roll out of the MLW – along with its complexity – also weighs heavily on the shoulders of social services. Alba works at a town hall in the province of Barcelona: “I’ve tried to call [the helpline] several times and I’ve never had any luck. Users think we can get in touch with them and that it’s somehow easier for us… I wish! I don’t even bother with the phone number anymore, it’s a waste of time”.

Time that is spent listening to Romantic Jazz by The Music Bakery piped out on the other end of the line – elevator music that makes you detest the genre. “Not being able to get in contact with an authority is frustrating, it forces families to give up and means they don’t get the benefits they have a right to”, she criticises.

María Hontanares Arranz is an activist at ATD Cuarto Mundo and RMI tu derecho and, from a perspective outside of administration, she agrees with Alba’s diagnosis, speaking of “total powerlessness”: “If it was just the phone thing it wouldn’t be such a problem, but the rulings are difficult to understand, offices are closed, you can’t get an appointment, notifications don’t reach the right addresses, there is a digital divide…“.

Appointments for face-to-face service

At the end of March, Civio published an investigation in which – also using a robot that tried non-stop to secure an appointment on the Social Security website – it demonstrated how it was virtually impossible to get one, both for MLW and pension-related procedures. In that report, we also revealed how posters in the offices and a notice on the website itself explained that to be attended to in person, an appointment was mandatory. Over at the Ministry, they insisted that despite what their own communications said, they would handle urgent cases and people with difficulties, no appointment needed. And that they had set up a reception desk in offices to deal with people turning up without an appointment.

Faced with criticism from the opposition thanks to the collapse of the appointments system, minister José Luis Escrivá assured Congress on 10th March that it was fake news that appointments were required to get into a Social Security office. As he was saying this, posters in the offices continued to clearly declare that it was mandatory to have an appointment to enter the premises, while on the Social Security’s own website, the notification read “customer service in Social Security offices requires an appointment”. Hours later, the message on the website was updated, while an additional notification announced that reception desks were available for prompt attention – no appointment necessary – specifically for urgent cases and people with special needs.

Despite the photographic evidence and the information that had literally just been on their website, Escrivá continued to insist that it had been fake news, without bothering to mention that if so, it would have been fake news perpetuated by the Social Security services themselves. He went so far as to insist before Congress, on 17th May, that the photographs of the office posters had been taken during the pandemic and not now. The 2 seen at the top of this text were taken on 17th April in Madrid, and 12th May in Salamanca. 2023… of course.

The underlying issue: a lack of staff

Those who work for Social Security are well aware of these problems. In fact, one of the reasons that led unions to threaten partial walkouts – and the first strike at this authority in decades – is a lack of resources. The threat was made after the Ministry proposed that officials who wanted to earn €21 an hour, or €6 per citizen served, do overtime on Monday and Wednesday afternoons.

“The situation was already bad, with lots of retirements and nobody to replace them. But the trigger was definitely the MLW. It is a vital benefit, but the resources have not been provided to deal with it“, says Juan Francisco Zamora, from CCOO, one of the unions sitting at the negotiating table with the Ministry of Inclusion, Social Security and Migration, who explains that MLW applications are being handled with a “huge delay” of 5, 6 and in some cases, up to 11 months. A “chaotic” situation, as he describes it, due to the lack of personnel on the other side. And that has its consequences: “Poorly served users, stressed citizens, and even incidents involving violence”.

Last Tuesday, unions and the Ministry reached an agreement to call off the walkouts and strikes. In the text, they acknowledge the difficulties in attending to citizens and promise to fulfil some of the 2018 agreements, such as allowing remote work and improving performance rewards, as well as making temporary posts permanent. For Zamora, that is one of the issues: “They are hiring or promising interns who will stay for three years at most, when it takes 6 months just to train them.”

But the most important part of the pact is the promise to incorporate 3,525 new staff members, many of them for citizens’ services, including helplines.

195 extra staff for telephone support

The National Social Security Institute has a Telephone and Telematic Attention Centre (CATT in Spanish) that answers not only the MLW helpline, but all Social Security helplines, for example, for pensions or other procedures. According to the Ministry, this service, which responded to more than 620,000 calls in 2022, currently has 132 employees (113 civil servants and 19 interim staff who have recently joined).

In view of the data, that doesn’t appear to be enough. That’s why the Ministry says it has launched an “emergency plan to bolster the centre with 195 new employees and change the customer service model to make this more efficient, implementing a system to divert certain calls to regional branches and thus create “a national customer service network, not based only at the CATT” to deal with all the calls.

And when will these 195 new staff members start? “In the coming weeks”, the Ministry promises. They’re going to be needed, because another promise Escrivá made in recent weeks is to roll out, in May, one single, new customer service hotline for Social Security.

The report, published by the Taula d’entitats del tercer sector social a Catalunya, agrees with the data in this article: “Several of those interviewed – who work in the processing of benefits – report the poor response from the free helpline, as well as INSS’s lack of guidelines for having a dialogue”. It further adds: “It has been said that in some cases, the responses from the staff in charge of the helpline are confusing and contradictory”.

And that’s another problem. “It’s not just that they don’t answer your call, it’s that if they do pick up, they won’t be able to clarify matters properly because the person answering the phone doesn’t have access to the file, while if the caller isn’t familiar with the benefits they’re applying for, they might not know what to ask about,” says María Hontanares Arranz, who states that “most of these enquires are unproductive.” Such questions may remain unresolved, even though, after over 2 weeks of trying to get through every half an hour, we finally managed to speak to a human on the other end of the line.


To monitor the MLW helpline operations, we created a robot (script on Ruby) that makes regular calls, every half an hour, to the Social Security phone number from Monday to Friday, 9.30 a.m. to 2.00 p.m. To do so, we used Twilio, a service for making and recording phone calls. The robot picks up the phone, presses ‘1’ to skip the data protection blurb, then waits. The call ends when Social Security answers the call. Afterwards, we downloaded the recordings of all of the calls and classified these according to content. We disregarded any calls made on public holidays: 1st May, a national holiday in Spain, and 2nd May, a local holiday in Madrid.

We manually classified the 171 calls made in order to add them to the visual list that runs down the side of this report. This was done using D3.js, Scrollama.js and Observable, as well as Soundcite, a tool created by The Northwestern University Knight Lab to embed audio clips. Soledad Ruiz helped us to edit the recordings, including the voice distortion for the person who eventually did answer our calls on the 151st attempt.


  • Soledad Ruiz, in editing the recordings


  • Katharine Spence, translated the article from Spanish to English