GUEST COLUMN: We must keep Colorado’s call centers

October 5, 2012

The future is bright for job seekers in the call center and customer service industry. Unfortunately, these call center employment opportunities are mostly overseas. While this year’s elections have featured attacks about “off-shoring,” the focus has often remained on the politics, rather than workers and communities affected by jobs going overseas.

The American call center industry employs three percent of the U.S. workforce, including approximately 90,000 here in Colorado. In many communities decimated by manufacturing losses, call centers have served as an important economic lifeline. Nationwide, the domestic call center industry has lost 500,000 jobs between 2006 and 2010, largely due to the trend of shipping these jobs overseas. Here, nearly 1,200 call center workers lost their jobs between those years. Now, things are even worse for Colorado.

In June 2012, T-Mobile USA shuttered its call center in Thornton, eliminating 441 jobs and closing the doors on the city’s third-largest employer. Unfortunately, Thornton was just one of seven communities where T-Mobile call centers closed. In total, approximately 2,000 Americans lost their jobs due to T-Mobile’s announcement.

While job losses make headlines locally, where those jobs go is under-reported. Little attention has been given to T-Mobile’s record of off-shoring to countries such as Honduras and the Philippines. This is troubling, as companies that off-shore have often accepted financial incentives from American taxpayers. For example, T-Mobile USA accepted tax breaks, subsidies, and grants of more than $61 million from state and local governments to open or expand their call centers in U.S. communities, according to a study from the Good Jobs First. When these companies leave, taxpayers are left holding the bag.

T-Mobile is not alone. Banks that received our bailout money are among the worst offenders. From Wells Fargo announcing plans to expand its call center operation in the Philippines after laying-off American call center workers, to Filipino newspapers reporting Bank of America holding job fairs for overseas applicants, big banks’ complicity in the off-shoring trend is especially galling given their role in the economic downturn.

Thankfully, communities and employees have started to fight back against proposed off-shoring efforts. Earlier this year, customer-service provider Avaya in Highlands Ranch and Westminster announced local layoffs as it was moving some customer service work overseas. However, a community-led effort highlighted how proposed off-shoring would affect the local workforce, deliver longer waits and lower standards for customer service. Avaya’s clients, including Home Depot, pressed that if off-shoring resulted in lower customer service quality, Avaya would lose their business. As a result, a second round of layoffs was canceled. The important takeaway is that we can do something about off-shoring, if we engage the community and describe the range of problems associated with off-shoring — including the potential consequences.

A new survey shows the American public understands what is at stake. Lake Research Partners reports 78 percent of Americans hold a negative impression of overseas call centers, and more than half of voters are less likely to vote for their congressional representative if they learn that he or she voted against measures to bring jobs back.

Some Colorado lawmakers have already taken a stand to save American jobs. Representatives Jared Polis, Ed Perlmutter, and Diana DeGette are co-sponsors of the “U.S. Call Center Worker and Consumer Protection Act” that would end tax breaks, grants, and loans to companies that offshore jobs, while giving consumers the right to be transferred to a call center in America. Unfortunately, the Republican majority in the House of Representatives wouldn’t even allow the bill to be debated.

Lawmakers that refrain from acting on off-shoring are silently endorsing the shipping of jobs overseas. When our elected representatives tell us that they are fighting for good jobs and our economic recovery, think of the call center industry and ask them: “are you talking about here or overseas?”

Bolton is President of the Communications Workers of America (CWA) Colorado local 7777.

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