Sending call-center work overseas is a key issue in Verizon strike

At a time when Verizon's rivals Comcast and RCN Telecom Services are bringing customer-service calls back from overseas, the New York-based telecommunications giant is closing domestic call centers and sending some of the work abroad.

The extent of the movement of calls out of the country is a key bargaining issue in the strike against Verizon, which enters its 10th day Friday.

About 37,000 to 39,000 union members from New England to Virginia walked off the job April 13, with job security as a top priority. The last time the two sides met was Monday, and no new talks are scheduled.

"They are sending 5,000 jobs to the Philippines, India, Mexico," said Edward Mooney, district vice president of the Communications Workers of America, one of the two unions on strike. "If we couldn't generate the customer base to employ people, it would be one thing."

Talking to workers on the picket line last week, Verizon CEO Lowell McAdam acknowledged that some of the company's DSL calls are handled in the Philippines and described it as a small part of the business.

"Let's talk a little bit about keeping our jobs here," he told workers near Syracuse. "That's been very misrepresented."

Verizon confirms that it has call-center operations in Mexico, India, and the Philippines.

"As a global company, we do have call centers around the world, to support our various lines of business," spokesman Richard Young said.

Verizon wants to consolidate call centers for operating efficiency and to route calls to centers that can best serve customers when they call, Young said.

"We are a 24-7 business. We have found that many of our employees don't want to work on holidays and Sundays" or overnight, he said. "They don't want to be mandated to work overtime."

Union officials called Young's comment spin, saying that Verizon workers know they have to work Sundays, holidays, overnight, and overtime. But any forced overtime, they say, is a result of understaffing.

Mooney said Verizon never fulfilled workload promises it made in the 2011 contract that expired in August.

For example, 67 percent of customer sales-related calls generated from Pennsylvania were supposed to come into Pennsylvania call centers, said Julie Daloisio, president of CWA 13500, the local that represents those workers statewide.

Instead, Daloisio said, her workers handle 46 percent of the calls.

In 2011, her bargaining unit had 2,100 members. Now, it has about 900, after many left with buyouts, she said. To handle the volume of calls promised in the 2011 contract, more than 600 people would have to be hired.

"Job security is our Number One goal in this round of bargaining and securing the work that has been shipped out," Daloisio said.

In New Jersey, only 10 percent of the "trouble" calls for repair and service come through New Jersey call centers, said Robert Speer, president of International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Local 827, which represents those workers and is also on strike against Verizon.

The rest of the calls go out of state, first to other union centers and then to nonunion contractors in the United States and abroad, Speer said. The 2011 contract had mandated that Local 827 workers would get 53 percent of the calls.

"Who can better service you than someone who lives in the state? They know when storms come through," he said.

His call centers get some of the best customer-service ratings in the nation because of Verizon's excellent training, Speer said.

"They are understaffed, sending my calls to the Philippines, India," he said. "Why not send them to the best in the nation?"

Young, the Verizon spokesman, said numbers are more appropriately argued at the bargaining table.

But, he said, the structure of having calls answered in the state where they are generated is inefficient, dating back to a time when regulators required telephone companies, such as New Jersey Bell or Bell of Pennsylvania, to operate separately.

"We have tried to regionalize," he said, with a large call center planned for Verizon's building at Ninth and Race Streets in Philadelphia. "It streamlines training. You can have one expert supporting 20" customer-service operators.

Some call centers have gotten so small, he said, that there's almost no point in operating them. Seven call centers in the company's New England-to-Virginia footprint have fewer than six employees, he said; of those, two are in the Allentown area and one in Gloucester County.

Union officials say that is because employment has systematically been scaled back. The number of workers needed to handle even the volume of calls that were part of the last contract would fill Verizon's existing centers.

Young said offers now on the table would provide for job security for close to 80 percent of the unionized workforce, a good deal in today's economy.

"Who, in 2016, has lifetime employment contracts?" he asked. "It's an idea from another era that has come and gone."

jvonbergen@phillynews.com

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@JaneVonBergen

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