Maine Bill Will Protect Call Center Jobs
February 24, 2014
Less than 200 Maine residents earn their living catching lobsters. But nearly 20,000 state inhabitants work in call centers, like legendary retailer L.L. Bean’s, employing 2,000.
FairPoint Communications, Verizon’s successor, employs 700 IBEW members and 220 Communications Workers of America members at three call centers in the state.
Lobstermen have their competitive pressures. But you can’t trap Maine’s crustaceans remotely. Phone calls are a much different story. “We have good, family-sustaining union jobs,” says Krista Jensen, a 17-year Augusta Local 2327 member who works in FairPoint’s call center in Portland. “But our jobs can be moved anywhere anytime.”
Last year, Local 2327 won a court case upholding an arbitration settlement protesting FairPoint’s subcontracting work from Jensen’s call center. While savoring the win, Assistant Business Manager Jenn Nappi asked what could be done to support workers in the industry who have no union to advocate for them.
Two years ago, Bank of America closed its Orono call center, laying off 200 workers. The bank operates several call centers in the Philippines. Last year, Sykes Enterprises, which operates 59 call centers in 24 countries, shut down its Wilton facility, laying off more than 150 workers.
Nappi knew that U.S. Rep. Mike Michaud (D-Maine) had co-sponsored a bill in Congress to force companies to reveal to consumers where their offshore call centers are located, giving them an option to switch their calls back to the U.S. But there was nothing in Maine’s laws to protect the thousands who perform similar functions.
So Nappi got together with some fellow unionists in CWA and worked with State Sen. Troy Jackson to introduce a bill in the legislature to protect call center jobs. The bill has been widely covered by print and TV news media across the state.
The bill would require any employer that outsources more than 30 percent of its call center work overseas to submit the information to the state.
Employers whose names appear on the state’s list would be barred from receiving state grants, loans or tax benefits for five years. And they would be required to pay back the unamortized value of all grants, loans or tax benefits received.
In addition, the bill requires that all call center work for the executive branch agencies of the state be performed in state.
“I testified at the hearing on the bill because it’s a constant fight to keep Americans employed in this industry and we need to bring more publicity to this issue,” says Jensen, who has friends who staff call centers for L.L. Bean and for TV marketing companies.
Dozens of citizens spoke in favor of the bill at the February hearing, says Nappi, who has attended legislative work sessions on the legislation. She says Maine’s Gov. Paul LePage and the Chamber of Commerce are actively opposing the measure, particularly the “clawback” provision forcing employers to repay loans and tax incentives.
House Republicans released a press statement saying the bill would “inflict a death sentence” on businesses which move some of their operations out of state.
Nappi, Jensen and other activists say they hope more companies will follow the lead of Carbonite, a Boston-based data services company that moved its help desk operations from India to Lewiston, Maine, and hired 150 workers. The company cited their customers’ preference for dealing with domestic customer service representatives.