AT&T service center workers face a tough choice

Officials for AT&T and the Communications Workers of America both confirmed this week that a portion of the company’s service center employees in Sacramento are being offered a choice to move or lose their jobs.

Beyond the fact that it’s happening, though, there’s little common ground between the union and the company.

AT&T officials say the service centers are a casualty of a land-line telephone business that is quickly becoming a relic of a bygone era as cell phone usage increases. The company has lost 25 percent of its wired consumer lines in recent years, AT&T spokesman Marty Richter said.

“We’re working to match employees with the customer load,” Richter said. “As the number of access lines decline, we have fewer calls for service. We have an ongoing need to consolidate.”

But union officials say the company’s offer is being made at a time and in a manner designed to discourage employees from actually moving.

“They still have plenty of work for people. The workload is still there,” said Lupe Mercado, president of CWA Local 9421. “This is a creative way to get people off of the payroll.”

Company officials declined to say how many employees are affected, what cities they would have to choose among and when they must decide.

The union says 249 of its members have been told they will lose their jobs unless they relocate by Feb. 1 to centers in Oakland, Reno, Rohnert Park, San Diego or Van Nuys.

AT&T says the employees will come from one center, but union officials say employees will come from each of the four Sacramento service centers on El Camino Avenue, Kings Way, Watt Avenue and T Street.

AT&T’s Richter said guaranteed job offers will be extended to employees who move. Severance packages and other benefits will be available to those who decline.

“They have an opportunity to follow the work,” Richter said.

The union suggests a different solution: Consolidate the local offices, offer early retirement and buyouts, and give employees who choose to move more time.

“These people have made AT&T very successful,” said Mercado. “AT&T’s not in dire straits. There’s no financial reason to do this.”

She cited a similar relocation last year that affected nearly 200 AT&T employees at a T Street repair site. They were offered moves to Texas and the Los Angeles area.

“They want to force them to the unemployment lines. Last year, we lost 188 employees in Sacramento,” Mercada said. “Very few were able to (relocate). Very few were able to follow the work.”

The jobs at stake are well-paid, about $28.25 per hour, Mercado said.

Across Sacramento, AT&T customer support employees and their families are mulling over their choices.

“It’s devastating. I’m scared. Following jobs is not an option,” said Devan Ivaska of Carmichael, a nine-year AT&T employee.

She and her husband, Kyle, are parents of three young children, ages 6, 4 and 1. If she moved, her husband would have to give up his job at a local school.

“With the way the economy is right now, it’s scary because of that,” she said.

Shelley Schwartz, an 11-year customer support employee from Rio Linda, said she’s going to try to follow the work. She has a 14-year-old son, and her husband was hurt on the job and now can’t work.

Schwartz, like other AT&T employees, found out about the relocation plan in the days before Thanksgiving.

“It’s the hardest conversation you could have,” she said. “It’s a difficult thing to talk about two days before Thanksgiving: ‘OK, at the first of the year, our whole world’s going to be turned upside down.’ “

She’s hoping she’ll be able to relocate to Reno and plans to rent out the family home if she has to call in the moving trucks.

“You’ve got to think of what’s best for the family. Reno’s the best option,” she said. “With Reno or Sparks, there are places with a lower cost of living.”