Cindy Liddick worked at the AT&t call center in harrisburg, Pennsylvania for 12 years before closing earlier this month.
The former customer support specialist is among the more than 16,000 people in the United States who have lost their jobs at the communications giant since 2011, as it continues to shut down call centers to consolidate facilities within the US, or in favor of offshore alternatives in countries such as India, the Philippines and Mexico.
Though AT&T is earning record profits, spending billions on stock buybacks and is expecting an estimated windfall of $20bn in savings from Donald Trump’s tax reforms, it has continued to lay off workers and outsource jobs.
“My husband is very ill, I’m about to lose my health insurance and starting over in the job market at my age is going to be tough,” Liddick said.
In the last seven years, AT&T has closed 44 call centers, according to the Communications Workers of America labor union. Four closures, including the facility in Harrisburg took place this year.
While some workers are able to relocate to other call centers in the US, many are left jobless. For some, their jobs are sent offshore, where workers can be paid less than $2 an hour.
“My center closed in 2011. It was a shock to all of us. At the time we had an area manager telling us we had plenty of work to sustain our office,” said Laleelah Hunter, an AT&T call representative in Cleveland for 19 years.
Hunter was offered an option to stay and find a job elsewhere in the company in Cleveland, while most of her colleagues were laid off or given the option to relocate to Detroit, a two-hour drive away.
Liddick said only two employees out of nearly 100 workers accepted an offer from AT&T to relocate to Kentucky. She was not one of them.
“It’s hitting me really hard financially,” she said. “I could lose my house.”
An AT&T spokesperson said the lease on the Harrisburg center had expired, “and to increase efficiency we’re consolidating some call center work currently done in Harrisburg into our other US facilities.”
In the first six months of 2018, AT&T reported nearly $10bn in profit as the company seeks to finalize an $85bn merger with Time Warner. AT&T has spent $16.45bn on stock buybacks since 2013, including $419m in the second quarter of 2018, the most its spent on buybacks since 2014.
“Offshoring call center jobs often saves money in the short term,” said Virginia Doellgast, Chair of International & Comparative Labor at Cornell University. “It is more difficult to calculate the longer-term costs of offshoring, but they can be significant.”
Betsy LaFontaine, AT&T call center employee
Several AT&T employees explained they were hired with the impression their positions would provide the opportunity to begin a career with job security.
Betsy LaFontaine, who has worked at an AT&T call center in Appleton, Wisconsin, for 30 years as a service representative said that over the past decade, her call center was downsized from 500 employees to fewer than 30 today.
“They’re liquidating us,” said “This is not a poor company. On the shoulders of all its employees, we’ve made the company extremely profitable.”
In a December 2017 news release advocating in favor of Trump’s tax cuts, AT&T promised bonuses of $1,000 to 200,000 employees over the next year. The news release omitted that unions had already previously negotiated those bonuses with AT&T before the tax cut bill was passed.
AT&T also claimed it would invest $1bn into the United States, noting that on average a $1bn investment in the telecom industry creates 7,000 jobs. AT&T’s CEO, Randall Stephenson, reportedly promised to create those 7,000 “hard hat jobs that make $70,000 to $80,000 per year” with the $1bn investment in anticipation of the tax cuts.
Instead, AT&T has laid off an estimated 7,000 workers since that announcement was issued, according to the Communication Workers of America union. AT&T disputed this number, arguing they have hired 8,000 employees in the United States so far this year and 87,000 over the past three years.
Job security for current AT&T employees is a highly contentious issue between AT&T and the CWA.
In April 2018, the CWA voted to authorize a strike for the 14,000 workers in the midwest and national workers in AT&T’s Legacy Unit as the union’s negotiations for contract renewals remain at a standstill. But a union spokesperson said no timeline or strike date has been set.
Unions also filed an unfair labor practice claim with the National Labor Relations Board against AT&T in May 2018 for the company failing to disclose its plans to use savings from the Trump tax cut plan to reinvest in its workforce. That claim is still pending.
“We’re on edge, not really knowing what’s going to happen to us in the next month or two,” said Hunter. “We don’t feel confident in what AT&T tells us about what lies ahead in our future.”
In a statement, AT&T said: “We’re proud to be one of the country’s largest union employers. And we continue to invest in good middle-class careers in areas where we’re seeing increasing customer demand for our products and services. Since 2011 … we’ve chosen to hire nearly 188,000 people in the US.
“At the same time, technology improvements are driving higher efficiencies and there are some areas where demand for our legacy services continues to decline, and we must sometimes adjust our workforce in some of those areas.
“Most of our union-represented employees have a job offer guarantee that ensures they are offered another job with the company if their current job is eliminated, and when that happens many wind up staying on our payroll.”