AT&T employees fight to keep Atwater call centers open

07/15/2014 8:34 PM

07/15/2014 11:11 PM

AT&T employees expecting to be laid off from the closure of two Atwater call centers next month are rallying to save their jobs, and a neighboring restaurant said there’s no hope for keeping its doors open.

Officials with AT&T last month confirmed they will close the call centers at the former Castle Air Force Base by Aug. 26, laying off about 397 workers.

Some of those employees banded together to fight the closure and urge AT&T executives to reconsider the decision. One call center employee spoke out about the closure during an Atwater City Council meeting Monday.

“We’re asking for support to save our jobs and our community,” said employee Athena Waddle. “We are fighting to keep those jobs here.”

Lynn Johnson, president of the Communications Workers of America, Local 9333, said employees are asking local politicians, business owners and service organizations to write letters in support of keeping the call centers open.

“We’re going down fighting,” Johnson said. “If we can’t get the call center to remain open, at the very least we’re asking for an extension of time, hopefully to the end of the year.”

The union represents 352 AT&T call center employees, Johnson said, estimating at least 75 percent of them are Merced County residents.

Employees were given a 60-day notice when AT&T officials announced the closure on June 27. The corporation has offered an incentive of $5,000 for any worker willing to relocate to a call center in Southern California, Colorado, Washington or Idaho, depending on each worker’s job position.

AT&T officials said the consolidation is to “better serve customers” and increase efficiency.

Johnson said she wants AT&T executives to grasp the impact the loss of 400 jobs would have on Merced County families. “It’s not just an address. It’s not just a location,” she said. “We would like them to understand the devastation that this office closing is causing to individuals and their families.”

The ripple effect of such a closure can be felt by other businesses, such as Gracian’s Mexican Restaurant, located across from the AT&T call centers. The restaurant manager confirmed it will close next week because 80 percent to 90 percent of its business comes from AT&T employees.

“There’s no way of surviving here without them,” said manager Erika Huerta, adding that five people will lose their jobs. “Our lease is over this month and if we want to continue, we’d have to sign another contract for a year. It’s not worth it.”

The restaurant, previously called Maria’s Taco Shop, has been in its current location a year, Huerta said. The owners are trying to relocate but haven’t found a suitable location.

“It was shocking, because we were not expecting that,” Huerta said. “So many people count on this.”

Atwater city officials said Monday they will send a letter urging AT&T to reconsider the closure. Earlier this month, Rep. Jim Costa, D-Fresno, wrote a strongly worded letter to AT&T, calling the closure the “largest private sector layoff in Merced County in more than two decades.”

The congressman called it “unacceptable” to give employees, many of whom have worked for AT&T for more than a decade, 10 days to decide if they want to relocate and only $5,000 for relocation costs.

The corporation later extended the deadline to today for employees to decide if they want to relocate.

The loss of the AT&T call centers also affects jobs of its contracted cleaning and security services. Eight people from the cleaning crew and about 20 security guards will be laid off, Johnson said.

The county will also lose an estimated $367,000 in annual revenue from AT&T’s lease, said Mark Hendrickson, Merced County director of community and economic development. The corporation has continued its lease until December to wind down operations.

Hendrickson said AT&T was the cornerstone of employment at Castle since 1997 and the county would have welcomed the chance to offer incentives to keep the call centers open.

“If given the opportunity, the county would have liked to provide them with some sort of support or relief to make it advantageous for them to continue operating in Merced County,” Hendrickson said. “We’re going to work day in and day out to try to attract a new company so that we can bounce back from this setback.”

Union representatives said those who want to write a letter to AT&T about the closure can mail them to: CWA 9333, 1125 Kansas Ave., Modesto, CA 95351.

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