August 11, 2014

Workers ask AT&T to stay in Atwater

Employees from the AT&T call center in Atwater demonstrated outside the building Monday in an effort to save the more than 400 jobs leaving the city later this month.

About two dozen people gathered on Monday near Castle Commerce Center, where they chanted and held signs imploring leaders from AT&T to remove more than 400 jobs from the chopping block.

AT&T call center employees were joined by their families, as well as leaders from the Communications Workers of America union, to ask the corporation to stay in town past Aug. 25, its last day in Atwater. AT&T announced in June that it would close the call center, employing more than 400, the largest private sector layoff in more than two decades.

Andrea Powell stood at the corner of Santa Fe Drive and North Buhach Road while she waved a sign and received honks in support from passing cars. The 28-year-old mother, who has worked for the call center for a decade, said she purchased a house less than a month before hearing she would be laid off.

“I had looked for over a year to find a house,” she said. “It closed in May and then a month later I find out I was getting laid off.”

Because she bought the home using a first-time home buyer loan, she can’t rent it out. That made it unrealistic to take AT&T’s offer to relocate to a call center job out of state, she said.

So, she said, she’ll be job hunting and hoping to keep up on the monthly payments.

Powell said she always felt secure that the call center would allow her to make a living and retire. At $19 an hour, she said, it was higher-paying than many of her other options.

For Athena Waddle of Atwater, an AT&T employee for nine years, getting the job in 2005 was a fresh start. She said she kicked a drug habit a dozen years ago. “(The job) was the way I contributed back to society after being the person that I was,” the 40-year-old said. “It was basically the first real job that I had after sobriety, and I thought I would be able to retire from it.”

Since the news of the looming layoffs, she said, she’s submitted seven résumés. She has yet to get any calls back.

The goal of Monday’s demonstration, she said, was to persuade AT&T officials to keep those jobs in Atwater. Waddle said she hoped the corporation would at least stay through the end of the year to give workers a chance to find other jobs.

She said she hoped their appeals will be heard at the corporate level. “My husband told me it was a David and Goliath story,” she said. “But, if you know that story, then you know we have a little bit of hope and faith.”

Lynn Johnson, the president of the local chapter of Communications Workers of America, said the center was the first “real” job with health benefits and retirement for many of its workers.

AT&T offered jobs out of the area for anyone willing to relocate. Johnson said moving was unrealistic for most of the employees.

She said many of them are wondering how they will take care of elderly parents, pay their rent or make sure their kids are fed. “Every person has a story, and 90 percent of them are going to be a tragedy,” she said.

The effect of 400 people losing a steady income will likely ripple throughout the community of 28,000. The unemployment rate in Atwater is 12.6 percent, slightly higher than the county rate, according to the latest numbers from the Employment Development Department.

Recognizing just how hard the layoffs will hit the county, a number of elected officials wrote letters to AT&T. Congressman Jim Costa, D-Fresno; state Sen. Anthony Cannella, R-Ceres; and state Assemblyman Adam Gray, D-Merced, joined to send a letter. The city councils of Atwater and Merced also committed to write to the corporation.

Atwater Mayor Joan Faul, who appeared at Monday’s demonstration, said the call center was a “godsend” when it came to town in 1997. “It’s a very sad day when we lose (these) jobs,” she said. “These are human beings out here. Each one of them have a home. Each one of them have a family.”

Faul called it a “crisis” for Atwater, Merced, Winton and other cities in the region.

Alex Carey, a spokesman for AT&T, said the Atwater operation will be consolidated primarily with its counterpart in Cerritos, in Los Angeles County. “This was a business decision that was not easy to make, but we will not be reversing our decision to close the call center,” he said, in an email.

He noted that AT&T organized 11 workshops at the local facilities for workers who will be laid off.

Carey said hiring in the state by AT&T continues, with more than 650 positions available.

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