It was a teary-eyed last day for some of the more than 400 people who picked up their final paychecks from the AT&T call center complex on Monday.
A woman who identified herself as Louise H. said she started to cry as she rounded the corner of the building, headed in to pick up the check and say goodbye to her co-workers.
“We were mostly a family here,” the 58-year-old said. “We’d see people every day.”
The Atwater resident said she worked in the call center for 13 years. It was the first job she had with benefits and a retirement package.
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The usually full parking lot outside of AT&T’s s two call center buildings at 1910 and 1920 Customer Care Way in Atwater was mostly empty Monday. Also empty was Gracian’s Mexican Restaurant, which closed late last month in anticipation of the exit of its primary customer base.
Georgina Haney, who worked at AT&T for eight years, stood outside one of the call centers while speaking with a co-worker on her last day. The 39-year-old from Atwater said she is worried about how she will pay off the last two years left on her car loan.
The mother of three said she is also anxious about losing her health benefits at the end of the month. “My daughter is telling me she’s got a tooth coming in, and I’m worried about how I’m going to get her to the dentist (and) if I can get her in by the end of this month,” she said.
Another employee who lost her job Monday, Andrea Powell, said she rushed to the optometrist’s office for one last visit before the end of the month, when her health benefits expire.
She described the mood inside the building Monday morning as “somber.” Employees said their goodbyes while movers emptied the building of furniture and equipment. “Everyone’s really sad because this is like a family,” the 28-year-old said.
Powell, who worked at the call center for a decade, held back the emotion in her voice as she explained she’ll need to find another job soon, because she bought a house in May. She said she has a few leads.
When the layoffs were announced in June, AT&T gave employees a seven-day window, which was extended to 20 days, to decide if they would move to other call centers in Southern California or out of state.
The Atwater employees did not give up their jobs easily. About two dozen people gathered earlier this month near Castle Commerce Center, where they chanted and held signs imploring leaders from AT&T to remove the more than 400 jobs at the Atwater complex from the chopping block.
Athena Waddle of Atwater, an AT&T employee for nine years and an organizer for the demonstration, said the effort generated about 2,500 postcards and 200 letters of support from employees and others.
In some ways, the 40-year-old said, she was relieved that the ordeal is now over and no longer hanging over her head. “It was stressful,” she said.
As if 400 jobs leaving Atwater is not bad enough, also closing soon is the city’s Mi Pueblo Market, which employs about 91 people. The San Jose-based grocery chain has said layoffs will begin Sunday.
The effect of more than 500 people losing a steady income will surely ripple throughout the community of 28,000. The unemployment rate in Atwater is 13 percent, slightly higher than the Merced County rate, according to the latest numbers from the state Employment Development Department.
Merced County Workforce Investment, or Worknet, staff conducted 11 workshops with the AT&T employees over the past two months, program Director Robert Morris said. With the initial orientations out of the way, he said, laid off employees can move quicker toward developing résumés and taking job assessments.
The Worknet staff can help the displaced employees market their skills, he said, or recommend job skills training programs. Many of the employees, he said, haven’t looked for a job in several years.
Morris said finding a position that would translate directly from the call center would likely mean commuting or relocating out of the area. “It’s certainly going to be a challenging job market,” he said.