State

When state contract ends, so could jobs

SALIDA -- A call center that employs 150 workers may close in June, another potential blow to a region crippled by an unemployment rate nearing 20 percent.

Stellar Relay operates the state-funded relay center, which helps the deaf, hard of hearing and speech impaired communicate over the phone.

Stellar runs the center for Purple Communications, which holds the state contract to provide the service. That contract expires in June, and Purple Communications did not bid on the new contract.

For years, the call center was in Riverbank. It employed as many as 700 people just two years ago.

Stellar spokeswoman Casey Scott said her firm "is actively seeking new business opportunities for the site. But if they are not in place as of June 2, the employees will be laid off."

The company gave notice in December that it would leave when its lease ends in June, said Jim Daniels, managing member of Innovative Technology Business Park in Salida, where Stellar Relay has operated since April 2008.

Scott said she didn't know whether Stellar gave notice in December.

Closing the call center would add to Stanislaus County's economic woes. The county's unemployment rate was 18.9 percent in January, the most recent month for which information was available. Unemployment numbers for February are expected to be released today.

"Two years ago, we would have been able to absorb these job losses," said Jeff Rowe, director of the Alliance Worknet, which provides job training and other employment services. "They would have had new jobs in six months' time. Now, we have 45,000 people who are unemployed in Stanislaus County looking for work."

Scott said the workers have been told that the contract expires in June. She declined to say what kind of severance package or employment assistance Stellar would provide if the call center closes.

"Any communications that need to be communicated will be to our employees," she said.

Several employees contacted in the Salida call center's parking lot declined to comment Thursday.

Before moving to Salida, Stellar Relay -- then known as Stellar Nordia -- operated the call center in Riverbank. It had about 700 workers until the operation was downsized two years ago.

Rocklin-based Purple Communications -- formerly GoAmerica -- did not bid on the new contract because the business is not profitable, said John Ferron, Purple Communications' president and chief financial officer.

"No one is making money in this type of business," he said.

The California Public Utilities Commission awarded the new three-year contract in February to AT&T and Nebraska-based Hamilton Relay.

An AT&T spokeswoman said an in e-mail that "it's just too early to comment on those details" when asked where AT&T and Hamilton would operate their call center.

But Tina Hunt, Hamilton's marketing communications manager, said in an e-mail that Hamilton's six call centers in other states would process the Salida center's calls.

Stellar Relay is part of Stellar Global, a Canadian company.

Bee staff writer Kevin Valine can be reached at kvaline@modbee.com or 578-2316.

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