Morale is high and business is booming, according to the director of the Niles facility.
By CYNTHIA VINARSKY
VINDICATOR BUSINESS WRITER
NILES -- What does the future hold for MCI Group's massive Niles call center, now that its parent company, WorldCom Inc., is entrenched in a multibillion-dollar accounting scandal?
Russ Meier, director of the 1,100-worker center, broke a 10-week silence on the question to make assurances about the center's strength and viability. He said business is bustling, employees are happy and the center is hiring again.
"We're here for the long haul. We're a thriving business ... and Niles continues to be one of the leaders among all MCI centers," he said.
About 10 jobs were cut at the center on Youngstown-Warren Road when the accounting scandal first became public in late June, Meier said. Some of those 10 furloughed employees have since returned to work by accepting other positions.
WorldCom eliminated 17,000 jobs worldwide to reduce costs after the company's financial problems came to light. The Mississippi-based telecommunications giant filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection in July.
Meier, a Poland resident and 15-year MCI employee, said even he was shaken when word of irregular accounting practices at WorldCom became public in late June. "It was a major shock," he said, acknowledging that employees were worried and morale was low.
Meier said he tried to help by meeting with employees whenever he had new information.
"Communication is the key in a situation like that," he explained. "I tried to keep them constantly updated, and it's still that way. As soon as I know something, my employees are all aware of it too."
Morale began to improve when center officials learned that WorldCom's plan to lay off thousands of its employees would have a "minimal impact" on the Niles call center, he said.
Not all call centers were so lucky. WorldCom closed call centers in Maryland and Tennessee.
The company eliminated 2,700 jobs in Ohio, most in the Columbus suburb of Hilliard where WorldCom has some of its Internet operations. About 1,300 jobs were cut in Virginia, 1,000 in Texas, nearly 700 in Maryland and 500 in Colorado.
Lauren Kallens, an MCI spokeswoman in Washington, D.C., said the call center cuts were made to "increase operating efficiency." Those that remain will likely stay because they are cash producers, she said.
"Call centers are the life of our corporation, and we need them to breath new life into the company," Kallens said.
"Niles has always been one of our top performers. We think that's an important story that the people of your area need to hear."
Meier said the Niles center was ranked first in the nation for customer service, long distance and local sales last month and is consistently ranked in the top three of MCI's centers nationwide.
Center officials were under orders to keep silent about the center's status after the financial problems and bankruptcy filing became public. Once he was authorized to speak last week, Meier said, he contacted The Vindicator and organized an informal open house for local government leaders to reassure them about the center's future.
With a payroll topping $20 million annually, the 82,000-square-foot center is the largest employer in Niles and one of the largest in the Mahoning Valley.
Niles officials have said income tax revenue from the MCI payroll pump $350,000 a year into city coffers.
Meier said MCI remains a very strong division of WorldCom, and its new unlimited long distance and local calling plan is helping it to compete with free long distance services offered by wireless phone competitors.
The plan is called the Neighborhoods program.
Available since April, the set-rate service is already offered in 34 states. The monthly fee is $49.99 in Ohio and Pennsylvania while customers in some states pay $59.99.
"Our customers love it, and it's breathing new life into the company," he said.
The Niles center stopped hiring new employees for a few weeks after its financial troubles became public, but Meier said managers are advertising for and interviewing applicants again.
Telemarketing employees who place calls promoting long distance plans and other products earn $7.50 an hour to start; customer service employees who take incoming calls from MCI customers earn $8 to start.
Benefits include health insurance, life insurance, a 401K plan and a college tuition reimbursement program. Full- and part-time positions are available.
Neither she nor Meier would comment on whether MCI might be sold as part of WorldCom's effort to emerge from bankruptcy.