Efforts to keep call-center jobs in US deserve support

At or near the top of ANY list of underrespected and underappreciated sectors of the Mahoning Valley economy must rank customer-service call-center jobs.

Some may be surprised to learn that more than 4,200 people work at major call center operations in Mahoning and Trumbull counties, including Infocision in Boardman and Austintown, VXI Global Solutions in downtown Youngstown and Alorica (formerly West Corp.) in Niles. That’s at least 1,000 more employees who work today at the sprawling General Motors Lordstown Complex.

But like jobs in the auto, steel and other manufacturing industries, the security of call-center positions here and across the state and nation are threatened by unfair and anti-consumer practices from afar.

The threat is very real. That’s why efforts by conscientious lawmakers in Washington and in Columbus to lessen the threat merit widespread and bipartisan support.

Today, customer-service jobs at call centers represent a growing and increasingly vibrant sector of the American economy with more than 2 million employees nationwide, including 180,000 in Ohio. In recent years, however, the Communications Workers of America reports that about 500,000 of them have been sucked away by the winds of outsourcing to foreign countries, most notably to the Philippines and India.

Corporate greed appears to be behind the bulk of the mass exodus. U.S. workers simply cannot compete with overseas operations that pay workers $1 an hour and sometimes forces them to toil 12-hour days, or longer, investigations by the CWA have found.

The lost jobs translate into increased joblessness and poverty for individuals. In addition, they lower tax revenues to fund critically needed public services for communities across the nation.

CONSUMER PROTECTION

In addition to the hit to the economy, mass outsourcing also has other devastating impacts. To lessen them, reforms are in order not only for job protection but for consumer protection as well.

According to a study released late last year by the CWA representing hundreds of thousands of call-center workers, consumer fraud and scams at distant call centers have cost customers millions of dollars and have imperiled their financial information and personal security.

In October 2016, for example, the U.S. Department of Justice released details of a massive call-center fraud ring emanating from customer-care centers in India. Hundreds of millions of dollars had been stolen from more than 15,000 Americans, DOJ found.

Fortunately, solutions to address these and other vexing problems are within arm’s reach both in the U.S. Congress and in the Ohio Statehouse.

As U.S. Sen. Sherrod Brown, D-Cleveland, said last week in a conference call with The Vindicator and other Ohio media outlets, “Most Americans want to support American jobs by buying American whenever they can, and that includes the customer service they get from call centers.”

Joining Brown in that conference call was Renee Rouser, who has worked at the 500-employee AT&T call center in Boardman for the past 13 years.

“We want to put the money back into our economy. Instead, corporate greed is being put in front of responsible and professional work,” she lamented.

Brown’s legislation mirrors previous efforts by the senior Ohio senator and his bipartisan supporters. Among its provisions, the U.S. Call Center Worker and Consumer Protection Act would:

Give preference in federal contracts to companies that haven’t relocated call- center jobs overseas.

Require U.S. companies to identify the location of the call center and allow the customer to be transferred to a call center in the U.S. if asked.

Require call-center companies to notify the U.S. Department of Labor before they relocate call centers and create a public list of those companies.

Meanwhile in Columbus, Sen Joe Schiavoni of Boardman, D-33rd, and Reps. John Boccieri of Poland, D-59th, and Michele Lepore-Hagan of Youngstown, D-58th have introduced tandem measures in the state Legislature that would deny state aid or grants to call centers that export their jobs out of Ohio.

“This is a commonsense bill that protects families and workers here in Ohio,” Schiavoni, a Democrat candidate for governor, said.

Given today’s hot political climate emanating from the Donald Trump presidential administration to keep American jobs secure in America, the time is right to move these worthy initiatives off the legislative back burner and into the home stretch toward bipartisan passage.

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