Atwater AT&T call centers to close, affecting 400 jobs

AT&T officials confirmed Friday that they will close two call centers in Atwater by the end of August, affecting about 400 jobs, the largest private sector layoff in Merced County in more than two decades.

Employees were offered incentives to relocate, but Merced County Workforce Investment, or Worknet, received a notice that as many as 397 people would lose their jobs, according to Worknet Director Robert Morris. Workers were told their last day would be Aug. 25.

One of the employees, a 37-year-old woman from Merced, said the employees were notified Friday morning. She asked not to be identified for this story because she feared retaliation and the loss of her severance package.

She said the meeting with employees Friday morning was somber, as hundreds of employees waited for the formal announcement. “We were all very anxious,” the employee said. “Some people were already starting to cry. I was just hugging people because they were starting to cry.”

“Everybody is in shock right now,” she added.

The employee, who worked at the center for about four years, said she is concerned that she will be without medical benefits once she loses her job.

But, she said, she worries most about her co-workers. “They’ve been here over 10-plus years, some of them, and they have new houses, new loans, new cars,” she said. “They’re really upset and worried.”

In a letter to employees written by AT&T Assistant Vice President Jack Wright, the company offered an incentive of $5,000 to each employee who was willing to “follow the work” to call centers in Southern California, Colorado, Washington or Iowa, depending on each person’s position at the Merced operation.

Those willing to relocate have until July 7 to accept a position and would have to report to the new location on or before Aug. 26.

“To better serve our customers and increase efficiency, we are consolidating work currently done at our call centers at 1910 and 1920 Customer Care Way in Atwater into other facilities,” AT&T spokesman Marty Richter said in an email.

Those who do not relocate will be offered a severance package, he said. The company’s employee head count will not change nationwide, he said, as jobs have opened up in other places.

The AT&T shutdown of its Castle operation comes less than two weeks after an announcement that 91 employees will lose their jobs when Mi Pueblo Market closes its Atwater store at the end of August.

Atwater Mayor Joan Faul said it was “a major shock” that about 500 jobs will be leaving Atwater in late August. “This is just really devastating to the people losing their jobs and to the city,” she said. “There’s just no other way to describe it. That’s horrible.”

The call center has been a substantial employer in Atwater since 1997. Faul said AT&T was one of the first employers to move into buildings left empty at the former Castle Air Force Base, which closed two years prior.

Finding other work in Merced County could be difficult. The county unemployment rate is 12.5 percent, according to the most recent numbers from the state’s Employment Development Department. In Atwater, the number is 12.8 percent.

The last massive layoff in Merced County came in the early 1990s, according to Jackie Walther-Parnell, an operations officer with Worknet. She said about 700 Farmers Insurance jobs relocated to Pleasanton, which is considerably closer than the locales possible for displaced AT&T employees.

She said few workers are likely to follow the jobs out of the area. “I would doubt for the wages that these people are making that there would be many of them that would consider moving out of state,” she said. “Not unless they just happen to have family in that area.”

Worknet Director Robert Morris said the unemployed should visit the Worknet office as soon as possible for job assessments, training and workshops, as well as training for job interviews and help with résumés.

With such a large number of layoffs, Morris said the county will have to look at adding Worknet employees to handle the influx of job seekers.

Having 500 fewer people bringing in a steady paycheck will be a blow, Morris said. “It’s going to be a tremendous, devastating impact to Atwater and certainly Merced County overall,” he said.