OAKLAND — Waterville resident James McCoy says he and other employees of the T-Mobile call center come to work each day and wonder if it will be their last.

“It’s everyone in that building who is worried what the future holds for us,” said McCoy, 35. “Every day we have to worry about what we as employees call ‘red-boxing.’ We have to worry that a security guard is going to walk up with an empty red photocopy paper box, with our manager in tow, saying, ‘We need you to put all your a stuff in this box and walk out the door, because we no longer need your services.’

“Every week we see more of our colleagues being red-boxed, and it’s concerning to us, as citizens and as employees.”

McCoy, wearing a red T-shirt saying “We expect better,” spoke at a news conference Tuesday afternoon near the entrance to the landmark call center. He was flanked by union officials and another call center employee, Adam Stanley, 35, of Albion, who said he could not remain silent anymore because the call center now “looks like a ghost town.”

McCoy and Stanley, who said they’ve worked as customer care representatives for three years, claim the call center has experienced mass firings in recent months — reducing its total work force from about 700 to fewer than 400 — and has imposed a hiring freeze.

The group on Tuesday called on T-Mobile, which has received millions of dollars in public subsidies to be in the town’s FirstPark complex, to return the public money or hire employees back. Otherwise, the company is breaking its job-creation promise while pocketing taxpayer money, they said.

T-Mobile officials on Tuesday disputed those claims, saying the center has about 520 employees and never promised a certain number of jobs.

“While T-Mobile employs fewer customer care representatives today compared to last year, this is a result of natural attrition, and not layoffs,” T-Mobile said in a statement. “In the past months, our call volumes have decreased due to a number of factors, including our success providing customers self-help options on their mobile devices and over the Web. This allowed us to operate more efficiently, without back-filling for employees who left the company.”

Whether the call center has fewer than 400 employees or 520, both totals would represent the lowest number of workers there since 2006, the facility’s second year of operation. Earlier this year, company officials said the center had about 700 employees.

The call center is the flagship employer in Oakland’s FirstPark complex, which is a commercial park partially subsidized by 24 communities in central Maine.

McCoy said he obtained the total number of employees through an external website that all workers can consult. Employees are provided points toward rewards and can view their ranking, he said.

“On that is also a leader board that tells you you’re ‘X’ out of so many employees out of your call center. Now it says you’re X out of 395,” McCoy said. “We as employees can tell you the call volumes have stayed the same, if not gone up. More and more every day, we have to do the same work with less of our colleagues helping us row that boat.”

Union officials at Tuesday’s conference claimed T-Mobile has benefited from $7.4 million in tax breaks under the assumption that the call center would employ 800 or more people. That total is based on a 2009 report from a Washington, D.C.-based group called Good Jobs First, for the Communications Workers of America.

According to data provided by the governor’s office on Tuesday, T-Mobile received $2.9 million in tax breaks from 2005 to 2010 because it’s in a “Pine Tree Zone,” in which property taxes are rebated based on job creation. It also received another $560,000 reimbursement to help train its initial pool of workers, for a total of $3.5 million in taxpayer assistance, according to the state data. T-Mobile officials cite the same $3.5 million figure.

The $7.4 million total cited by union officials appears to be inflated because it is based on a projection that also includes subsidy estimates during the next six years.

Two local state legislators, both Democrats, released statements Tuesday expressing concern about job losses at the call center.

“T-Mobile received tax breaks to invest in job creation in our local communities,” said Rep. Henry Beck, D-Waterville. “If these incentives aren’t working, then we must work together to find better alternatives.”

Rep. Thomas Longstaff, D-Waterville, said in a statement that the local economy can’t afford to lose more jobs. “These workers are our neighbors and friends; they spend money at our local shops and restaurants and help keep our communities afloat,” he said.

Diana Rafuse, executive director of FirstPark, did not respond to requests for comment Tuesday.

AT&T deal at issue

Looming over the jobs dispute is AT&T’s proposed $39 billion purchase of T-Mobile USA, which operates 24 call centers in the country, including Oakland’s facility.

The deal’s fate has been thrown into question by a recent Department of Justice lawsuit seeking to block the purchase on the grounds that it would lead to higher wireless prices and fewer choices for consumers. T-Mobile USA’s current owner is Deutsche Telekom AG, Germany’s largest phone company.

AT&T repeated its promise Tuesday in a statement that the company would not cut jobs at domestic T-Mobile call centers if the merger with T-Mobile USA were approved. It also repeated its pledge to bring 5,000 overseas jobs to call centers in the U.S.

The union officials and two call center workers at Tuesday’s news conference object to the federal lawsuit and gave their unequivocal support to the AT&T purchase, saying it’s the only way to save call center jobs.

Keri Evinson, executive vice president of the CWA Local 1400, said there’s a stark contrast between job prospects under the two companies.

“While T-Mobile is taking the low road by firing workers and reducing their head count in Oakland,” Evinson said, “AT&T has stated publicly that if and when the sale is approved, they won’t lay off any workers. … What our economy needs is more good jobs, not more unemployed.”

Tim Dubnau, an organizer for the CWA, said T-Mobile’s down-sizing is harmful to workers.

“It seems to us that T-Mobile is trying to squeeze as much of the cash out of America as possible to go back to Germany, to Deutsche Telekom, and I think that’s what this is really about,” Dubnau said.

There’s also another difference between the two companies: AT&T employees are unionized and T-Mobile’s USA’s employees are not.

Dubnau conceded that a unionization effort at the T-Mobile call center in Oakland has not been successful, but he and other speakers said that effort was not the issue.

“There was a promise of 700-plus jobs guaranteed to Oakland and to the surrounding areas,” McCoy said, “and that’s not being upheld and that’s our main concern today. They’re getting their tax dollar breaks and we’re the ones that are paying for it. So there has to be some kind of commitment that they keep on their end, too.”

Job security?

Whatever the current job totals, the call center continues to provide hundreds of positions that otherwise would not be there in the FirstPark complex, said Dana Connors, president and CEO of the Maine Chamber of Commerce.

“Whether it’s 400, 500, 700 — these are very good jobs,” Connors said.

Connors, too, uses that as a key reason why the AT&T purchase should be allowed to happen.

“We’ve supported this merger before the Federal Communications Commission because it does bring security and stability to the call center because of the commitments AT&T has made.”

Owen Smith, AT&T’s regional vice president for Maine, said Tuesday that he couldn’t comment on T-Mobile’s business decisions because the two companies are still separate. However, he repeated the company promises.

“More recently, we indicated that no wireless call center employee of either AT&T or T-Mobile on the payroll at the close of the merger would lose their job as a result of the merger,” Smith said.  “At the same time, we pledged to repatriate to the United States 5,000 call center jobs that have been outsourced overseas by both T-Mobile and AT&T.”

T-Mobile, in its statement, said job levels at the call center would be “in alignment with the needs of our business.”

“However, our Oakland, Maine, call center is one of our top performing centers. We’re very pleased to be here,” the company statement said. “If and when there’s business rationale to grow headcount again in customer service, Oakland is one of the first places we’ll look because of their strong performance.”

Scott Monroe — 861-9239
[email protected]