Labor union members are urging Maine lawmakers to deny taxpayer-funded incentives to businesses that move their call center operations – and the jobs they provide – overseas.
The proposed law also would force those businesses to pay back any incentives already provided by the state.
“If you want to leave, obviously you can leave, but you’re not getting our tax dollars,” said Sen. Troy Jackson, a Democrat from Allagash who sponsored the bill.
The bill, L.D. 1710, was discussed Thursday in a hearing before the Legislature’s Labor, Commerce, Research and Economic Development Committee, and criticized Friday in a news release by House Republicans.
While supporters of the bill argued that they are trying to protect the roughly 20,000 call center jobs in Maine, opponents including the LePage administration said the legislation would backfire by keeping potential employers with call centers away from the state.
“What message does this bill send to those companies considering a major investment in Maine?” said Doug Ray, legislative liaison for the Maine Department of Economic and Community Development, in testimony opposing the bill.
EASY TO MOVE OFFSHORE
Under the bill, the state would make a list of Maine employers that move their call centers to foreign countries. Those employers would not be able to get state grants, loans or tax benefits for five years.
Jackson said the bill would not punish companies that eliminate jobs in Maine because they wouldn’t have to pay fines or penalties. But it would not allow them to be rewarded with taxpayer-funded perks.
He said the bill singles out call centers because they are so easy to move offshore. There have been efforts to eliminate call centers in Maine in recent years.
In 2012, Bank of America closed a call center in Orono, laying off nearly 200 workers. FairPoint Communications made a similar effort after it acquired Verizon Communications’ telephone network in 2008, but it was thwarted by union litigation.
“I could have lost my job at FairPoint when the company moved Maine call center jobs to Canada after the Verizon sale,” said Krista Jensen, a FairPoint call center employee who is a member of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, in a news release by supporters of L.D. 1710. “We were only able to stop them offshoring our jobs through the courts. I want my state government to make sure this can’t happen again.”
L.D. 1710 would not apply to Maine businesses that already have moved their call center operations offshore, said Jackson, only those that do so in the future.
‘A DANGEROUS MESSAGE’
In written testimony opposing the bill, Ray said it would stifle job growth by keeping new and expanding call center operations away from Maine.
He noted that since 2011, a number of businesses have brought additional call center jobs to Maine, including the Boston-based data storage firm Carbonite Inc. and the Canton, Ohio-based call center outsourcing firm Ameridial Inc.
“As you consider this bill, ask yourself this question: Would these companies have made that same decision (to locate here) if L.D. 1710 had been law at the time?” he said. “What about those businesses looking at Maine as we speak?”
Rep. Amy Volk of Scarborough, the ranking Republican on the Labor, Commerce, Research and Economic Development Committee, agreed with Ray.
“Sen. Jackson’s bill punishes call centers for factors beyond their control and asks them to make a promise that no business can ever make: that once you come to Maine, you will never leave,” Volk said. “It also sends a dangerous message to the business community who might wonder what industry will be targeted next. Should this bill pass, we will probably never see another call center come to Maine.”
FEDERAL BILL GOES FURTHER
L.D. 1710 is similar to a bill pending in the U.S. House, which would go further than Maine’s bill by forcing companies to disclose to consumers where their offshore call centers are, and giving callers the option to transfer their calls back to the United States.
Shane Larson, legislative director for the Washington, D.C.-based Communications Workers of America, said part of the federal and state bills’ purpose would be to keep better track of which companies move their call center operations offshore, a statistic that now is difficult to track.
“What we do know is that about a half-million customer service jobs have been lost in the U.S. since 2007,” he said.
Lawmakers in other states have tried to pass similar bills, including New York, New Jersey, Florida, Georgia, Minnesota and New Mexico, Larson said. None of the bills has passed, Larson said, but those efforts continue.
He said there are nearly 4.2 million call center employees working in the United States.
J. Craig Anderson can be contacted at 791-6390 or at: