Legislation setting new regulations on Connecticut call centers clears first hurdle

By Stephen Singer, AP
Sunday, March 28, 2010

Conn. legislative committee OKs call center rules

HARTFORD, Conn. — Trying to halt telecommunications job losses in Connecticut, unions and their allies in the General Assembly have cleared a first hurdle for legislation setting new rules for how companies’ call centers are staffed.

The legislation overcame opposition from telephone companies that denounced it as an attempt to micromanage their business and state regulators who called it discriminatory.

Telephone company employees who call or are called by customers must, upon request, identify the city, state and country where they work, according to the legislation. If the employee is not in Connecticut, the customer can be transferred to a call center in the state “when possible,” or if a call center exists.

In addition, the state Department of Information Technology, when buying products or services, would be required to give preference to telecommunications companies that have a high percentage of service calls directed to in-state call centers.

The legislation also would require telecommunications companies to provide to the state each year the locations of centers receiving calls from customers in Connecticut.

The bill was approved Tuesday by the legislature’s Energy and Technology Committee on a party line vote, with majority Democrats voting in favor and Republicans in opposition.

“It’s pro-jobs,” said Sen. Gary LeBeau, an East Hartford Democrat and a sponsor of the bill. “I think that’s what people’s concerns are right now.”

Rep. Vickie Nardello, co-chairwoman of the committee, said she is concerned that large companies such as AT&T are moving jobs out of the state.

“What’s best for Connecticut’s economy? Jobs,” she said.

Bill Henderson, president of the Communications Workers of America Local 1298 in Connecticut, said union membership has dropped nearly 35 percent, from 6,533 in 2001 to 4,277 last year as AT&T has shifted jobs out of state.

“These are good jobs needed in Connecticut,” he said.

Chuck Coursey, a spokesman for AT&T, said the company provided nearly all the traditional local telephone service in Connecticut 15 years ago, but now only provides about half.

“As the wireline portion of AT&T’s business shrinks because of this competition and the dramatic increase in wireless communications, so naturally will its work force,” he said.

The company is adding workers to its growing businesses in video and wireless, Coursey said.

In testimony to the committee earlier this month, AT&T said labor is among the highest costs to operate customer service call centers and is higher in Connecticut than elsewhere in the United States, placing the state at a competitive disadvantage in locating call centers, AT&T said.

AT&T said it has call center work for some of its Connecticut customers in other states, but also has hundreds of jobs in Connecticut that serve AT&T customers across the country.

The state would likely be a “net loser were Connecticut employees only allowed to service Connecticut customers and likewise in other states,” the company said.

Backers of the legislation also say customer service provided from out of state would improve if available locally.

“I do think there are delays,” Nardello said. “I do think there are safety issues.”

However, Verizon Communications Inc. rejected the argument that call center services at a particular site “somehow provide a greater level of responsiveness and sensitivity to customer concerns and questions.”

Most services handled by call centers are done electronically and the site of the call center “has no bearing on the timeliness and responsiveness of addressing customer concerns,” Verizon said in testimony to the committee.

It also criticized the legislation as an attempt to “micromanage reasonable and efficient business decision-making.”

The state Department of Public Utility Control, which regulates utilities, said the legislation would not extend to companies that offer local phone service over the Internet and is therefore discriminatory.

LeBeau said the legislation might have to be sent to another committee because the provision that the state give preference to companies must be reviewed.

“I don’t know exactly how preference would be defined,” he said. “That will have to be worked out.”

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