After eight years as a billing fraud investigator for Chesapeake and Potomac Telephone Co. of West Virginia, Cheryl Hoffer was confronted with a choice: Stay in her job and face a possible layoff, or uproot her family to transfer to a more secure job in Virginia with American Telephone & Telegraph Co.
Hoffer, a lifelong West Virginian, and her husband and son moved 472 miles to Virginia Beach, Va., in 1984 so that she could become a saleswoman at a new AT&T facility. What she did not know then, however, was that AT&T would close the Chesapeake customer service office two years later. On March 1, she was laid off after 10 years of service.
"I have been betrayed. I feel betrayal, hurt and anger," Hoffer said recently. "I have a very, very close-knit family, and leaving my home, my family, my church, was very painful. I had the impression if I moved, I would have a job until the Lord came . . . . I thought the phone company was forever. Well, the phone company is forever. But they don't need me."
Hoffer is one of the casualties of the telecommunications wars that began with the historic 1984 breakup of AT&T, once the nation's largest company. She is part of one of the largest dislocations of industrial workers in recent years, a shakeup that will be a major topic in nationwide labor negotiations that open here tomorrow between AT&T and two major unions, the Communications Workers of America and the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, representing 200,000 workers.
More than 150,000 workers have been transferred and more than 50,000 jobs eliminated in the breakup of "Ma Bell," which historically was the model of stability because of its nationwide monopoly. The unexpectedly large volume of layoffs and transfers has contributed to a growing fear over job security in highly competitive, unregulated industries such as telecommunications.
Cases such as Hoffer's are a "rare exception" but are unavoidable when corporations are confronted with the "monumental task" of reorganizing a 1 million-worker empire, said AT&T Washington spokesman Herbert Linnen. "If there are horror stories, they are an aberration. Our objective has been to keep layoffs to a minimum and spare people this kind of misery."
AT&T, forced to cut jobs, has minimized layoffs by inducing older workers to retire early, offering up to $22,000 in cash, continued medical coverage and other benefits that make early retirement attractive, AT&T Vice President John H. Rufe told a House subcommittee that recently examined the impact of divestiture on consumers and workers.
Although AT&T cut 56,000 of its 380,000 jobs, the company said that early retirements and transfers to regional Bell companies kept layoffs to about 15,000. This effort, combined with relocation and job search assistance, Rufe said, showed that AT&T's "downsizing efforts are as fair and as humane as we can make them."
But the 650,000-member CWA, the world's largest telecommunications union, contends that AT&T and the Bell companies must do more to guarantee jobs to veteran workers in an industry that generated a profit of more than $1.5 billion for AT&T last year and a $1 billion average profit for the regional Bell operating companies.
CWA's prime demand involves improving the training, retraining and relocation programs that allow workers to retain employment even if their jobs are eliminated by automation or business fluctuations. CWA will also seek reductions in contracting of work to new nonunion companies that are receiving jobs formerly done by union members.
"The people who built the world's best telephone system are being tossed onto the economic scrapheap while the telecommunications industry pursues higher profits but provides lower quality of service to consumers," CWA President Morton Bahr told the House oversight hearing. He called on government to try to add worker and consumer protections to the 1984 federal divestiture order.
Bahr said consumers suffer because there are "fewer workers to take orders, test lines, perform repairs, answer billing questions, plan facilities, install new service and do other needed work." Remaining workers are hit by "layoffs, downgrades, pay cuts, multiple moves and transfers . . . and an overall climate of confusion and shattered morale" that also affects phone service, he said.
But AT&T said that CWA was exaggerating the extent of the problems, and the company says that job security is best attained by reducing labor costs, which in some job categories exceed those of nonunion competitors by 20 to 30 percent. AT&T's average yearly wages range from $21,300 for phone operators to $31,700 for skilled technicians. "If you pay much more than your competitors, that is the problem of employment security," Linnen said.
Bell Atlantic and other regional companies have had more stable employment, industry analysts said, because much of their business is the regulated local telephone service. But AT&T now not only competes for long-distance telephone service and sales of telephone equipment, but it also takes on giants such as International Business Machines Corp., Xerox and others in the lucrative field of business communications.
With its once-dominant position undercut by domestic and foreign competition, AT&T is still "downsizing." It has closed 150 of its 600 "phone centers" and more than 25 of its large customer service centers -- including its Chesapeake, Va., center -- that handle sales, service and complaints.
Cheryl Hoffer, 30, thought she could avoid that "downsizing" when she moved from West Virginia with her husband Al, a building contractor, and their 8-year-old son Shae.
"I gave my job everything I had," she said. "Most everyone did. We were loyal and we trusted them. Now they are laying us off and hiring people off the streets. People have no idea what they are doing . . . . And I believe the consumer is really suffering."
Phone company transfers depend on union seniority rules, a system that usually saves jobs for veterans but sometimes offers little help, workers said. Hoffer was caught by AT&T's consolidation of its offices, and her only alternative was transfer to a part-time job in Roanoke, which she declined.
Jane Hayden of Newburg, Md., and Steven Conrad of Richmond said they also have learned the hard way about AT&T's changing needs because of opening and closing offices.
"Since divestiture, I have worked at Mechanicsville, been loaned out to Landover, transferred to Herndon, loaned out to Arlington. Four different offices in the last two years," said Hayden, a 17-year veteran storekeeper who complained about being forced to make a 124-mile round-trip daily commuting trip that frequently takes more than four hours, between her home in southern Charles County and her current job across the Potomac River in Herndon.
"They are closing offices, trying to serve the public out of these central locations. And they don't know if the customer is not getting the services," she said. "There used to be phone company storerooms with an abundance of equipment in a 10-mile radius. But they are closing them all over . . . . If we need a piece of equipment for an emergency, we got to wait for it or drive all over the place to get it."
Conrad, 32, an eight-year veteran, went to work for C&P Telephone in Newport News, Va., because his mother and father had spent 65 years between them with the phone company.
"Next to being a professional like a doctor or lawyer, people said, the phone company meant a lifetime job," he said. But Conrad has been declared "surplus and available for relocation" three times, and he has taken a $1,200 annual pay cut to keep his job since divestiture.
Conrad transferred to Norfolk but then was "bumped" from his job by a more senior employe who also was transferred. Conrad was forced to take the only job open for him -- in Richmond. Faced with a 72-mile trip, Conrad is buying a house and is hopeful that he can hang on with AT&T, he said. "There's not too many other places I can find a job paying $25,000."