Thursday May 11'th 2000 began like any other day at the Sears Atlantic Call Center in Halifax, Nova Scotia. I came into work, hung up my jacket in the coat room ("Y'arrr!"), went upstairs, greeted my co-workers with a winning smile and proceeded to do what I did on any other day. I answered questions from my staff, joked around with them to perk up their spirits, thanked an employee for making an awesome mixed CD for me, and spoke with my fellow Coaches as to what our strategy was going to be for the day.
And then something weird happened. The tote board went down.
Now when I say weird, I mean, WEIRD. Like Clinton Portis weird. The tote board is the heart monitor for any call center, constantly displaying on-line staff count and how many calls, if any, are backed up. We'd seen odd things associated with the board before, like when we rolled the tote board with calls in queue during the busiest time of the Christmas season. But it had never just shut down before.
But it wasn't down for very long. Within minutes the following message began to display:
PLEASE GO DOWN TO THE CAFETERIA FOR A SPECIAL ANNOUNCEMENT
My heart froze in my chest. This didn't bode well.
Exchanging uneasy glances, the Coaches got our staff to log out of their phones and we led them downstairs, weathering a storm of questions along the way. I responded to them in the same manner I'd always been told by upper management to respond:
"Look, they keep telling us that we're the best center in the entire country, both in terms of customer satisfaction and profits. We're not going anywhere."
We all shuffled into the cafeteria like workers in the movie Metropolis. Just as soon as we entered the room, our spirits collectively brightened somewhat. The tables were covered with pristine white tablecloths, there were flowers in vases everywhere, snacks and beverages where arrayed all over the place and a microphone stand was set up smack dab in the middle of everything.
Like a moron I remember excitedly saying to everyone within earshot: "Oh my God! Look at this! They can't have all this stuff out if they plan to give us bad news! I bet they're gonna announce something awesome, like they found a new building for us. No, it's good news, just wait and see!"
Please keep in mind that, at that tender young age, I hadn't been to very many wakes.
We anxiously waited while district manager Greg Patterson took to the mike. Greg fit the classic Sears physical executive template: tall, good-looking, white and male. This template was so ingrained in the psychology of our HR department that a tall, good-looking, white, male friend of mine was actually propositioned by our HR department to enter the manager training program just because they saw him walk by one day (?).
Well, like an emotional roller coaster ride, our spirits began to take a collective dip when we noticed the expression on Greg's mustachioed and bespectacled face. He looked sheepish and apologetic even before he uttered a single word.
"Hello, everyone. Thanks for coming. Well, as you are well aware, this building had been for sale for quite some time. We've been advised by Real Estate that we'll be required to vacate this site by December 31'st, 2000. Knowing this, we've had to review all available options for the the business that operates from this site.
"For the Halifax Catalog Call Center, these option were:
- to relocate the Call Center within Halifax
- to expand existing call centers to cover business needs that are currently performed in Halifax.
Just as these words were uttered, hundreds of people in attendance took in a breath as if they'd been stabbed by something sharp. The crying began almost immediately. Patterson continued on after a brief pause.
"...and the work currently performed in Halifax will be moved to Montreal, Belleville and Regina. This decision in no way reflects the excellent efforts and performance of the dedicated associates in our Halifax Catalog Call Center."
The sniffling, wailing and hugging began in earnest. A handful of people confronted Patterson before he could get a few paces away from the mike stand. My reaction? No too dissimilar to this:
Actually, truth be told, I kinda got hung up on Stage Two. I remember stomping around, pacing back and forth and uttering a few choice epithets that I really can't repeat during the family hour. I certainly know that, even after all these years, I still haven't reached "Acceptance" yet since it would cause me to lose all faith in my fellow human being.
The reason I got locked into "Anger" is because of my own unwitting part in the deception. I'd been encouraged to lie to my associates by the powers that be, to tell them everything was going to be alright and that their jobs were safe. My mind reeled. Just by my actions alone how many of my people had passed up an opportunity to look for work when the rumors were at their worst? I felt sick to my stomach.
The experience of being in the cafeteria that day was one I wouldn't wish on my worst enemy. It was crushing.
In an only vaguely related point, the reason I'll never vote for a dick like Stephen Harper is because I have a good memory. Back when his Alaskan-Malamute-peepered ass was a tub-thumping member of the Alliance Party (the closest our otherwise progressive country has come to harboring a group of neo-Nazis) this clique habitually referred to Maritimers as "lazy". This always burned my ass since unemployment rates are always inflated here because Maritime jobs have a tendency to gravitate back to Central Canada during times of economic recovery.
But here's a heart-rending fact: our staff was so professional that, a mere two hours after being told they were losing their jobs just after Christmas when bills would become due, they were back on the phones taking orders again. These people would doggedly continue to do their usual excellent job up until their final days there. Big business intended to treat them like chattel but they couldn't diminish their solid work ethic and pride in their jobs.
There were more shocks to come. After we'd all drifted back upstairs like wraiths and were politely told to act as if everything was still copacetic, "Mutt and Jeff" happened by and told us Coaches and Leads to start calling people at home to tell them that they were losing their jobs! I promptly invited these two clowns to go pound sand when they came around to me. I was officially done with doing the dirty work of corporate pinheads.
And as if that wasn't bad enough, the media was now ensconced just outside the call center and asking completely oblivious staff such tactful questions as : "So, how do you feel after hearing you're losing your job?" just as they were coming into work for the day. They hadn't even heard the announcement yet.
Here's how our local newspaper The Chronicle Herald reported the story the following day:
SEARS TO HANG UP ON CALL CENTER May 12, 2000
837 people to lose jobs by year's end
Sears Canada confirmed months of rumors Thursday, announcing it will close its Halifax call center by year's end, throwing 837 people out of work.
The retail giant has received roughly $1 million in government incentives since it opened the call center here in 1992. And government officials were still trying to tabulate late Thursday how much it received in tax credits.
Company officials said the center is being closed as part of a corporate plan to intensify Sears' e-commerce operations that can't be done here.
"This is really part of a longer-term strategic decision (that) relates to our customers and the evolution of our business to the Internet," said Scott Marshall, vice president of online sales for Sears Canada.
The Sears building has reportedly been acquired by an Ontario pension fund, which owns the Halifax Shopping Center, as part of the deal to move Sears into the shopping center. Mr. Marshall could not confirm these reports, saying the deal is confidential.
Sears talked with the province last fall to see if the jobs could be saved, but by January no deal had been reached, he said.
"(We said) we would like to know what could be possible to keep the call center. It just didn't work."
Sears, which knew the call center's business would be winding down by 2002 because of the upswing in online sales, wanted to find a partner to take over the employees, he said.
"We were prepared to put in our calls over the next couple of years...We thought there should be a new call center created (using Sears' workload and staff). We were saying 'Can you find a call center...that wants...to come to Halifax.'"
The government proposed re-locating the call center elsewhere in the province, and also put forth another idea, but Sears couldn't see either working, he said. He would not outline the government's second suggestion and didn't know where the other location might be.
An angry call center worker said the retailer's decision was made in bad faith.
"They kept us in the dark," said the employee, who asked not to be named. "They dropped this bombshell on us."
The worker says the decision saves "a few extra bucks on the balance sheet."
"They turned their backs on the province and taken the money and run. They made us feel there was a sense of permanence."
The call center job is the primary source of revenue for many of the part-timers, he said.
Some workers could transfer to the company's other call centers and Sears is contacting other centers to see if they can hire staff, Mr. Marshall said. Job counseling will also begin.
He said the company might have entertained staying if the government had offered more.
"Had they come forward and offered more incentives, we would have considered (it)."
Otherwise, the company couldn't justify moving and readying another call center in this area after the Sears building was sold, he said.
Economic Development Minister Gordon Balser confirmed the province asked Sears if it wanted to move to another part of Nova Scotia.
"That wasn't part of what they were considering," he said. "They simply had taken the decision to get out of the business that they were currently in."
Mr. Balser said the province has gotten its money's worth from Sears.
"The company, Sears, has had an eight-year history with the province and we're pleased to think that over that length of time it would have had a net benefit to the province in terms of tax revenue and employment opportunities and ripple effects."
Mr. Marshall said the retailer gave the government a "60-to-1" return on its investment, handing out $43 million in payroll since 1992.
"The agreement there was that the call center would exist for three years," he said.
Mr. Balser said he believes the province gave Sears roughly $1 million between 1992 and 1994.
"There are also tax credits allocated to the operation and we're internally trying to determine exactly what that constitutes in dollar value."
NDP Leader Robert Chisholm wasn't suprised to hear the news.
"This is a very unstable type of business. It's transitory," Mr. Chisholm said.
"They're going to move whenever they feel it will best serve their interests. The money from the taxpayers in this juristiction has run out and they will move somewhere else."
Mr. Marshall said Sears' growing e-commerce business is expected to generate $650 million in sales over the next three years.
"Our business has been in a continuous evolution. That's why we've been able to survive."
Welly, well, well, well. Ain't that somethin'?
The article does a great job intimating the real reasons for the move. The most galling thing about it is, however, is just how successful the corporate and government spin was in convincing readers that the whole operation was temporary and had a limited shelf life.
Here are some points to consider after reading this article:
- Revenue for the phone-in catalog enterprise topped $1.45 billion in 1999 and the call centers were tasked to handle about 23 million calls per year. At the time we lost our jobs, customers that went to the Sears website couldn't confirm item availability, get delivery dates, or find answers to even the most basic customer service inquiries.
- Marshall later claimed that the catalog division would suffer a 30% downswing in productivity as the Internet gained more dominance as a ordering channel and that relocating the Halifax call center "made no sense". What he fails to address is why a comparable amount of staff was re-hired in Belleville, why the Halifax site still hired a slew of people that Christmas season and how service would be impacted for a huge segment of their customer population (I.E. seniors) who couldn't afford or operate a computer.
- There were a lot of headlines around that time regarding major government grants being doled out to already profitable operations such as ICT group and Sobeys, which give a lot of credence to the theory that Sears just didn't get a sweet enough deal from the province of Nova Scotia and decided to go home to Ontario. Did John Hamm's Tories opt not to continue the eight-year legacy of Sears' extortion that the Liberals had been forced to swallow, for fear that the company would up and leave? Did the Tories refuse (as they should have!) to construct a free new home for the already wealthy company, giving Sears ample reason to pull out and leave it's associates in the lurch?
- The old call center building was pretty dilapidated. For example, it wasn't unusual for you to come in for work at seven o'clock in the morning and sweep mouse crap off the edge of you desk with a piece of paper before you started your day. IMHO a new building wasn't even necessary. There were plenty of vacant existing structures that we could have moved into. One day of promotional sales profits from the Halifax staff would have been enough to refurbish an existing space and reward their diligence at the same time.
- Management also tried to argue that customers could call the same 1 (800) number and expect the same great service from the Belleville, Montreal and Regina sites. Why then, did droves of customer in Ontario call up in the weeks and months that followed to lodge a complaint as to why the friendliest and most adept people they'd ever had the pleasure of dealing with over the phone were losing their jobs? I mean, if you can't expect a company with such a family-oriented face and an internal commitment to be a "great place to work" to mirror this in their business practices, then who will? In the months after the announcement I really expected the company to change it's motto to "Come See the Strong-Arm Side of Sears".
- The corporate weasels also made a case that this was the best solution in the long run. But was it just the best solution for the company? Was the fate of the people that helped propel it to dizzying heights of profit considered for even a moment? Downsizing set the trend in the Early Nineties but the two Sears examples show the difference between questionable necessity (having to close down the Halifax warehouse) versus the rank odor of greed (the closure of the call center). After all, it wasn't as if the company could throw it's books open, point to record losses and claim that cutbacks were needed to financially stay afloat. A mere month before closure was announced, Sears announced it's 11'th consecutive quarter of record revenues and earnings.
- Our esteemed Econimic Minister at the time Gordon Ball-less...er, Balser, claimed that we should have felt privileged to have had Sears grow prosperous off the backs of Maritime labor for as long as it did. I wonder if he had a hard time sleeping at all after trying to persuade the general public and the people downsized that we were lucky to have had the benefit of 800 "seasonal jobs" for eight years. I'll tell ya right now, if this dude had come into our call center and tried to convince people that their jobs were just "seasonal" he wouldn't have gotten out alive.
- Job loss is sometimes so prevalent that the sheer number of people effected starts to sound abstract and intangible. But there were lives that were impacted. Do companies truly believe that the extinction of nearly a thousand part-time jobs (including a scant handful of full-time jobs) won't have an impact on a local economy that's already economically depressed? Do they honestly believe that it won't have an effect on divorce rates, substance abuse, chronic depression, crime, suicide and other societal ills?
My anger over this just wouldn't subside. I sent a pleading letter to my MP at the time but got no response back. It seemed nobody cared.
Months wore on and the mood in the center became more and more oppressive. By the end of the summer the place had become a karmic minefield. In retrospect I probably should have tried to stick it out, taken the laughably small severance package and perhaps gone back to school to try and generate some biddable skills for myself. Unfortunately I just couldn't preside over the work environment equivalent of watching a once-vibrant family member waste away in a coma, so I eventually jumped ship to the next call center that would take me.
But before I left I came across an old "Rudy The Rumor Buster" sheet and decided to do my own custom parody with it. This is what I came up with and stuck back up on the bulletin board: