Qwest to close Portland call center, 160 CWA jobs will vanish

Qwest Communications International has announced it will close its Portland customer service call center Oct. 13 and lay off 175 employees, including 160 members of Communications Workers of America Local 7901.

The work will be shifted to Qwest call centers in Sioux City, Iowa; Sioux Falls, South Dakota, and Logan, Utah.

The announcement comes two years after another Qwest closure threat, in response to which state and local officials offered taxpayer-funded incentives to get Qwest to keep the center open.

In 2004, the State of Oregon offered to partner with the City of Portland and pay up to $3,000 per employee for training, and the Portland Development Commission (PDC) made up to $750,000 available to pay for new equipment and improvements to Qwest’s downtown Portland facility.

Qwest kept the call center, but decided not to take the subsidies, because they came with strings attached, like a requirement that the jobs pay a certain level and stay put a certain length of time. If the company took the PDC subsidy and later closed the center, it would have to repay it, with interest.

The union, also, made concessions two years ago. To compete with low-wage non-union call center contractors, CWA agreed to a two-tier wage system. New hires would start at $8.50 an hour, bump to $10 after a probationary period, and make up to $12 depending on sales. The most senior employees would continue to make $20 an hour.

The hope was that lower wages would bring back work that had been subcontracted. The reality, says Local 7901 President Madelyn Elder, is that in places like Portland it wasn’t possible to find good workers at that wage.

Qwest said workers will have an opportunity to transfer to the other centers.

“If you want a $10-an-hour job in Sioux City, you can follow your job,” Elder said.

There may be some cases in which Qwest’s Portland workers would actually consider doing that, Elder said, like if they’re two years away from retirement and need the intact employment history to get full benefits.

Elder said the union hopes to persuade Qwest management to reconsider.