Call cen­tre abruptly closes in Cape Bre­ton, leav­ing hun­dreds out of work

Saskatoon StarPhoenix - - FINANCIAL POST -

HAL­I­FAX Of­fi­cials of­fered a glim­mer of hope Fri­day to hun­dreds of Cape Bre­ton call cen­tre work­ers grap­pling with lay­offs less than three weeks be­fore Christ­mas, say­ing the op­er­a­tion has a “bright fu­ture” and could be up and run­ning again soon.

ServiCom Canada an­nounced the clo­sure of its Syd­ney op­er­a­tion Thurs­day, hand­ing pink slips to al­most 700 work­ers in an in­dus­trial re­gion al­ready strug­gling with a stub­bornly high un­em­ploy­ment rate.

The shut­down fol­lowed a bank­ruptcy pro­tec­tion fil­ing by ServiCom’s U.S. par­ent, weeks of pay delays and prom­ises of bonuses and pay in­cen­tives for work­ers who stayed.

In the af­ter­math of the lay­offs, many work­ers spent Fri­day fil­ing em­ploy­ment in­sur­ance claims and seek­ing help from lo­cal char­i­ties.

Nova Sco­tia Busi­ness Minister Ge­off MacLel­lan said it was a “dev­as­tat­ing time for Cape Bre­ton­ers.”

How­ever, the Cape Bre­ton politi­cian also said he was con­fi­dent the cen­tre had a “bright fu­ture” af­ter speak­ing with a prospec­tive buyer Fri­day morn­ing.

“There is a po­ten­tial buyer that is very in­ter­ested and will do what­ever they can to make sure this cen­tre is part of their com­ple­ment in the very near fu­ture,” MacLel­lan said, adding that the po­ten­tial buyer was look­ing for­ward to “open­ing it early in the new year.”

The minister said he couldn’t of­fer more de­tails, cit­ing court pro­ceed­ings in the United States. He said a deal was pend­ing when the bank­ruptcy is­sues caused a snafu.

Ce­cil Clarke, mayor of the Cape Bre­ton Re­gional Mu­nic­i­pal­ity, said the clo­sure “came as a shock,” de­spite the com­pany’s on­go­ing fi­nan­cial trou­bles.

Clarke said the im­me­di­ate fo­cus is on pro­vid­ing tem­po­rary tran­si­tion as­sis­tance to work­ers.

The Syd­ney op­er­a­tion first opened un­der dif­fer­ent own­er­ship nearly two decades ago dur­ing a wave of call cen­tre open­ings across the Mar­itimes. Busi­nesses were at­tracted by the re­gion’s lower pay­roll costs and of­ten re­ceived gov­ern­ment in­cen­tives.

If the call cen­tre isn’t ac­quired by an­other firm, those who were laid off face grim job prospects in Cape Bre­ton.

The un­em­ploy­ment rate on the is­land was 15 per cent last month — more than dou­ble the pro­vin­cial rate of 6.7 per cent, ac­cord­ing to un­ad­justed fig­ures from Statis­tics Canada.

Todd Ri­ley, the for­mer site man­ager at the Syd­ney of­fice, sug­gested on his Face­book page that work could be com­ing to the site un­der an­other com­pany.

“Hardest day of my life ... I can­not ex­press how much I am hurt by this de­ci­sion but I am work­ing as hard as pos­si­ble and be­lieve we will get back to work soon,” he wrote.

Wil­liams, who worked the phones for On­Star, said she had ex­pe­ri­enced pay delays dat­ing back to Au­gust when she said there was a prob­lem with the pay­roll sys­tem.

In Oc­to­ber, she said em­ploy­ees had to wait about two weeks to get paid when the par­ent com­pany was fil­ing for bank­ruptcy pro­tec­tion. She said she is owed sev­eral weeks of pay.

She said em­ploy­ees were told they did not need to worry about los­ing their jobs.

“I feel like it was a trick to keep us all there, es­pe­cially af­ter promis­ing us all of these bonuses,” she said.

“I have a two-and-a-half-yearold (daugh­ter), a house, a mort­gage and all the bills that come along with it, so this is not a great feel­ing — es­pe­cially three weeks be­fore Christ­mas.”

She said a lo­cal food bank was open­ing its doors to those who lost their jobs.

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