No 'Welcome' for workers at AOL's Southside campus

By Timothy J. Gibbons
Published by Florida Times-Union on May 10, 2006.

Tammy Holt fought back tears as she pulled out of AOL's Southside campus early Tuesday morning, minutes after finding out that her job -- and that of the other 819 employees at the call center -- was gone.

"You go in there and you feel angry, and then you walk out and it hits you," said Holt, who had spent the past two years helping customers of Time Warner's Internet unit deal with problems with their accounts. "You go in mad and you come out sad."

Beginning at 5:30 a.m. Tuesday, when the first shift showed up at the call center, AOL broke the news to its employees, telling workers that the rumors managers had previously said to ignore were, in fact, true: The center -- one of AOL's oldest -- which had 1,800 employees at its peak, was shutting down immediately.

Rumors about the closure of the center began circulating outside the company more than a week ago, and managment-level employees confirmed to the Times-Union on Monday afternoon that the operation would be shuttered.

Workers who showed up Tuesday morning to answer phones were instead filed into alphabetically organized lines and taken into classrooms where they were told the news. Each worker will be given two months of pay and benefits, as required by law, and the company is also providing an additional month of benefits and the help of a transition company to assist with things like resume writing. Senior executives will also receive severance payouts.

The two-month package is required under federal law, which states that employees be given a 60-day warning before mass layoffs occur or the company must provide 60 days of back pay and benefits in lieu of notice. According to the law, the company can stop paying employees who get another job during that time.

Last week, while managers urged workers to concentrate on their jobs and not listen to rumors, behind the scenes human resources managers from AOL's corporate offices were in Jacksonville preparing severance packages and closing out computer systems. One AOL manager who asked not to be named for fear of future employment implications said that he had learned of the closure and the likelihood of a May 9 closing date at a meeting on April 27. He and other managers were asked to keep the information quiet.

And last Friday, several employees said, managers began to quietly pack up their desks and stopped walking the floors -- being seen among center employees had been a normal course of business for managers.

Some employees said they began to worry earlier this year when nonmanagement employees were told by the center's new general manager -- the third person to hold the position in less than a year -- that they could no longer keep personal items on their desks. Still, as of Friday, AOL officials were dismissing the closure talk as rumor. As employees confronted managers about the rumors in recent days, "no one would say anything," former employee Sue Mitchell said Tuesday.


Monday afternoon, though, security guards began leaking the news to some workers: They had been told the center would close when the last shift ended at midnight, two employees told the Times-Union on Monday afternoon.

No official notice was forthcoming until Tuesday, however, when Mayor John Peyton received a letter from AOL letting his office know that the center was closing. Some employees could be transferred to other jobs in the company, the letter said, but the company did not know "which, if any, employees may be offered this option."

The state had still not received notice of the closure from the company as of Tuesday evening, but was working with Worksource -- a regional organization that helps employers and job seekers -- to see what assistance was needed.

"We're in a monitoring situation right now, trying to find more information," said Jessica Cary, a spokesperson for the state's Agency for Workforce Innovation. "When we find out what they need, at that point we'll work with them closely to offer assistance."

When AOL shuts down its call centers -- including one near Orlando it closed last year and one in Ohio that was shuttered in 2003 -- it tends to do so suddenly rather than providing advance notice.

"I think the way it took place today is the most efficient way of doing it," said AOL spokesman Nicholas Graham. "The bottom line is that there is never an easy time to make this kind of announcement. It will always be a difficult decision to make."

Nevertheless, the rumors of a shutdown had some employees mentally prepared for what they found when they showed up at the office Tuesday.

"Surprised? On a scale of one to 10, my level of surprise was minus-two," said Steve, a former employee who declined to provide his last name.

It's been no secret that AOL's business is struggling. In the first quarter of 2006, the company lost about 835,000 subscribers, with the number of subscribers dropping by more than 3 million in the past year. The shrinking customer base -- from a 2002 peak of 26.7 million down to 18.6 million subscribers as of March 31 -- was apparent to those who handled customer calls, the volume of which employees said had been dropping steadily. The number of employees, who make an average $14.50 per hour, has also been declining, from 1,800 working there in 2002, to 1,200 last year.


In addition to shutting down the Jacksonville center Tuesday, AOL cut 300 jobs from its call center in Tucson, Ariz., and 125 jobs from its center in Ogden, Utah. With those cuts, the company now has 6,000 call center employees worldwide, including the centers it has in Oklahoma City and Albuquerque, N.M., as well as in Asia and Europe. No one is being hired in those centers to make up for the loss of the Jacksonville workforce, Graham said, although some existing employees in other facilities "are going to be repurposed to absorb some of the responsibilities that were handled in Jacksonville."

According to Graham, the number of calls coming into the Jacksonville facility was half of where it was two years ago, a fact he attributes to savvier consumers and more efficient self-help tools.

That fact, though, didn't soften the blow for AOL employees. As the early-morning workers left the site, many had cell phones pressed to grim-looking faces, in some cases letting other employees know what to expect when they showed up.

For many workers, though, the first real sign the closure was imminent was when they showed up Tuesday morning and were greeted by a mini-swarm of reporters, giving some a clue of what was going on inside.

"When I turned the corner, I knew," said Greg, an employee who declined to give his last name. "My throat went down to my stomach or my stomach went up to my throat. I knew it was coming."

SIDEBAR: Area companies vie for laid-off AOL workers

The Tuesday morning announcement might have come as a shock to AOL's employees, but it also galvanized another group of people in Jacksonville: those who want to hire the laid-off workers.

By the afternoon, Comcast Corp., whose broadband service competes with AOL's, and Convergys Corp., which has perhaps the largest call center on the First Coast, had both announced plans to have job fairs tailored to former AOL employees.

(Comcast's will be from 1 p.m. to 4 p.m. today and Thursday at 6805 Southpoint Parkway. Convergys' will be from 7:30 a.m. to 7:00 p.m. today at 8000 Baymeadows Way. Applicants should bring identification and resumes.)

The training that AOL call center employees received makes them attractive to employers, said Mike Israel, president of ATS Executive Search, which is also looking to hire some of the laid-off workers.

"Anyone that's a good phone person would absolutely have a lot of opportunities, either in another call center or in another field," Israel said. "As business for everyone picks up, there's more demand for customer service people."

A desire for employees with good people skills was the same thing that motivated companies as diverse as U.S. Legal Services and Zurich Insurance Services to say that former AOL workers should give them a call.

"Our customer service positions aren't entry level," said John Forbes, general counsel for U.S. Legal Services. "We think that those people would have the training and experience we look for."

With the range of job possibilities on the horizon, Israel cautioned the recently laid-off call center workers not to jump too quickly. "There's a lot of places out there," he said. "Take this as an opportunity to better your situation, no matter how good you thought it was before."


SIDEBAR: What will happen to AOL's tech park and building?

AOL - still going by America Online then - was flying high when it built its 125,000-square-foot facility in 2002, moving to the Southside site from a Northside center that used to be a warehouse.

It was quite a change for employees:

The new center, the company's largest, featured high ceilings, a multitude of windows and ponds and landscaping that gave the facility a pastoral feel.

That center will go up for sale in coming weeks, AOL said, although the company refused to discuss potential buyers on Tuesday.

"We're not ready to comment on what happens to the building," AOL spokesman Nicholas Graham said. "Those kind of decisions will be made after today."

The most likely suitor is the University of North Florida, which has agreed to buy the city's First Coast Technology Park in 2004 for $14 million.

The AOL call center was the third (and final) company to set up shop in the park, following ADT Security Services Inc. and contracting firm The Auchter Co., both of which have offices near the AOL spread.

The $14 million needed to complete that purchase is included in the budget passed by the state legislature in its recent session, but the deal can not move forward until the governor signs the budget.

UNF, whose campus is adjacent to the tech park, has said it plans to use the rest of the 284 acres in the park to grow, putting classrooms and office buildings on the site.

On Tuesday, university spokeswoman Sharon Ashton said "UNF is interested [in the AOL facility] and will be working with the appropriate officials to explore the possibilities."

The names of rumored buyers run the gamut of big players in the Jacksonville market, but no businesses or brokers have stepped forward to say they're interested.

It might not be long until someone does, though, said Jack Garnett of Garnett Commercial Real Estate, who brokered the deal on behalf of the city's Research and Development Authority when it sold the land in the tech park to AOL.

"With the influence of St. John Town Center and the university growing, land is being gobbled up in that corridor," Garnett said.

"As more development comes in, that's a desirable place."


This is a showcase of the work done by Timothy J. Gibbons during a journalism career now stretching back more than a decade.

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