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Is Their Number Up?

Those Directory Assistance Folks Keep One Eye on Their Computer and One Looking Over Their Shoulder

January 08, 1998|ESTHER SCHRADER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Sullivan became an operator because of the pay--now $7.70 an hour to start, $16.60 an hour in four years, plus benefits. And she liked the tiny conversations she had with hundreds of people every day.

But these days there is no letup. In three high-tech offices in Anaheim, San Diego and Culver City, 1,800 operators search the company's vast, ever-changing databases for numbers in six area codes stretching from the Mexico border to Simi Valley.

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While private directory assistance services have encroached on Pacific Bell's former monopoly, the phone company giant still provides information to about 14 million of the 17 million telephone customers in Southern California.

In the beige buildings where information operators work, their locations kept secret because of frequent bomb threats, employees flash a light when they need to go to the bathroom so supervisors can ask someone else to take their calls. Wearing Walkmans to ease the boredom is not allowed. Note-taking is frowned on. Computer games are allowed.

Supervisors on raised platforms around the room choreograph who works where and when. It's an intricate dance meant to ensure that just enough operators are working at any one time to handle the calls. There are operators working around the clock in shifts that begin and end every 15 minutes.

Since last spring, technology has made it possible for supervisors to know exactly how many calls each operator is taking every minute of the day.

Operators have 21 seconds to answer calls. Last year, handling the average call took more than 30 seconds. The allotted time is expected to drop to 18 seconds soon. Five years ago, there were 2,500 people doing this job and an operator handled fewer than half the calls that each does today.

With the speed come mistakes. Zach Terflinger, 25, a six-year veteran, said it's hard to avoid giving the occasional wrong number when you have only a few seconds to type abbreviated names into a database.

"I've had customers call and scream at the top of their lungs because they got the wrong number," he said. "The fact is, sometimes I do give out wrong numbers."

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Not all the changes have been bad for operators. Last spring they got adjustable desks and chairs and keyboards with a lighter touch. If operators get tired of repeating the same greeting over and over again, they can record it and play it for callers, then jump in a few seconds later to listen to the reply.

Gone are the dress codes that once required women to work in skirts and pumps. Back then, the force was all women. Today 20% of the 411 operators are men. Men and women dress as they like, slouching in sweats, hunching over their keyboards in jeans or sitting cross-legged, baseball caps low over their eyes.

On a recent rainy day, signs posted on pillars and bulletin boards in one office reminded operators to give people looking for sandbags the number of their local fire station. Twelve people called asking about ski conditions in the Sierra. A child wanted to know the capital of Afghanistan, and another asked an operator in a tiny voice how to spell "terrible." Operators answer these questions when they can do so quickly.

As the clocks above them tick off the hours and minutes and seconds of their days, operators say they spend a lot of time worrying about what will happen to the jobs they once thought would always be there.

"Oh, it's coming," said Mark Leslie, who started with Pacific Bell 26 years ago as a directory assistance operator fresh out of high school--the second man to do so--and rose to be vice president of external affairs in the company's Orange County operation.

"Sometimes I sit here and think: What will it be like when they're not here anymore?"

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