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It May Not Be a Calling ...

But many who work as telemarketers survive on the economic fringe. The 'do not call' list is likely to cost hundreds of thousands their jobs.

November 07, 2003|Scott Gold | Times Staff Writer

LAKEWOOD, Colo. — Most mornings, at 5:30, Kandie Millican hits the snooze button twice, then forces herself out of bed. She downs some coffee, packs Ramen noodles for lunch, drives 45 minutes to the office and spends the rest of the day trying to fend off America's scorn.

"Is Mrs. Ramirez in?"

Click.

"You'll love the jewelry."

Click.

"Hello?"

Millican, 26, is the voice at the other end of the phone. She is a telephone agent for ComTec Teleservices Inc., an "outsource customer-contact provider," or, in terms better understood by an exasperated nation, a telemarketer.

ComTec specializes in selling Internet, cable and telecommunications services, and, periodically, in interrupting your dinner. Thousands more telemarketers are scattered in every state, where they push heating oil, newspaper subscriptions, lawn care and other goods and services.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Saturday November 15, 2003 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 2 inches; 96 words Type of Material: Correction
Telemarketing industry -- A graphic that ran in Section A on Nov. 7 incorrectly stated the value of goods and services Americans purchased last year from telemarketers. The value of the top five goods and services was more than $12 billion worth of telephone service, not $120 million; $11 billion worth of magazine or newspaper subscriptions, not $110 million; $8 billion worth of cable or satellite service, not $8 million; $6 billion worth of CDs, videos, DVDs and related items, not $6 million; and $5 billion worth of computers, software or Internet service, not $5 million.

Last summer, the federal government announced a national registry for consumers who want to block telemarketers from calling them. Americans rushed to sign up.

Of the nation's 166 million residential numbers, 51 million are now off-limits to telemarketers. Despite ongoing court challenges, the list went into effect last month.

The crackdown might be welcomed by consumers, but not by telemarketers like Millican, many of whom survive on the economic fringe. The nation has lost 2.6 million jobs in two years, and the "do not call" list is expected to put hundreds of thousands more people out of work.

A tall, friendly woman with a booming voice -- she sang recently with a band called the Fabulous Boogienauts -- Millican has bounced from job to job since high school. In recent years, she worked for a spell as a grocery cashier, then sold coupon books door-to-door. Lately, as Colorado employers shed nearly 30,000 jobs, work began to dry up.

She landed at ComTec, in this suburb west of Denver, through a temporary employment agency. She sells savings plans for a home shopping network and postal supplies, among other things. The employment agency started out paying her $5.15 an hour -- plus commissions of as little as 20 cents.

"Look," said Millican, now one of ComTec's 150 staff agents, "people hate to be called. They hate me. But I have to have a job. I have to do something. This is what I do."

Though federal regulators and consumer advocates say the figure is exaggerated, trade associations say the do-not-call list will cost more than 1 million people their jobs, including telemarketers, supervisors, technicians and other support personnel.

ComTec, like many of the nation's 9,000 companies that make outbound calls -- the type of calls targeted by the list -- has already reduced its workforce by 25%, said Lee Harward, ComTec's president. Dozens of other call centers, from Indianapolis to Idaho Falls, Idaho, have closed.

And while there is considerable debate about the number of jobs at stake, there is little about the makeup of the industry.

According to one study by the Direct Marketing Assn., there are slightly more than 500,000 telephone agents whose primary task is to make outbound telephone calls.

Of those agents, about 30% are participating in welfare-to-work programs, according to the New York-based trade association. Almost 60% are women, including many single mothers and secondary earners who are keeping their families above the poverty line. More than half are African American. Just 5% have college degrees. Their average hourly wage is $9.67.

"At the end of the day, the do-not-call list is going to cost some people their jobs," said Chris Hoofnagle, associate director of the Electronic Privacy Information Center, a Washington-based research group that supports the list. "Many of those jobs will come from vulnerable populations. I'm willing to acknowledge that."

But Hoofnagle and other consumer advocates say privacy rights outweigh any economic cost. Howard Beales, director of the Federal Trade Commission's Bureau of Consumer Protection, said that while his agency had no way of knowing how many jobs would be lost, to a certain degree it didn't matter.

"I don't think anybody would advocate creating jobs for disadvantaged people just to annoy people," Beales said. "That is not a legitimate economic objective. We should try to find them useful jobs."

And so the dilemma comes full circle, said Eric Taylor, another ComTec telemarketer. Because in many parts of the country, there aren't any jobs to find.

Taylor, 23, fancies punk rock, shaves his head and wears shoes that resemble combat boots, even when he's wearing a tie. He recently dropped out of college in Texas, mostly because he was short on money. "A little lost," he says, he moved to Denver so he could be close to the mountains and go snowboarding.

He applied for dozens of jobs, even sold steaks door-to-door. But he could not find permanent work and, like Millican, came to ComTec through a temp agency this fall.

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