*Verizon Call Center Employees Gain Workplace Concessions

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Verizon reached an agreement this week with 35,000 employees in several mid-Atlantic states ending an 18-day strike.

About 52,000 workers in New York and New England, represented by the Communications Workers of America and the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, returned to work Aug. 21. They had sought new benefits in their contracts, including several related to the call center working environment.

The unions represent a range of workers at the phone company, which was formed this summer through the merger of Bell Atlantic and GTE.

Under terms of the new CWA contract covering the workers in New York and New England, customer service agents will receive a 4 percent pay increase, effective immediately, in addition to the 12.5 percent pay increase that other union members will receive during the next three years.

Customer service representatives in New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Delaware, Maryland, West Virginia, Virginia and Washington, DC, will have mandatory overtime reduced to a maximum of 7.5 hours a week, down from 15.

"This will help the company retain skilled, motivated customer service representatives, which in turn should reduce turnover in the company's call centers, stress and the need for overtime," Verizon said.

The company agreed to implement measures to reduce stress in its call centers. The issue was a sticking point among those employees who did not settle until yesterday, according to reports. The workers settling earlier in the week agreed to a contract calling for mandatory overtime of about eight hours per week.

Included among the measures to reduce stress in the call centers is a provision in the new contract reached earlier this week allowing agents to do work other than answering calls for up to five 30-minute periods each week, according to reports. Telephone agents had complained that they were unable to complete some of their tasks, such as filling out order forms, because they only had two seconds between calls.

Verizon also formed a "stress relief committee" to address the issue of stress in the call centers and to seek additional changes in the workplace.

The company, in the deal reached earlier in the week, also agreed to limit the transfer of union jobs to other call centers to 0.7 percent of union jobs in a given geographic area per year for the next three years. The CWA was concerned Verizon might try to transfer some jobs to call centers in other parts of the country where labor is cheaper.

In addition, the contract will allow Verizon to offer performance-based incentives to groups of call center workers. The company will reward employees with bonuses worth up to 10 percent of their base pay if their teams meet certain objectives.

Verizon also agreed to make adjustments to its pension plan and other benefits and agreed to rules for the unionization of employees in its Verizon Wireless business unit. It also agreed to standards for the use of union employees in the rollout of its high-speed DSL communications infrastructure.

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