*Call Center Stress Sticking Point in Verizon's Labor Negotiations

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The call center environment is at the heart of the negotiations between Verizon Communications and the unions representing its striking workers, a Verizon spokesman said yesterday.

The company, formed by the merger of Bell Atlantic and GTE, said the two sides are close to agreement on several issues, including salaries, benefits and the potential union representation of employees in its Verizon Wireless division, but the issues related to the call center working environment remain a sticking point.

According to reports, employees in Verizon's customer service call centers blame the company's cross-selling requirements and close monitoring by managers for adding stress to what is already a difficult job.

"The work done in our call centers, we all agree, is tough," said Eric Rabe, vice president of media relations for Verizon. "The question is, how can we address the legitimate issues of job stress and still continue to provide the level of service that our customers want and that our customers deserve."

The Communication Workers of America, one of three unions negotiating with Verizon, represents the company's call center representatives. It issued a press release this week stating that Verizon's latest contract proposal, submitted early that morning, "contained nothing at all to relieve the critical issue of mounting job stress for customer service employees. There was no progress on the issue of rampant forced overtime for these workers and others."

In addition, the union is protesting Verizon's plans to shift some work to other call centers and is opposed to the restrictions Verizon places on call center employees' ability to transfer to other jobs within the company. The union claims that Verizon allows only 1.5 percent of its call center workforce to transfer to new jobs each month and that it does not allow employees to transfer until they have been with the company three years.

Rabe declined to discuss the specific limitations on employees' ability to transfer, but he defended the company's desire to restrict job transfers.

"Part of managing the stress in the call centers and managing customer demand and making sure that we're offering good service is being careful how you move people in and out of that work," Rabe said. "I think you can see that if you have half the workers in a call center trying to transfer somewhere else it would be difficult to manage in that environment."

The strike, which began Aug. 6, happened to fall at a time when the company is not conducting as much outbound telemarketing at it normally does throughout the year, according to another Verizon spokesman.

About 85,000 workers are on strike the company said, including 3,100 that were picketing at 245 locations yesterday.

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