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Robert Trigaux

For third time in 10 years, Sykes Enterprises layoffs threaten small Oregon farm town



Milton-freewatersign Wake up and good morning. We may not often consider how one of our Tampa-based companies can wield such enormous influence over small and remote communities in America, but some can and do. Take Tampa's growing call center provider, Sykes Enterprises, and the tiny Oregon farm town of Milton-Freewater located south and just across the state border from Walla Walla, Wash. Here is that story.

For the third time since opening a call center operation in Milton-Freewater 10 years ago, Sykes has announced a massive layoff -- and potential shutdown. The city's largest private employer located at 151 Sykes Boulevard filed notice last week that it plans to eliminate 336 jobs in a community of 6,600 people. The notice was filed under a Worker Adjustment and Retraining Notification Act notice -- we call them WARN notices and Florida uses them, too -- in which Sykes said it will cut jobs at its call center on Jan. 15. Sykes operates globally but in the United States runs 12 call centers in mostly rural, small towns. Here's a list.

Miltonfreewaterfrogbrandlineman Milton-Freewater, a town that's adopted the frog as one of its branding identities, is hoping the mass layoff notice is more paperwork notice than coming reality. Tampa's Andrea Burnett, Sykes corporate public relations manager, said the call center is not closing but some major contracts are expiring and Sykes hopes to find new work for the facility. Here's what Burnett told the Walla Walla Union-Bulletin:

"Our business, the way it is, there are times when we have to adapt to the market and client needs. Fortunately, we have experienced tremendous growth over the last two years. There is still demand for outsourcing solutions, both with current clients and also new ones."

Five years ago, the Union-Bulletin notes, Sykes delivered another WARN notice, giving 60 days to 300 employees that the company would close. In the weeks following, Sykes secured contract extensions to keep the plant going before announcing later that year it would remain open indefinitely. Sykes was originally attracted to the area not only for its "strong college presence," the newspaper says, but also because of a $3.5 million incentive package brokered by the city.

According to Good Jobs First, a watchdog group that monitors accountability in economic incentives and development, Milton-Freewater borrowed $2.2 million in 1998 to make a $2.7 million cash grant to Sykes for 400 projected jobs. The city also provided free land, utility services, and tax credits, plus $1 million in state funds for road improvements. Businesses just across the state line in Washington even chipped in $200,000 in private funds. Here's what Good Jobs First says about Sykes.

Here is the Union-Bulletin story and a related report from the East Oregonian about the latest announced layoffs.

As recently as Thursday the company adverted for full-time customer service representatives. According to that ad, Sykes has more than 550 employees and is "still growing." Burnett told the Union-Bulletin that Sykes will continue to advertise for local positions because within the plant, the customer service reps work on behalf of different clients, such as financial or communications clients. The number of employees facing layoffs are those who represent contracts that are set to expire.

Milton-Freewater City Manager Linda Hall told the newspaper she remains optimistic. If new contracts do not emerge, the impact of more than 300 lost jobs would be devastating, she said.

"That's a lot of people to be out looking for work when our ag-based jobs are gearing back for the winter and heating bills are getting higher and the holidays are coming. It couldn't come at a worse time obviously."

-- Robert Trigaux, Times Business Columnist

[Last modified: Tuesday, June 1, 2010 11:26am]


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