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400 to lose jobs at GM call center

A call center in east Tampa that handles inquiries from customers of financially struggling General Motors will close by year's end, leaving about 400 employees without jobs.

International Business Machines Corp., which took over a contract to run the center for GM Jan. 1, told workers Wednesday that their jobs would be gradually phased out until the facility closes in December. Two other GM call centers run by IBM face job cuts.

The work in Tampa - handling calls and e-mails from GM vehicle owners, dealers and prospective customers - will go to other centers in the "global network" of IBM and subcontractor Convergys, which employs the workers, said IBM spokeswoman Jenny Galitz.

Galitz and a GM spokeswoman declined to say whether the jobs will be moved outside the United States.

In Web site postings and e-mails to newspapers, some Convergys employees wrote that they expected work will be handled at centers in Canada, the Philippines and Argentina.

GM is carrying out dramatic plans to cut costs amid monumental challenges to the auto industry. Losing U.S. market share to Asian competitors, the company posted a $8.6-billion loss in 2005, in part because of high costs for pension, employee health care, materials and labor. GM plans to eliminate 30,000 hourly jobs and shutter 12 facilities by 2008.

Sitel Corp., based in Omaha, Neb., opened the Tampa call center in 1999 under a five-year contract with GM to run centers in Tampa; Austin, Texas; and Portland, Ore.

The plan was to consolidate eight GM-operated centers in southeast Michigan into three outsourced centers. GM extended the deal, but last fall awarded IBM a five-year contract to run the three centers.

At the time, the companies said most of the 519 Tampa workers would be hired when IBM took over.

About 120 left and were not replaced, said Galitz. The companies kept their word by keeping the others past Jan. 1 but didn't guarantee long-term employment, said GM spokeswoman Ryndee Carney.

"The world doesn't stay the same," she said. "Things do change."

IBM will close the GM call center it operates with Convergys in Portland, which employs about 620 people, by the middle of 2007. The Austin center, run by a different subcontractor, will lose an unspecified number of employees through mid 2007, Galitz said.

The word started leaking out this month on an employee independent Web site. On Feb. 2, a site member reported rumors that the company would tell employees this week that Tampa and Portland customer assistance centers would be shuttered, with the work heading to Canada.

The decision to move call center work out of Tampa was made by IBM, said GM spokeswoman Carney. "It's IBM's responsibility to figure out the best way to meet our needs as a client," she said.

The move is a blow to NetPark, an office complex created from the old East Lake Square Mall in east Tampa.

GM leases 100,000 square feet of space there. NetPark is also home to the information technology division of CP Ships. The container shipping company is cutting about 700 Tampa jobs, including the information technology department, by 2007 as part of its acquisition by Hapag-Lloyd of Germany.

Steve Huettel can be reached at huettel@sptimes.com or (813) 226-3384.

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