‘There will be Christmas:’ Laid off call centre workers eager to return to job

SYDNEY, N.S. — Hundreds of Cape Breton call centre workers laid off just weeks before Christmas may now have jobs to return to in the new year.

“There will be Christmas — there is some hope here,” said Michelle Hillier, who worked at ServiCom Canada for five years before being forced on the unemployment line earlier this month along with more than 600 colleagues.

“If the jobs are there, I’m walking right back through the doors again.”

The reopening of the call centre would be a significant gain for the economy of Cape Breton, a region that struggles with perennially high unemployment.

An Iowa-based businessman offered $1.5-million for the idled call centre during an auction this week that was part of bankruptcy proceedings in the United States.

The Sydney, N.S., operation was abruptly closed Dec. 6 after ServiCom’s U.S. parent, JNET Communications, filed for bankruptcy protection.

Anthony Marlowe of Marlowe Companies Inc. (MCI) outbid two other interested buyers and was expected to travel to the region and meet with workers Thursday.

“I was thrilled to find out that somebody is buying it and we could all have our jobs back,” said Chauncey Sullivan, who worked at the call centre for almost three years.

“It was such a huge loss for a small community.”

She said the mass layoff was “heartbreaking” but that “Capers” — or Cape Bretoners — have pulled together to support the workers.

The community has banded together to raise money for the laid off workers, with donations flooding in and the Salvation Army providing food and payments for home heating oil and electricity bills.

Most of the workers were owed about four weeks in back pay when the call centre abruptly shuttered, a liability MCI Canada said rests with ServiCom.

Justin Boutilier, who worked at the call centre for more than a decade, said while it’s great for the community and the regional economy to see the call centre reopen — there’s a “flip side.”

“A lot of people are owed thousands of dollars … it leaves a little bit of a sour taste,” he said.

Boutilier said some laid off workers who have qualified for employment insurance may go back to school or pursue training rather than return to the call centre.

Brett Murphy, who worked at the call centre for two years, said the laid off workers are struggling to pay bills.

“If this happened in July, it would be a little bit easier, but people are hurting this close to Christmas,” he said. “It’s great to know that hundreds of people will get their jobs back, we just need to get through this time.”

In a statement Tuesday, MCI Canada said the call centre will reopen as early as Jan. 2, 2019 under a new name: The Sydney Call Centre Inc. The company also confirmed that MCI will enter a nine-year lease for the shuttered facility.

Marlowe said it was clear that the bankruptcy proceedings in the United States were unlikely to produce any money for the workers. He said his company would offer sign-on and retention bonuses, but no figures were mentioned.

“We hope that this will help lessen some of the financial impacts of the closing,” he said in a statement.

Marlowe’s company was in the process of buying the call centre’s assets when it was shut down by the bankruptcy proceedings.

He said his company will provide new and ongoing employment for the Sydney area. Again, no numbers were mentioned.

“We are in a unique position to be able to quickly bring jobs back to Sydney, provide a valuable service to customers and add talented employees and capacity to the MCI portfolio,” Marlowe said.

“Expanding into a new country in less than 30 days is a big undertaking, but we have a great team and technology in place to get it done … We have every confidence that the team in Sydney will further fuel our organization’s success.”

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