The Bureau of Labor statistic estimates that more than two million Americans work in contact centers. They man everything from help desks for IT issues to cell phone billing. But the CSS reps who only had to worry about phone calls or read off single scripts have quietly gone the way of the dinosaur. More and more these jobs require familiarity with an array of technologies, any one of which would have been classified as a skilled white collar job just a few years ago. At the same time, pay and benefits have been under assault, stranding the vast majority of CSS reps in dead-end jobs with no prospect of advancement or a living wage regardless of their increasing productivity.
There's a bunch of complex reasons for that. But seen from the front-lines marked by rows of cubes and headsets, the focus here is on the less ethical path taken by so many cash-flush corporate giants, including but not limited to:
- Replacing veteran experienced employees with temps and younger entry level employees at every chance.
- Promoting young, inexperienced employees at historically low wages to junior supervisory positions over experienced, educated employees.
- The use of arbitrarily awarded and usually unspecified "variable pay," i.e., vague bonuses, to gain more leverage over employees and replace greater portions of once reliable and more traditional compensation.
A few words about some of those bullet points below.
Most CSC jobs these days start out at $8 to $14 an hour. Like most jobs, the longer you are employed the more you probably make. Whereas before that would be a plus, today it is a danger. Plain and simple, these days the longer you've worked at a company the more they want to get rid of you and replace you with someone at the starting end of the wage band. This is a lot easier to do in red states like Florida or Texas, so it's not surprising contact centers are located in right-to-be-fired states. Even so, companies know they have to go about it legally, or at least try to make it look legal. So they've cooked up an ugly array of methods to shit-can older and more experienced employees.
The most predominant method is harsh attendance policies. Over the course of a given month the odds that you will become so sick or injured, or have to take care of someone so sick or injured, that you'll miss an entire week are unlikely. But as months turn into years it becomes a growing statistical certainty. Penalizing employees for those absenses regardless of the reason is a built in system to separate more experienced employees. Another way is to harshly enforce workplace policies for more experienced workers. For example most companies have a policy that you're not supposed to be surfing the net and many companies ignore it totally as long as production is acceptable. Simply enforce it on experienced employees and they're out of there.
Another to encourage experienced employees to leave voluntarily is to make it impractical for them to get promoted or earn a raise. There's a whole field of management now dedicated to making that happen. Constantly increase the required threshold for advancement, periodically take the system "down," at least in regard to employees earning greater internal certifications and requisite wages. Lastly, there's the growing use of temps, employees at third-party head hunters hired for a short period, often working long hours including holidays and weekends for no shift differential, no over time, and who receive no benefits at all.
Speaking of wages, in customer service there seems to be an increasing reliance on variable pay, i.e., bonuses. In some cases bonuses might make sense for head honchos and others who affect profitability and make a living base wage to start with. But variable pay becomes an unregulated economic weapon when wielded by senior managers over low paid staff. In large part because the company can play games, like withholding all or part of them for arbitrary reasons, that they can't play with most wages and benefits.
An exec who makes half a million a year base pay won't notice much change in their standard of living if their bonus is zero or a cool hundred-thousand bucks. But the difference four-thousand dollars makes to a single mom earning 20k a year is hard to over emphasize. That lower paid employee has to spend every dime they make pretty much as soon as they get it on direct and immediate living expenses. Even then they're always falling behind. By the time bonus month rolls at the end of the fiscal year, odds are they're late on bills and counting on that bonus to keep the lights on or the roof overhead. It can literally mean the difference between shelter and homelessness, the car or the bus, and in some cases, food versus going hungry.
As surely as effective employees have been economically forgotten or outright exploited in CSS roles, there's been an accompanying wave of younger, less experienced reps promoted to serve as supervisors and mid level managers for reasons no one can seem to clearly articulate. The end result is twenty-something year-old managers, some whom have literally never taken a phone call, tasked with motivating or even coaching veteran subordinates who can run rings around them. To use a sports analogy, watching an enthusiastic 19-year-old kid try to provide useful pointers to a middle-aged trilingual rep with an advanced degree is like listening to a high school quarter-back try to give throwing tips to Brett Favre.
We haven't even scratched the surface of the structural implosion in wages in general and CSS jobs specifically. The hardship that temps and bonuses alone inflict on this workforce could occupy pages of text. The systemic concentration of benefits at the top and scapegoating at the bottom, now written into law and policies across the nation could stretch into a book. But for the movers and shakers out and about today, one final point to ponder.
In the end these practices will hurt more than the low paid reps, they'll hurt the business. Companies that stayed in the black through the worst of the Great Recession enjoyed a unique opportunity, the kind that may not come again in the professional lives of most managers and owners reading this. They've been able to hire the most dedicated, educated, hard-working employees for the lowest wage and benefit packages in decades. Wise business people will leverage that windfall on behalf of investors as the nation recovers and businesses flourish. Alas, it remains to be seen how many companies will be classified as wise by this simple, testable metric.