Riverbank call center for deaf to lose jobs

RIVERBANK -- The new owner of a call center that provides telephone relay services for the deaf is laying off employees because of a decrease in the volume of calls, the company said Monday.

GoAmerica Inc., a New Jersey-based company that specializes in communication products for the deaf and hard of hearing, purchased Verizon's relay services division in a $50 million cash deal that closed last month. It included the Riverbank operation and a call center in Memphis, Tenn.

The call center at Oakdale and Patterson roads in Riverbank employs about 700 people who provide phone translations, relaying conversations for the speech- and hearing-impaired under a contract with the state.

It is unclear how many people will lose their jobs, although an employee at the center said that it is expected to be as much as half the work force. These jobs pay about $10.50 per hour plus benefits.

Company spokesman Thomas Rozycki said that after GoAmer-ica took over ownership of Verizon's relay division, it identified a stream of calls that were originating from outside the United States.

It installed technology to block the calls, resulting in a drop in overall call volume. Rozycki said that forced the company to reduce its staff at the Riverbank and Memphis operations, which together employ about 1,100.

"There is no reason for United States domestic taxpayers to reimburse international calls," Rozycki said.

The state-mandated deaf and disabled communications program is funded by a surcharge on phone bills in California. It operates under the direction of the state Public Utilities Commission.

Employees were told Monday of the impending layoffs. Meetings will be held later this week to issue 60-day notices to the affected workers, Rozycki said. Those employees will receive compensation and severance packages, he said.

Rozycki described the reductions as an "ongoing process" and said the company did not have a figure for the total number who will be laid off. More details will be released by Friday, he said.

GoAmerica subcontracts the staffing and operation of the Riverbank call center to Stellar Nordia Services, based in Irving, Texas. GoAmerica executives are in Riverbank this week.

The Riverbank call center has gone through five management changes since opening in 1996. It originally was operated for MCI by the nonprofit California Coalition of Agencies Serving the Deaf and Hard of Hearing.

But PUC complaints about the quality of service prompted MCI to fire the subcontractor and replace it with GC Services in 1997.

MCI decided in 2003 to have its staff run the center. Verizon took over the relay services division when it merged with MCI two years ago. Verizon sold the division to GoAmerica in an effort to get out of the telephone relay business and focus on other services.

Bee staff writer Christina Salerno can be reached at csalerno@modbee.com or 238-4574.