Calling Illinois: US ServiCom Workers Talk Bankruptcy, Bouncing Checks

ServiCom, as most readers surely know by now, did not just operate the call center in Sydney. The company also had a call center in Rockford, Illinois (175 Executive Parkway) and two in the nearby town of Machesney Park, Illinois (10100 Forest Hills Road and 9942 N. Alpine Road).

On September 29, the company abruptly closed the Rockford and Machesney Park, Forest Hills centers, telling employees (via its Facebook page), that is was considering all options that would allow it to operate profitably:

As part of this process, our goals need to be focused on a select group of core businesses. Unfortunately, reaching that goal requires the tough decision to eliminate jobs, which means losing colleagues and parting with friends and co-workers. The decision was difficult and we are sure it will impact many of them in the days to come and we wish them the best in their future endeavors.

The local newspaper, the Rockford Register Star, reported it was “unclear how many full-time and part-time employees are affected.”

The Spectator has found out, through talking with three former Illinois ServiCom employees, that some who lost their jobs when the first two centers closed moved to the remaining center on N. Alpine Road in Machesney Park, only to go through the same experience all over again on December 6, when that center also shut down.

Here’s what they had to say.

 

Becky Bramlett

Becky Bramlett

Becky Bramlett

Becky Bramlett, a single mother with a 16-year-old son, says she took the job as an HR recruiter with ServiCom for a reason that now seems hard to credit: stability.

She told me, in a phone interview from her home in Rockford, Illinois on Monday:

I wasn’t [at ServiCom] for very long. I was there just roughly six months. I had lost a position working for another staffing agency where they were making really poor business decisions and stability is a huge factor when it comes to my career and where I’m working,…and at that time, ServiCom had been in the area for 15 years. So I’m thinking, “Oh, well, it’s a good company. They need somebody who’s savvy with recruiting, and that’s my background, so you know, why not?”

Bramlett began at ServiCom’s center in Rockford but was soon moved to the Forest Hills location to “recruit, interview and hire candidates.” Bramlett said she had “no clue” the company was in financial difficulties. Quite the opposite, in fact:

[W]hen I was moved to the Forest Hills location, in Machesney, I was moved there because…they were supposed to hire 200 agents for a new program. In addition to that, they had built all these new work stations, all these new cubicles, you know, they were expanding, they were growing and they were looking to fill these slots for this program.

…As a matter of fact, the week prior to the shutdown [on September 29th] I had hired 22 people that week to start on October 10th.

The shutdown, she said, hit her “like a brick.”

September 28th, which was the Friday, I left work, told my co-workers, we all said, “Have a good weekend! See you Monday!” and everything was hunky-dory.

And then Saturday I found out on Facebook where they had shut down Rockford and Forest Hills. I’m thinking, “What just happened here?” And then I didn’t get an official release call until later that evening from a rep from ServiCom, so by that time it had already circulated over Facebook and over the WIFR, which is the local CBS affiliate. So, it had already been through the newswire before I even got a phone call.

I was devastated. Not so much just for the loss of the job, because I’m thinking, “Okay, I can pick this up and I can find something better,” but for the fact that I had hired so many people and gave so many people that opportunity that it just…crushed me… It was awful.”

Bramlett said the shutdown was particularly surprising because she had thought the company was doing well:

[H]onestly, in the grand scheme of things, I don’t understand how they accumulated so much debt. I know that the City of Rockford offered a lot of money to the company just to open up the Executive Parkway site…They were given incentives to open that business there.

In addition to that, you know, Comcast is a very profitable program, SiriusXM was also very — highly– profitable, so how [were they] able to accumulate that kind of debt, to literally close up shop and lock the doors without telling anybody? I think there’s a lot more going on at the upper level…because I don’t see with how profitable they were, especially the programs they had — and the program we were going to be rolling out at the Forest Hills location was going to be AT&T, which is huge. So I don’t understand how the debt accumulated, I really don’t.

Bramlett says as an HR recruiter, she was not one of the employees invited to return to the remaining call center in Machesney Park, “just because there wasn’t the need.” The firm wrote her a “glowing recommendation letter” and, eventually, paid her:

We didn’t get paid initially, we were supposed to be paid our last wages on October 5. We did not receive payment until October 10th…[T]hankfully, I had 90% direct deposit and 10% in the pay[check]. I was not able to cash my final paycheck until the end of October because even the Bank of America, which was ServiCom’s bank, they wouldn’t even cash their checks because of the bankruptcy. I made two different trips and I was thinking, “Wow.” I mean, when you’re without, a hundred bucks is a hundred bucks.

Bramlett says she was able to qualify for unemployment, but there was a three-week wait period before she received a one-week pay and it wasn’t “fully rolling” until November which made for a difficult October:

Oh yeah, it was a very rocky October. And kind of a hungry one too — my son was well fed though, but I went without a lot, just to make sure [of] that. I’m a single parent, he’s 16, he’ll be 17 in April. I don’t receive any outside resources, no child support, no state aid.

But Bramlett is also thinking of the employees she hired — some of whom worked for as little as a week before being laid off:

It just makes me sick for everybody, because there really were a lot of good people that worked there and…when I came on board, I worked with a great management team. I worked with a great HR team, leadership team, everybody was just super nice and just really awesome people to work with. ..[T]o read now these people haven’t been paid, now they don’t have a job, I can’t wrap my head around how it could have gotten to this level. I really can’t.

…There’s so many questions only [JNET Communications owner David] Jefferson can answer. Why did you do this? How did it get so far out of control? Why was it so profitable and then all of a sudden the rug’s pulled out? It doesn’t make any sense at all…

 

Patricia (Trish) Whelchel

Patricia Whelchel

Patricia Whelchel

Patricia Welchel worked for ServiCom in Machesney Park in 2013 but “took a few years off” before going back to work at the Rockford call center in February of this year.

Whelchel, who works despite a disability and supports a fiance who is also disabled, told me by phone from her home in Rockford, Illinois, that she was one of nine agents promoted to lead representative in August, just weeks before the center closed its doors.

She told me she’d had some sense the company was in trouble, because they had missed a payroll the week before the shutdown, but when I asked if it would be reasonable to say she hadn’t seen the bankruptcy coming, she told me:

That would be very reasonable to say. We specifically…asked them, and when I say ‘we,’ I mean myself and several other representatives, we asked and the prevailing opinion of management was, “No, we’re not going to close down, we’re not in trouble, everything’s going to go back to normal.” The NEXT DAY [December 6] they closed it down.

Whelchel says she believes management at the very top knew what was really going on but that a lot of the lower-tier managers were “like deer in the headlights. They got screwed over too.”

Whelchel says she was not called back to the center in Machesney — which she attributes to her being a lead rep rather than a regular rep. In fact, she “tried really hard not to go back” to ServiCom but:

I wound up going ahead and reapplying because I was having trouble. You know, I’d been putting in applications 90 going North and hadn’t heard anything back and I needed a job. So, I wound up reapplying at Machesney Park where I started in the first place. And taking a pay cut. And that was on November 5.

I was there long enough to catch a one-week paycheck, which was pretty pathetic, especially considering what I was used to making. And then, we were supposed to get our next paycheck last week — they had actually put it out there that from now on, we wouldn’t get our paychecks on the Friday, we were going to get them on Wednesday…We had a building meeting — I don’t know what they did up there in Sydney — but we had meetings on Tuesday evening saying, “Oh, well, we sold the company and the new buyers…they’ve taken out a loan to handle payroll,” so you may not get your money on Wednesday.

I told Whelchel that employees in Sydney had been told — after the doors closed — that the sale had almost happened but had fallen through at the last minute. She told me that she’d been on a call during the Tuesday evening meeting and had asked afterward what she’d missed:

[A]nd that is what I was told: they sold the company, the new owners are taking out loans, and you may not get your money on Wednesday, you may get it on Thursday or Friday.

That was Tuesday night. The next day, Wednesday, was Whelchel’s day off — and it was also supposed to be payday, but that didn’t happen.

So on Thursday, we didn’t get paid, and I knew because we have direct deposit…So I was going to go to work, but I work on a schedule where the buses don’t run when I get off, they run everywhere but out there…I didn’t go to work because [my ride to work] said she hadn’t been paid and “I’m not going to ride to work on fumes to not be paid.”

So I didn’t go to work. At the start of what should have been our shift…they kicked everybody out. So had I gone to work, I would have gotten to work, had enough time to grab my stuff out of my locker and unlock my desk, and then had to wait outside for an hour for the next bus so I could go home. So I’m glad I didn’t go to work except that I had medications in my locker that I can’t access because there’s nobody in the building will let me in.

She’s owed four weeks’ pay. She says, echoing Becky Bramlett, that local institutions have stopped cashing ServiCom checks:

┬áTheir checks have been bouncing so bad that landlords won’t rent to people that work at ServiCom.

I asked Whelchel, who described her position as “low-end management,” if she’d ever met David Jefferson, the JNET CEO. She told me she hadn’t met him, but she’d seen him once:

I saw him. Yeah, and I was not impressed…he looked like George Jefferson, and he come in there strutting like George Jefferson, and I went outside on my break and I see he’s got himself an SUV limousine, you know, it’s not a real limousine, but he’s got a driver standing outside, just waiting, while he’s doing his inspection of the building…

And when I found out he was a pastor I said, ‘Are you kidding me?” What pastor acts like that?…He’s got his money and forgot about everybody else and mistreated everybody.

 

Lorin Sheppard

Lorin Sheppard

Lorin Sheppard

Lorin Sheppard had worked at the call center at Forest Hills, Machesney Park since April 2017, as part of the AT&T team.

She said that until the center shut down, she’d had no reason to suspect it was going to happen:

We had one [late pay] right before that, but we didn’t think anything of it, because it never happened before. They’d never been late on payroll before, so we didn’t think anything of it. We thought it was just a glitch.

In fact, she said, management told them it was just a glitch, that “something happened with it being submitted.”

Sheppard told me by phone from her home in Loves Park, Illinois that she was not actually at work on September 29th when her call center shut down:

I actually was off that weekend. I found out from a fellow employee when I went to put gas in my car at the gas station…[T]hey called a mass meeting in the middle of the location, I guess, and they handed letters out to everybody, saying they were shutting down that location and…the location in Rockford as well.

Unlike Whelchel and Bramlett, Sheppard, who has two children — a one-year-old and a seven-year-old — and lives with her fiance was called back to the remaining location in Machesney Park where she figures she was one of “about 100” employees.

She worked there from the beginning of October until December 6. This time, when the ax fell, she was in the office:

We didn’t get a letter this time. They told us all to log off the phones on Thursday, I had just gotten back from lunch break — it was between 12:30 and 1:00 — they told us all to log off the phones that we needed to have a meeting. There was already concern because we were supposed to get paid on Wednesday and we hadn’t gotten paid and it was Thursday and then they told us, “We can no longer operate since we do not know when you’re going to be getting paid.’ And they told us all to go home.

Sheppard, who is owed money, says her situation is better than that of many ex-workers because her finance is employed:

I have another income in my house, my finance, so I haven’t really being trying to, other than unemployment and food stamps, and us getting help with rent, I haven’t really been trying to seek help for Christmas stuff, because my kids are getting Christmas from my fiance and other family members…

But I do see that other employees are trying to…help the people who are single parents that, this was their only job, to be able to get presents, whether it’s used or new or whatever.

Sheppard says her HR person (a personal friend) has been “awesome” in trying to keep people informed of the bankruptcy proceedings, as have other members of upper management.

As for finding new employment, Sheppard said there are lots of jobs available in the area but, particularly for the single parents, “it’s about pay.”

But for Sheppard, it’s also about more than pay. She told me that she and her former coworkers been keeping in touch, explaining:

[I]t’s pretty easy for us to keep in touch because honestly, the reason I stayed there through all of this was because it’s like my second family. That’s how close we all were there, it really was like another family…I’ve never enjoyed going to work as much as I loved working there.

 

 

 

 

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