MILTON-FREEWATER - Sykes Enterprises has notified its 173 employees in its Milton-Freewater call center will close Oct. 12. All employees - once as many as 300 - will be terminated at that time, according to the required Worker Adjustment and Retraining Notification (WARN).

When Sykes initially announced plans to close the center, it gave a date of May 2. But the reduced work force got a temporary reprieve when the company received a six-month contract from Qwest. The company rescinded its first WARN, which city officials welcomed as they began searching for a new occupant for the Sykes building.

"It is with my deepest regret to inform you that the decision has been made to close the entire Milton-Freewater Support Center," Sykes Sr. Vice President James Hobby wrote to the employees in the latest WARN. "It is currently anticipated that this closure will be temporary in nature, but the long-term prospects for this call center are dependent on future business levels and customer requirements."

While the memo defines the closure as temporary, city and state officials have suspected all along it would be permanent, based on the closing of other U.S. call centers operated by Sykes. The company has been shifting business operations overseas where labor is not as costly.

First Analysis Securities Corp. in Chicago reported that while 27 percent of Sykes' jobs were offshore on June 30, 2003, it's expected to climb to 50 percent by the end of the summer. According to a recent study by the University of California-Berkeley, the average pay of an English-speaking telephone operator in India is less than $1 an hour.

Milton-Freewater offered Sykes an incentive package totaling $3.5 million to locate there in 1999. The company has paid $70,900 in property taxes a year.

The search for a replacement for Milton-Freewater's largest property tax account has not been successful at this point, Assistant City Manager Linda Hall said.

"We have had several companies interested in the building, but they all seem to want incentive dollars from the city, which we are just not in a financial position to offer," she said recently. "We are working away at it, along with Jill Miles of the State Economic Development Department, who has done a fantastic job fielding offers and working with Dave Reule of Sykes."

In the memo to all Sykes employees, Hobby wrote that efforts to help with job placement for employees are continuing.

"We are in the process of working with the Oregon Department for Colleges and Workforce Development to provide job placement assistance, on-site transition workshops and information about unemployment compensation," he wrote.

Kathy Davison, regional manager of the Oregon Employment Department, said her agency will continue to work with Sykes' employees to help them find new employment.

"Debbie Richards, One Stop coordinator and Regional Workforce Invest- ment Board staff, has been extensively involved in working with Sykes employees along with our One Stop partner CAPECO," Davison said.

"The work they began with the first WARN notice continued without interruption when the center was able to stay open."

CAPECO hired the two Sykes employees who were to be peer mentors, she added, and they have continued working with Sykes employees, expecting that the contract that kept the call center open would eventually run out.

"We will continue to provide them with those reemployment and training services that began with the first notice," Davison said.

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