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WorldCom quietly slides out of Pinellas Park center

The company's departure catches workers off guard and leaves city officials searching for a replacement.

By SCOTT BARANCIK

© St. Petersburg Times, published March 2, 2001


PINELLAS PARK -- One of Pinellas Park's largest employers is quietly closing its doors.

WorldCom Inc., a Mississippi company best known for providing long-distance telephone service, fired 499 workers at its Pinellas Park call center Wednesday.

Most of the employees were sent home Wednesday morning and told not to come back. A smaller number were asked to keep working awhile longer, though none beyond June 30.

WorldCom's employees will receive at least 60 days of paychecks, according to a letter the company sent to Pinellas Park city officials. The move comes amid widespread reports that the telecommunications company is cutting an estimated 6 percent or 7 percent of its total work force, or about 6,000 people.

Shocked by their sudden firing, more than 50 local WorldCom employees shot pool and commiserated Wednesday night at the St. Petersburg Ale House on M.L. King (Ninth) Street N, said pub manager Tammy Lawrence.

But call center workers were not the only ones caught off guard. Pinellas Park City Manager Jerry Mudd said he didn't learn about the closure until Tuesday, when he received a one-page memo from WorldCom's human resources director.

Tonya Park, the city's business development director, said she might have tried to persuade WorldCom to stay had she received advance notice. But Park didn't learn about the call center's closure until Wednesday night.

"They never came to us," she said.

WorldCom's quiet retreat is a marked contrast from the fanfare and hoopla accompanying its arrival in Pinellas Park in 1993. City and county officials hailed the new jobs to be provided by the company known then as MCI.

The company chose as its street number "10222" -- the prefix a caller dialed in order to make a long-distance call via the MCI network. MCI later merged with WorldCom.

Former employee Brooke Hoover of St. Petersburg said he was among the first customer service representatives hired by MCI in 1993. At the time, he said, the call center's job was to provide support to small businesses that subscribed to the company's long-distance service.

"People who had problems with their accounts would call in and say, 'I need an 800 number,' " or complain about a bill, he said.

Around 1997, Hoover said, company officials decided to change the center's purpose. Instead of providing support to long-distance subscribers, it offered technical support to customers of companies such as Microsoft, Time Warner, Packard Bell and NEC.

But Hoover, who had become a trainer by then, said he and his fellow employees lacked the technical expertise necessary to diagnose computer or Internet problems, so he quit. Today, he is quality and training manager at Nielsen Media Research's 2,000-seat call center in Dunedin.

"The biggest fear of a trainer is to walk up in front of 40 people and not know what you're doing," he said. "I realized I was being set up for failure and walked out."

City and Pinellas County officials already are discussing possible tenants to replace WorldCom at 10222 MCI Drive, a 129,000-square-foot property assessed at $6.9-million last year. According to county records, the building is owned by Jae W. Joo. Centex Development Co. is the leasing agent.

- Contact Scott Barancik at barancik@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8751.

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