With few people seeking help in placing a phone call, AT&T has announced the elimination of 71 operator positions statewide, according to a union official.
William Henderson of Niantic, president of union Local 1298 of the Communications Workers of America, said this week that phone operators who once numbered about 4,000 in the state are down to only 100 or so.
The elimination of positions likely will affect several associates working on State Street in New London and all of the operators in the Waterbury office, Henderson said.
"It's the end of an era," he said.
AT&T spokesman Marty Richter confirmed that positions for directory-assistance and driving-direction operators are being eliminated. But, he said, the company expects most if not all of the job eliminations will involve voluntary separations based on an "enhanced severance" offer that includes six months of paid health insurance and an extra payout.
Richter said new technologies, especially smartphones, are reducing the need for directory assistance.
"We expect that trend to continue," he said. "This is a part of our business that's declining."
At the same time, Richter said, AT&T has hired nearly 500 U-verse technicians and retail associates in the past 16 months and is listing nearly 40 more openings.
Henderson said AT&T's plans call for any positions not eliminated through voluntary means to result in layoffs by inverse seniority, meaning the last one hired will be the first one let go. While AT&T is eliminating jobs related to its landline business, he said, the company's wireless operations are hiring, but the Texas-based conglomerate has refused to shift employees to other divisions.
"They should be offering jobs to people who want to stay," he said.
Henderson said some of the layoffs are related to a decision by AT&T to stop servicing Yale-New Haven Hospital's Centrex phone lines. But Richter said that while AT&T has seen a significant decline in its Centrex business, it plans to continue service to the hospital through the end of next year, helping in the transition to a new service.
Henderson said the jobs being eliminated are largely entry-level positions. But they are jobs that single mothers and others rely on to make ends meet, he said.
"It seems like they do it every year at this time," Henderson said of the layoffs. "This is a company that made $13 billion last year and is on pace to make $17 billion this year ... and just gave a $2 million bonus to its CEO.
"They're important jobs to keep," Henderson said. "This is a corporation that only cares about the bottom line."
Richter, however, pointed out that AT&T is the largest employer of full-time labor in the country, and the company has not laid off anyone in Connecticut during the past two years. As positions have been eliminated, he said, all workers have either found other positions within the company, have continued to work or have taken early retirement.
"Because we're performing well overall, AT&T can provide our 240,000 employees with quality middle class careers with wages and benefits that are among the best in the country," Richter said in an email.