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The telephone operator has been an iconic part of the American cultural landscape for more than 130 years, but AT&T announced Friday that the last few dozen still working in Connecticut will be losing their jobs in February, victims of digital technology.
"It's the end of an era," said William Henderson, president of the local Communications Workers of America union. "It's the end of a simpler time in life."
AT&T said the company will be reducing its staff by 43 in New London and 65 in Hamden, eliminating all operators currently working in Connecticut by Feb. 7. The Texas-based telecommunications giant said a total of 109 positions would be cut, including one technical support specialist in New Haven.
The cuts will lead to the closing of a facility at 335 Putnam Ave. in Hamden. The New London facility on Washington Street will remain open, but with only a skeleton staff.
"The affected employees in New London had been working under contracts to provide call center support for Yale University and Yale New Haven Hospital ... and we notified them last November that these contracts would conclude by the end of this year — so they have had more than a year to look for new positions," AT&T spokesman Marty Richter said in a statement.
Henderson said 24 of the workers will be eligible for a retirement package. The union is negotiating with AT&T, he said, to ensure those who are let go receive an appropriate severance as well.
"It's really sad to see these people will be walked out the door," Henderson said. "We understand why, because of a change in technology, but it doesn't make it any easier."
Connecticut had the distinction of developing the world's first commercial telephone system in 1878, two years after Alexander Graham Bell won a patent for his groundbreaking invention, according to an online history of the Southern New England Telephone Co., which later merged with AT&T. The District Telephone Co. of New Haven employed an all-male operator corps at first, but subscribers complained that they could be rude and often played pranks on callers.
In 1879, Marjorie Gray earned the distinction as Connecticut's first female operator, working for the Telephone Dispatch Co. of Bridgeport. Subscribers found women to be more patient and polite, laying the groundwork for new employment opportunities at a time when females faced significant restrictions in the workplace.
Henderson recalled that operators had to be single up until World War II, and were required to wear stockings and gloves but no high heels. A labor shortage during the war forced phone companies to hire married women as well — though they could be fired after becoming pregnant.
"Can you imagine that happening today?" Henderson said.
A fight over pantsuits ensued in the 1970s, he said, ending in a compromise allowing women to wear such clothing only if they were in blue, gray or brown hues — with the proviso that they had to wear stockings under their pantsuits.
For years, the number of operators in Connecticut steadily increased as demand for communications services at homes and offices rose exponentially. Henderson said at their peak, operators in Connecticut numbered somewhere between 5,000 and 6,000, but by the turn of the 21st century, technology had already taken its toll, halving those numbers.
The emergence of cellphones, voice-recognition systems and the Internet have further eroded the need for operators. Numbers provided to Henderson by AT&T indicated that the number of directory-assistance calls statewide had fallen from 118 million three years ago to 36 million this year.
AT&T will still have live operator support, he said, but the call centers will be out of state. AT&T said that, despite the most recent cuts, it has hired more than 230 employees in the state so far this year.
AT&T operators in New London work on the top floor of a building on Washington Street that contains an 83-foot microwave relay tower. The building will be nearly empty once these employees, many with decades of experience, walk out the door, Henderson said.
Just a couple years ago, 300 to 400 AT&T employees worked in downtown New London, he said. Now, only a handful will be left — as many as four or as few as two.
AT&T announced in June that it would be relocating 84 employees at its State Street offices in New London to New Haven within a month. When New London Mayor Daryl Justin Finizio complained that the company had not filed legal notification of the plans, which left the office space vacant, AT&T put off the move for a few more months, but it was completed quietly in September.
The most recent AT&T cuts will lead to a total of more than 120 job losses in New London over a six-month period.
"It doesn't look too good for New London because we need jobs," Henderson said.