By Lauren Irwin-Szostak / April 23, 2020

For at least the past five terms of Congress, both the United States House of Representatives and the United States Senate have introduced proposed legislation entitled the “United States Call Center Worker and Consumer Protection Act.”  In each of the last four terms, the bills died in committee and were never enacted.  Now, with our economy crippled by the COVID-19 pandemic and Americans in dire need of jobs, this legislation is needed more than ever.

The current bill would require businesses that employ 50 or more call center employees, excluding part-time employees, or 50 or more call center employees who in the aggregate work at least 1,500 hours per week, exclusive of overtime, to notify the Department of Labor at least 120 days before relocating any such call center outside of the United States.  Violators would be subject to a civil penalty of up to $10,000 per day.

The bill would also require the Labor Department to make publicly available a list of all such employers that relocate a call center outside of the United States.  Such employers would remain on the list for up to five years after each relocation.  The Labor Department could remove from the list an employer that repatriates the call center from outside to inside the United States.

Additionally, the bill would render any employer on the list ineligible for federal grants or federal guaranteed loans for five years after being added to the list, unless the employer demonstrates that a lack of such loan or grant would threaten national security, result in substantial job loss in the United States, or harm the environment.  Federal or state executive agencies or military departments, when awarding a civilian or defense-related contract, would have to give preference to U.S. employers that do not appear on the list, and all such contracts would have to require that any call center work performed in connection with the contracts must be performed inside the United States.

Finally, all businesses that initiate or receive a customer service communication would have to require their employees or agents participating in such communications to disclose their physical location at the beginning of each such communication unless all involved employees or agents are located in the United States.  Upon request, moreover, businesses would have to transfer a customer to a customer service agent who is physically located in the United States.  The bill would exempt from those requirements communications initiated by consumers who know or reasonably should know that the employee or agent is located outside the United States, as well as communications related to the provision of emergency services.

The bill would enable the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) to exclude certain classes or types of business entities or customer service communications from its requirements under exceptionally compelling circumstances. The FTC could also enforce against violations.

In short, the bill would incentivize U.S. companies that have significant U.S.-based call center operations not to outsource those operations overseas by:

  • Creating a “bad actor” list – prepared and publicized by the federal government – of such companies, keep such companies on that list for up to five years, preclude such companies from receiving federal grants or guaranteed loans, mandate preferences to companies not on the list in the awarding of civilian and defense-related contracts, and require that all call center work performed in connection with such contracts be performed inside the United States; and
  • Requiring companies having customer service operations that are based overseas, in whole or in part, both to disclose to customers, at the beginning of all calls, the customer service agent’s physical location, and to transfer all calls, at the customer’s request, to a customer service agent who is physically located in the United States.

The current bill was introduced on June 12, 2019 in the House of Representatives by David B. McKinley, a Republican from West Virginia, and in the Senate by Robert P. Casey, Jr., a Democrat from Pennsylvania.  Although introduced by a Republican, the House bill (H.R. 3219) is supported primarily by Democrats; 121 of the bill’s 126 cosponsors are Democrats.  The same holds true of the Senate bill (S. 1792); all 17 of its cosponsors are Democrats.  Both bills were referred to subcommittees dealing with commerce; neither appears to have emerged from subcommittee.

“Our number one priority in Congress is protecting and creating American jobs,” Representative McKinley said in introducing the House bill last June.  “Plain and simple, we should not be rewarding companies for moving jobs offshore.  This bill does not mandate that companies keep call centers here in America, but simply says if you move call center jobs offshore, you don’t receive funding from the government.  This should be common sense.”

            Moreover, Senator Casey, joined by nine other senators, sent a letter to President Trump urging him to take executive action against offshoring call center jobs.  “By issuing an Executive Order, you can take an immediate step to prevent federal government contracts from being awarded to companies that offshore U.S. call center jobs by utilizing call centers in foreign countries,” the senators wrote. “Taxpayer funds should go to companies that hire American workers.”

The bill is supported by the Communications Workers of America (CWA), which represents nearly 600,000 workers in the telecommunication industry.  In supporting a prior version of the bill, the CWA issued a detailed report entitled, “How Overseas Call Centers Threaten U.S. Jobs, Consumer Privacy, and Data Security.”  And more recently, the CWA issued another report revealing the banking industry – which received a huge tax windfall from the Republican tax law that President Trump signed – as a leading practitioner of offshoring call center and customer service jobs to low wage countries.  “The nation’s largest banks cut (at least 8,000) jobs over the second half of 2017,” the report stated, after four U.S. investment banks (Morgan Stanley, JPMorgan Chase, Bank of America, and Citi) increased their supports staffs in India by 50 percent between 2008 and 2015 to more than 12,500.  The CWA’s website urges support for the bill as follows:

Are you tired of big banks and corporations cutting costs by using overseas call centers? Not only do they put Americans out of work, but they put all of us at greater risk for identity theft. Overseas call center employees have been caught selling credit card numbers, mortgage information and even medical records.

The United States Call Center Worker and Consumer Protection Act (S.1792 and H.R. 3219) solves this problem by making sure that the people who answer your customer service calls let you know where they are located and give you the option to be transferred to a U.S. based representative. It also stops rewarding companies that ship jobs overseas with federal loans and grants.

It is time for Congress to act.  The coronavirus pandemic has devastated our economy, and Americans need jobs desperately.  Unfortunately, economic patriotism has proven insufficient to stop U.S. companies from outsourcing their operations to foreign countries in order to save a few dollars.  Our public officials must step into the breach and coerce those companies to do the right thing.  It is no longer simply the right thing to do – it is a national imperative.

Lauren Irwin-Szostak is the President of Business Processes Redefined, LLC, a call center solutions management firm headquartered in Fairfield, New Jersey which is certified as a woman-owned business enterprise by both the New Jersey Woman-Owned Business Enterprise (NJWBE) and the Woman’s Business Enterprise National Council (WBENC).

Business Processes Redefined LLC