LEWISTON — A rooftop patio, an employees-only brew pub and a work space dominated by a 6,000-gallon saltwater aquarium are some of the unexpected amenities workers at Argo Marketing Group's new call center in Lewiston's downtown will enjoy when the facility opens later this year.
It's part of the $2.4 million renovation of the long-boarded-over, pigeon-filled and destined-for-demolition former McCrory's building.
The plush, new work space may be the latest evidence that call center work, long viewed as a last-choice job, is changing its image for the better.
Or so hope promoters of the sector who say the stigma is undeserved: working conditions and pay have improved steadily in recent years.
Others say that as competition for call center workers heats up, wages and benefits are likely to continue their upward trajectory.
Growth in the sector in Maine appears to be soaring. The state added nearly 2,000 jobs over the past five years, a review of employment data from the Maine and U.S. Departments of Labor show.
As the number working in the sector increases, so does the pay, with average weekly pay at $638, up from $456 in 2007.
National labor data shows the average annual pay for call center workers is $30,930 — slightly more than the average of $29,410 for those working in the gambling industry. The call center industry in Maine paid $152 million in wages in 2012, up from $69 million in 2007.
Some still think the jobs are ill-suited for Maine.
"Marketing jobs, telephone jobs don't pay very well and they say they have access to benefits, but they don't provide benefits," former Lewiston mayor Larry Gilbert lamented during a recent candidates forum. "We need to drive jobs in here from outside that pay good living wages."
Gilbert, in a race against incumbent Mayor Bob Macdonald, was responding to a statement Macdonald made regarding Argo's project as an example of positive economic growth in Lewiston's downtown.
For many, the new 250-seat call center is a welcome development, and some downtown business owners see the emerging sector as an important cog in the city's economic engine.
Argo CEO Jason Levesque has said Gilbert's statement, at least as it applies to his company, is flat-out wrong. Levesque also said it was disheartening for those working to create new and better jobs in the sector.
Gilbert later said he wasn't speaking specifically about Argo.
A Sun Journal survey of call center companies in Lewiston-Auburn shows that almost all pay above the minimum wage of $7.50 per hour and offer benefits, as well, including health insurance and paid time off, after a typical probationary period.
Early last week, Argo, which is working from a Lisbon Street office building before a planned move to its new facility in February, was signing up employees for health insurance.
"These are the benefits and the health insurance that we aren't providing to our workers," Levesque quipped. He later noted that more than 100 workers signed up for health insurance, which is paid for in part by Argo.
He said 13 employees had been getting their medical care through MaineCare, the state's Medicaid program, but are now ineligible because their income is too high. He said their stories and those of others who work for his company are a testament to the workers.
"These are good people and they want to work," Levesque said.
The company, which largely serves as an inbound service center for other companies that sell various products, including nutritional supplements and cosmetics, offers a company-matched retirement program, paid holidays, sick pay and vacation time.
In addition to Argo, growth in the sector in Lewiston-Auburn has been fueled by expansions or new facilities opened by TD Bank, L.L. Bean, Carbonite, Great Falls Marketing and nonprofit Consolidated Transportation Services, which added 45 jobs in 2013.
In all, the sector has added upward of 700 jobs in the past five years in Androscoggin County, based on DOL data and interviews with state officials and company executives.
Mary LaFontaine, manager of the Maine DOL's Lewiston CareerCenter, said the figure could be even higher, depending on which jobs you count as "call center" jobs.
According to the DOL data, customer service call center jobs are included in other sectors including retail sales and banking, she said, making it difficult to fully measure growth.
On the horizon are another 200 to 300 local jobs, according to company officials at the various firms.
Debate over what Gilbert said about the work erupted in online social networks with posts from local people both praising and condemning call centers.
After Levesque posted a comment calling Gilbert "a liar" on Facebook, Lewiston resident Linda Sherwood posted a comment on her page attacking Argo and Levesque while defending Gilbert.
"I know of many former employees who could reveal what kind of marketing is taking place at this company," Sherwood wrote, "... practices that send their poor employees home in tears because of how they are trained to treat their callers."
But dozens of people came to Levesque's defense, including outgoing Auburn City Councilor Joshua Shea.
Romantic past ?
Shea, who publishes the monthly Lewiston Auburn Magazine and runs the Lewiston Auburn Film Festival, said he has worked as a call center employee.
He said the stereotype of call center work being only a dead-end job with no benefits is dead wrong. Shea said his time working at a call center in Auburn gave him sales skills that became valuable when he launched his magazine.
"The people who are often the quickest to demean the call center jobs are the ones who hold up the amazing work ethic of those who worked in the mills, lived 14 to an apartment, worked 14-hour days and got no benefits," Shea said. "Because that was 75 or 80 years ago, we've somehow romanticized that into a rich work ethic."
Shea said call center jobs may very well be the mill jobs of the next generation and the work ethic of those taking jobs like the ones offered by Argo may be equally rich.
And while not every call center job is a pathway to wealth or a way to become independent from welfare, it is a job, Shea said.
"Do they all have the best benefits? No. Do they all have the best pay? No," Shea said. "But I guarantee you every person in those jobs would rather have that job than be on welfare, and it's an elitist and ignorant attitude to say that every business should be offering full benefits. Every business should be paying people a tremendous wage. That's just not possible sometimes.
Michael Dostie, who works for the family business, J. Dostie Jewlers, says he was stunned by Gilbert's assertions about call center work. His family's business has been in the downtown since 1944 and he agrees with Shea that the city's mill-era history is often romanticized.
"If people believe they don't pay enough or that they don't have good enough benefits, then people wouldn't work there," Dostie said. "The fact that there are call centers and they are expanding all across the state has got to say that it's worth it for people to work there."
Dostie said his paternal grandmother is the hardest-working person he's ever known and she spent years working in Lewiston's mills.
"I've heard stories of guys who would be working in the mill that by today's standards would be pennies, you're talking about $5 to $10 a week," Dostie said. "How can we again look back and say, 'Oh, Lewiston, we are so proud of our heritage,' where we want to save our mills and re-purpose them and celebrate this history and then here we have another major employer — where for the employee, the standards have all been raised substantially, but we are saying, 'No, these are not good enough.'"
Dostie said his grandmother would have loved to have had a call center job during her working years.
A Sun Journal Facebook query asking for call center workers to contact the newspaper produced a flurry of comments. Among more than 30 comments on the post were those from people who said they loved their call center jobs and those who said they hated them.
Donna Rollins, who has worked for Great Falls Marketing for 15 years and is now the company's human resources director, said she started on the phones there and worked her way up.
Rollins said her company, like Argo, offers benefits, including health insurance and retirement savings plans. She said workers can earn up to $30 an hour, but it depends on their individual drive. On average, Great Falls workers earn $13.65 an hour, Rollins said.
Great Falls takes calls from customers who are responding to radio and television infomercials. The products they broker include Time-Life music and videos and a wide variety of health and nutrition products, including the Beach Body line of workout videos.
Rollins said she always found phone work "exciting and interesting." She also took issue with assertions that call center firms did not offer any benefits and were dead-end jobs.
"Unfortunately, that stigma is still out there," Rollins said. "Ultimately, people are paid by their performance and you will have some people who can meet and exceed the goals and others who cannot."
The skills that Great Falls is looking for in an employee are not all the same skills Carbonite or Argo may be looking for.
While many call center jobs have overlap in the need for people with pleasant personalities and good customer service skills, others need workers who can understand complex technical problems and help customers solve them.
Still others require an expertise in financial products and the ability to work politely with a customer to answer and solve problems. Most call centers also require their workers to undergo a criminal background check because they are dealing with sensitive customer and company information.
Most call center jobs in Maine pay by the hour and offer incentive pay for call volume or commissions on sales.
Challenges for employers
Those hiring call center workers say there are challenges in finding enough people with the skills they need.
Levesque said that beyond a good ability to deal with people, his workers should be able to type at least 25 words per minute.
He said it's frustrating that many public schools are moving away from the use of computer keyboards in favor of touch-screen tablets. Often, basic typing skills are acquired by workers after they leave the public school system.
Kevin LaPointe, a technical recruiter for Carbonite, said he's seen job applications for his company filled out in text-message shorthand. A no-no, by the way, for would-be applicants.
Carbonite provides remote, hard-drive computer backup and storage services for both individuals and companies. The company has 180 people working in its Lewiston service center, LaPointe said.
He noted that business has grown steadily and he anticipates demand will continue as the company expands its services on the business side.
LaPointe said Carbonite workers communicate with customers by online chat and email as well as by phone, and the ability to write clearly in English is important. Because of the problem-solving nature of Carbonite, workers have to be able to think on their feet, he said.
"The folks who come from a really scripted environment, where they are just reading a script to the customer, those are probably the toughest to try to convert over here," he said.
He said Carbonite workers can effect changes company-wide if those changes make sense, so they look for employees who are willing to point out problems and solutions. He also said the ability to advance within the company is good and that all of the supervisors now in charge of the Lewiston facility started out on the phones.
Carolyn Beem, a corporate spokeswoman for L.L. Bean, said she started on the phones in a company call center. Beem said her company looks for people it can trust to well-represent the company brand.
"You really don't want just anybody answering the phones or taking the calls," Beem said. "This is often the first contact a customer is making. This is the face of your business, so you want them to be a good worker and a good representative. You only get that first chance once."
She said L.L. Bean will train its workers on the technical side of processing catalogue orders, but they can't train people to have good personalities. She, like others in the sector, anticipate call center work to continue to grow as more purchases are taking place via the Internet, and more customer connection is happening via chat on the company website.
Beem said growth in call center work for Maine is really not surprising because the state has one of the best digital telephone infrastructures, in part due to efforts L.L. Bean took more than a decade ago. She noted the state's long-standing reputation of being a place with a strong work ethic.
"Maine really does have a reputation of being a place with good workers — hard workers," Beem said.