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Call centers thrive as expansions move forward GEICO adding 300 jobs in Amherst, while debt collectors try to branch out

Customer service and debt collection call centers in this region employ thousands of Western New Yorkers, and some of the largest have seen their employment numbers either remaine stable or grow during the long recession.

Call center executives said their presence in the local economy provides a rare avenue for someone with limited skills, education and experience to earn decent-paying jobs and promotions, even though the industry is known for having higher turnover rates.

Because of the current economy, job retention appears to have become less of a problem for employers as jobs in general have become more scarce and call centers are among the few industries still actively hiring.

"We couldn't be happier," said Steve Cunningham, regional vice president and general manager for GEICO's Buffalo service center, located in Amherst.

The Buffalo center in Cross-point Business Park currently employs about 1,900 people, an increase of 307 employees from a year ago, Cunningham said. The company announced a local expansion of its call center operations this past May and said this month it plans to hire 300 additional workers over the next four to six months.

Unlike other companies, GEICO actually saw a big boost in business during the recession because everyone with a car must have insurance, and GEICO's main sales pitch is that it can provide insurance at a lower cost than its competitors.

"We are the low-cost operator," he said, pointing out that GEICO is the number one car insurer in New York State. "We're saving people money, so in these tough economic times, people are switching to GEICO."

> Praise for workers

Cunningham said he has worked at other GEICO service centers and found the quality of employees at the Amherst service center to be far superior, which is part of the reason the local service center continues to grow.

During the recent snowstorm that paralyzed the East Coast, the Buffalo-area office picked up a lot of calls from Long Island, Virginia Beach and Fredericksburg, Va., service centers that were overrun with claims.

"We're not laying people off; we're growing," he said. "I would stack this group up here against any group in the country."

JP Morgan Chase's Albion call center in Orleans County employs about 700 people and expects no major expansions or reductions in personnel in the coming year, said Michael Fusco, a JP Morgan Chase spokesman.

The call center works with homeowners having difficulty making mortgage payments and handles other customer service calls associated with the bank's home lending program.

Larry Costa, executive vice president of business development for Capital Management Services, said he also expects employment to remain steady in the debt collections business, though the boom days of debt collections in 2008 and 2009 appear to be over.

Capital Management Services employs about 1,000 people between its two Buffalo locations, the primary one being at the Larkin at Exchange Building where roughly 850 people work, Costa said.

> Branching out

Another 150 employees work out of a call center on Ogden Street, where Capital Management Services is trying to expand the business beyond debt collections and into the customer service field.

"That's the one area of the business we're really looking to grow this year," he said.

The debt collections end of the business saw a lot of volume in 2008 when the economy tanked, he said, but since then, banks and lenders have tightened up their lending criteria, issuing fewer credit cards and loans.

"A significant portion of the subprime credit lending evaporated," he said.

That, in turn, has led collections agencies to pull back on expansion efforts and focus instead of retaining business with existing clients, Costa said.

> Debt firms adapt

Overall, it appears the debt collections side of the call center business for many companies seems unlikely to grow much, if at all, given the tightener credit market.

At Pioneer Credit Recovery, a subsidiary of Sallie Mae that has major debt collection call centers in Perry and Arcade in Wyoming County, employment has held steady over the past year, said Sallie Mae spokeswoman Patricia Nash Christel.

The company is the largest private employer in the county with about 900 workers employed between its two Wyoming call centers, she said.

Hiring is continuing even though Congress ended the public-private federally guaranteed student loan program, forcing Sallie Mae to reduce its national work force of approximately 8,000 by one-third, including closing two loan servicing centers in Texas and Florida last year, Christel said.

"We continue to land new contracts," Christel said, "and are aggressively seeking new business opportunities."

e-mail: stan@buffnews.com