Wrong Number

Kamal Abdul-Rasheed claims he and seven other workers were laid off from AT&T because of their age. But it may be the group of know-it-all seniors were forced out of AT&T's youngest division more because of the age of telephone service -- and office politics -- they represented.

"The ones who run the company now are like teenage drivers," says the youthful-looking 56-year-old. "They know how to go fast, but they don't know what to do when something goes wrong."

Certainly Abdul-Rasheed knows everything you'd ever want to know about your telephone -- and then some. If you're trying to place a call and receive an odd series of beeps, for example, Abdul-Rasheed can listen to the error code and tell you whether your call cannot be completed because of a hurricane, an earthquake, a mudslide or simply a screw-up at the telephone facility. He's also the answer man for more basic telephone issues, like how to make a call when you're not getting a dial tone. "Dial tone is just a pacifier," he says. "It's only there as a progress sound for the caller. But you don't need a dial tone to make a call. When in doubt, dial out!"

Old-school telephone men like Abdul-Rasheed are becoming about as rare as a hand-crank magneto switchboard. "I'm a dinosaur," admits the veteran "communications craftsman," as he was respectfully titled when he started working for AT&T in New York back in 1979 (he transferred to Arizona with the company in 1983). "I started back in the days of tool pouches, headsets and meters. Old-time phone company."

The fit father of seven was five years away from retirement with the company (achieved when an employee reaches 30 years of service) when he discovered just how "old-time" he was. In August of 2002, Abdul-Rasheed and seven of his co-workers -- who all happened to be over age 40 -- were unceremoniously laid off from AT&T's Local Network Service Provisioning Center in Mesa.

Abdul-Rasheed and his cohorts, who had each come over from other AT&T divisions when the long-distance giant bought out local service provider Teleport Communications Group (TCG) in July of 1998, quickly cried age discrimination. Under the Age Discrimination in Employment Act of 1967, workers aged 40 or older are protected from being fired based on age. And, since all of the eight who were laid off that day were between 45 and 62, it seemed reasonable for the group to assume that age had something to do with the concentrated housecleaning.

But proving those allegations has been difficult. Although the Equal Employment Opportunities Commission granted the parties the crucial right-to-sue notice last January -- typically a sign that a discrimination case has some merit -- AT&T's official stance, as outlined in the district court documents, is that the eight were laid off solely because of their last performance appraisal rating, which, although uniformly "satisfactory," placed them at the bottom of the list of employees in positions targeted for a work force reduction. Furthermore, AT&T says the layoffs tied in to a separate reduction six months earlier involving 41 employees, many of whom were under 40. AT&T's law firm, as well as the company's equal opportunities specialist and Abdul-Rasheed's manager at the time of the layoffs, have each declined to discuss the case with New Times. "If it's pending litigation, AT&T's policy is to decline comment on it," says company spokesman Russ Glover.

The plaintiffs have a series of paperwork deadlines coming up in March, June and August, with little hope of a trial in 2004.

"They're dragging it on forever with paperwork," Abdul-Rasheed complains. "But I was a Marine. We don't give up without a fight."

Whether or not the plaintiffs' lawyer can prove age discrimination, all eight are convinced they were deliberately positioned to receive the ax, and that the ratings given seven months before the layoffs were deliberately downgraded from previous years' appraisals without cause in order to give the company a legitimate excuse to send them packing.

"In my 19 years of working for AT&T," says Joyce Carpenter, who was let go at age 58, "I had 18 'outstanding' appraisals. The only year it slipped to 'satisfactory' was this last year -- right when we started hearing talk of a work force reduction. And yet I was still surpassing quota every day, and constantly getting good commendations from customers."

So why were the eight targeted, as they claim, for the layoffs? Like the others, Carpenter pinpoints the AT&T merger with TCG, a large fiber optic cable access provider formerly owned by a group of cable TV companies -- and staffed by mostly younger workers with little experience in the phone biz -- as the time when things began to go sour.

At one point not long after the eight oldsters came to work at the new facility, a wall was physically constructed to separate the crew who worked for the AT&T/TCG local service group and the people in the building who still worked for AT&T long distance. Union affiliation was the dividing factor, they believed: The long-distance group, like all other AT&T divisions up until the merger, was represented, while the newly formed AT&T/TCG group -- with the notable exception of the employees eventually let go -- continually voted against unionization.

"That wall became a symbol," says Carpenter. "We were not allowed to go over to the AT&T long-distance side, and they were not allowed to come over to our side. And I was one of the first to get transferred from long distance to local, and it just got very uncomfortable."

The younger set displayed radically different office behaviors. "They'd come in every day hung-over," complains Alexis Sebastian, 45 at the time of the layoffs. "They'd be surfing the Internet all day, talking on the phone. It was ridiculous."

"I remember this loudmouthed, vulgar-talking guy in my area," says Carpenter. "And I complained to my supervisor about his language, because he'd be using the f-word every other second. And she just said, 'This is just the way the younger generation acts and talks. Get used to it.'"

Carpenter remembers another young girl in her work group coming up to her and Joanne Guzman, another over-50 AT&T vet let go with the group, shortly before the layoffs. "She said, 'You know why I don't like you guys? Because you guys think you know it all, just because you've been here longer than anybody else.' And yeah," she laughs, "we did!"

Certainly the know-it-all attitudes of the older workers have some nerve-grating potential. Abdul-Rasheed, Carpenter, Guzman and Sebastian all describe their younger former co-workers as inexperienced slackers ("burger-flippers," in Guzman's words) who were pulled in from jobs such as hat salesman, mail-room clerk and nail technician to direct the old-school veterans. "They'd be sitting there looking at a computer printout going, 'What's wrong?'" Abdul-Rasheed says. "And I'd look at them and say, 'You've got an open loop -- and if you knew what the hell you were looking at, it tells you right there!'"

Still, that know-it-all-ism is precisely what customers want, Abdul-Rasheed insists, when their business line goes down or they can't reach Grandma on a stormy night.

"That's what people complain about today, the bad service," he says. "When the line goes down, why does it take so long to get it working again? The answer is, you don't get to talk to a technician anymore. You're talking to a clerk, reading from a script, with a little checklist of things to try. And if those things don't work, that's the extent of their knowledge.

"With guys like me, you get the big picture of the problem right away, because I've seen it all -- from wires to modules to digitized bit stream.

"But," he adds with a sour grin, "it's getting so there aren't a whole lot of guys like me left!"

E-mail [email protected], or call 602-229-8478.

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Jimmy Magahern
Contact: Jimmy Magahern