By Charlotte Helston
A Vernon business laid off 40 employees last week when the company's latest client demanded Americans do the work, not Canadians.
SQM has been in Vernon for ten years and conducts customer service research surveys with people who have just used a call centre. The results are used to help SQM clients improve their customer service.
Sarah Kennedy, senior vice president of SQM group says business has been shifting across the border for years. "At the beginning, our clients were all Canadian," Kennedy says. "Since the mid 2000s, our client base has been building with more and more U.S. clients, now with over 70%."
One of those clients is an American health insurer representing 50% of SQM's business, and they want Americans surveying Americans. In fact, it was a condition they made before signing a contract with SQM.
"We tried to fight that, but we were bidding against several other companies," Kennedy says. "It's a business equation: If we had lost that client, it wouldn't have put us out of business, but it would definitely have taken years for us to crawl back."
Kennedy says SQM would have still had to lay off employees if the deal hadn't gone through, but the cuts would have come at the management level instead of the front line staff.
"This way, there is at least a net growth to our business," Kennedy says.
And that's something most employees seem to accept. Despite the financial uncertainty it put her in, Robyn Andrews still hopes the best for SQM.
"I know they would've done everything possible to prevent this," Andrews says. "I don't think it's right, but they have to keep their business running—they have families to support too."
What she can't come to terms with is why the client is demanding a new employee base. "I don't know how they can justify that decision. We were never discriminated against by the people we called, they never said 'You're Canadian, I won't talk to you," Andrews says. "The job was getting done, most people didn't even know what our nationality was."
For Andrews, customer service has no boundaries, you treat everyone with the same level of care, no matter where they're from. She wishes she'd been treated with the same respect.
Her biggest worry is not for herself, but for the other women who lost their jobs. "The biggest factor is the many single mothers that worked there," Andrews says. "That was their whole life."
Employees heard the news last Tuesday and were given severance packages to to tide them over while they found new jobs.
Eighty new positions will be filled by the end of the month in SQM's Idaho location—40 more than were lost in Vernon.
"We still have Canadian clients to serve here in Canada, and will continue to operate a call centre in Vernon," Kennedy says. "We want to stay in Vernon and thrive here."
To contact the reporter for this story, email Charlotte Helston at firstname.lastname@example.org or call (250)309-5230