Most mornings, at 5:30, Kandie Millican hits the snooze button twice, then forces herself out of bed. She downs some coffee, packs Ramen noodles for lunch, drives 45 minutes to the office and spends the rest of the day trying to fend off America's scorn.
"Is Mrs. Ramirez in?"
"You'll love the jewelry."
Millican, 26, is the voice at the other end of the phone. She is a telephone agent for ComTec Teleservices Inc., an "outsource customer-contact provider," or, in terms better understood by an exasperated nation, a telemarketer.
ComTec specializes in selling Internet, cable and telecommunications services, and, periodically, in interrupting your dinner. Thousands more telemarketers are scattered in every state, where they push heating oil, newspaper subscriptions, lawn care and other goods and services.
Last summer, the federal government announced a national registry for consumers who want to block telemarketers from calling them. Americans rushed to sign up.
Of the nation's 166 million residential numbers, 51 million are now off-limits to telemarketers. Despite ongoing court challenges, the list went into effect last month.
The crackdown might be welcomed by consumers, but not by telemarketers like Millican, many of whom survive on the economic fringe. The nation has lost 2.6 million jobs in two years, and the "do not call" list is expected to put hundreds of thousands more people out of work.
A tall, friendly woman with a booming voice -- she sang recently with a band called the Fabulous Boogienauts -- Millican has bounced from job to job since high school. In recent years, she worked for a spell as a grocery cashier, then sold coupon books door-to-door. Lately, as Colorado employers shed nearly 30,000 jobs, work began to dry up.
She landed at ComTec, in this suburb west of Denver, through a temporary employment agency. She sells savings plans for a home shopping network and postal supplies, among other things. The employment agency started out paying her $5.15 an hour -- plus commissions of as little as 20 cents.
"Look," said Millican, now one of ComTec's 150 staff agents, "people hate to be called. They hate me. But I have to have a job. I have to do something. This is what I do."
Though federal regulators and consumer advocates say the figure is exaggerated, trade associations say the do-not-call list will cost more than 1 million people their jobs, including telemarketers, supervisors, technicians and other support personnel.
ComTec, like many of the nation's 9,000 companies that make outbound calls -- the type of calls targeted by the list -- has already reduced its workforce by 25%, said Lee Harward, ComTec's president. Dozens of other call centers, from Indianapolis to Idaho Falls, Idaho, have closed.
And while there is considerable debate about the number of jobs at stake, there is little about the makeup of the industry.
According to one study by the Direct Marketing Assn., there are slightly more than 500,000 telephone agents whose primary task is to make outbound telephone calls.
Of those agents, about 30% are participating in welfare-to-work programs, according to the New York-based trade association. Almost 60% are women, including many single mothers and secondary earners who are keeping their families above the poverty line. More than half are African American. Just 5% have college degrees. Their average hourly wage is $9.67.
"At the end of the day, the do-not-call list is going to cost some people their jobs," said Chris Hoofnagle, associate director of the Electronic Privacy Information Center, a Washington-based research group that supports the list. "Many of those jobs will come from vulnerable populations. I'm willing to acknowledge that."
But Hoofnagle and other consumer advocates say privacy rights outweigh any economic cost. Howard Beales, director of the Federal Trade Commission's Bureau of Consumer Protection, said that while his agency had no way of knowing how many jobs would be lost, to a certain degree it didn't matter.
"I don't think anybody would advocate creating jobs for disadvantaged people just to annoy people," Beales said. "That is not a legitimate economic objective. We should try to find them useful jobs."
And so the dilemma comes full circle, said Eric Taylor, another ComTec telemarketer. Because in many parts of the country, there aren't any jobs to find.
Taylor, 23, fancies punk rock, shaves his head and wears shoes that resemble combat boots, even when he's wearing a tie. He recently dropped out of college in Texas, mostly because he was short on money. "A little lost," he says, he moved to Denver so he could be close to the mountains and go snowboarding.
He applied for dozens of jobs, even sold steaks door-to-door. But he could not find permanent work and, like Millican, came to ComTec through a temp agency this fall.
"Sure, it's an inconvenience when we call. But it's just a few seconds, not even a minute of your day," Taylor said. "I don't know if this is the most respectable job in the world. But it pays the bills."
Among industry insiders, ComTec is seen as a high-end, sophisticated telemarketer. It reports $6 million a year in gross revenue and owns $1 million in computer and communications equipment. Its agents speak with as many as 500,000 people and businesses each month, Harward said.
Sandwiched between a hobby shop and a fitness center, ComTec is the only business in its strip mall unadorned with a large neon sign. The 18,000-square-foot office is lined with a dozen rows of agents, 50 in all, wearing the same telephone headsets and reading from the same script, which begins with these words: Hi. My name is (first and last name).
Because turnover is rapid -- Millican has worked there for 2 1/2 months and is the only employee remaining from her orientation class of 16 -- few desks contain photographs or other personal items.
Inside the office one recent afternoon, the calls flew out -- to Gulfport, Miss., St. Clair, Pa., Tecumseh, Neb. And the rejections piled up.
"Do the math," one telemarketer pleads into his headset. "It's a great value."
"I can't even get to the second part of the script with these people," another complains to a colleague.
"I promised my husband I wouldn't order that stuff ... anymore," a woman in Higganum, Conn., tells Taylor. She hangs up.
"We're husbands' worst nightmares," Taylor says as he dials another number.
Telemarketers at ComTec estimate that 40% of the people who receive calls for some products hang up before they can even finish their introduction. And they say tolerance for their calls, already low, is dropping with the creation of the do-not-call registry. Many of those who have not signed up to block the sales calls now stay on the phone only long enough to quiz telemarketers on whether their calls are legal.
Telemarketers begin their shift by writing their name on a dry-erase board hanging on the wall. Each time they make a sale, they add a dollar sign next to their name.
The agents take pride in being able to overcome the odds, particularly on contracts they consider tough sells.
The top producers on easier sells can close a dozen or more sales in a day. But telemarketers assigned to tougher accounts routinely tally just a handful of sales daily -- and often don't land any at all. In the end, the job takes a toll.
"There are some days," Taylor said, "when you just go straight to a bar."
ComTec's managers are trained to counsel employees who have trouble coping with the abuse and rejection.
"People swear at you. They are abusive," said Harward, 43, who worked his way up the industry ladder over the last 11 years after starting out as an agent himself. "This job is not for everyone. You don't remember the good calls. Only the nasty ones."
The counseling is often insufficient. Harward says the average tenure at ComTec is nine months, and employees say they can't believe it's that high.
"A lot of people, they show up to work and then we never see them again," said Tanisha Bell, 32, a ComTec agent. "They can't hack it. You are busting your butt. You have to make the sale. And there is pressure, pressure from everywhere."
Some of it comes from within. ComTec managers record every call and frequently listen in, reviewing every agent at least once a day. Telemarketers are encouraged to divert from their scripts to some degree. But if they vary too much -- failing, for example, to offer resistant customers enough rebuttals, or scripted comebacks intended to persuade customers to buy -- they can be written up, even sent home early, costing them wages they can't afford to lose.
Supervisors grade telemarketers' every move, from their introduction to their knowledge of the product. Agents must meet hourly goals -- number of calls made, number of customers spoken to, number of sales completed or customer-service questions answered -- or face losing their jobs.
"We deselect, or end someone's assignment, rapidly," Harward said. "Either they can't do the job or they won't do the job. Either way they will be eliminated."
Bell has been with ComTec for almost three months -- long enough to make her a team leader of one account. She figures she is there to stay.
By the time she graduated from high school, Bell had two children and her own apartment, paid for through welfare and part-time jobs. She experimented with drugs and alcohol, and like many of her colleagues, she says, she made decisions that she regrets.
Bell has gotten her life on track, earning an associate's degree in accounting and working at a series of call centers, where she is considered a natural talent. Her four children live with her father in California. She has rented a house on the outskirts of Denver large enough for all of them, but, while she would like them to come home one day, she says she doubts they will.
"The people we call, they've never been in our shoes," she said. "They tell me I'm uneducated, that I'm a bad person, that I need to get a real job. Well, this is a real job. This is how we earn a living. A lot of these jobs are going to be lost, and most of us don't have anything to fall back on."
And so, the calls go on.
On this day, after a string of rejections, Eric Taylor is suddenly on a roll. Working on an account selling home-shopping network savings plans, he has made two sales in two phone calls and is trying for his third in a row. The customer, a woman in Chilhowie, Va., sounds skeptical. Taylor turns on the charm.
Going off-script, his voice calm and suave, he launches into an explanation of potential savings, using a gold ring as his example. The ring, he says, retails for $230. Regular customers can buy it off a home-shopping show for $186.50. With the savings his offer brings, he tells her, the woman could have the ring for just $103.44.
"Wow," the woman says.
There is a reason Americans bought $100.3 billion worth of goods and services from telemarketers last year. Taylor presses the mute button.
"I got her," he says.
Back on the line, he asks: "Can I interest you in this offer?"
"Most definitely," the woman says. "I think I'm going to do a lot of Christmas shopping."
Taylor maneuvers his mouse to click a button on his computer screen that says: "Sale!" He pushes back his chair with a look of triumph on his face, then strolls over to the board to add another dollar sign next to his name.
"Eric Taylor is in town, ladies," he says with a grin. "Open up your checkbooks."
(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)
In the telemarketing industry, more than 500,000 people nationwide place calls to customers, generate leads and solicit telephone orders. Of those people:In 2002, these workers sold more than $100 billion worth of goods and services. The top five categories:
* 306,600 are women
* 276,962 are African American
* 90,092 are working mothers
* 153,300 are participating in a welfare-to-work program
* 132,860 are students
* 485,450 lack college degrees
* $120 million worth of telephone service
* $110 million worth of magazine or newspaper subscriptions
* $8 million worth of cable or satellite service
* $6 million worth of CDs, videos, DVDs and related items
* $5 million worth of computers, software or Internet service
Sources: The Direct Marketing Assn., U.S. Department of Labor
Los Angeles Times