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IT employees at EmblemHealth fight to save jobs

IT employees at EmblemHealth fight to save jobs

EmblemHealth IT employees fear their jobs are gone once they transfer their knowledge to Cognizant

IT employees at EmblemHealth are organizing to stop the New York-based employer from outsourcing their jobs to offshore provider Cognizant.

Employees say the insurer is on the verge of signing a contract with Cognizant, an IT services firm and one of the largest users of H-1B workers. They say the contract may be signed as early as this week.

They fear what a contract with at IT services offshore firm may mean: Humiliation as part of the "knowledge transfer" process, loss of their jobs or a "rebadging" to Cognizant, which they see as little more than temporary employment. Many of the workers, about 200 they estimate, are older, with 15-plus-year tenures. This means a hard job search for them.

The IT employees have decided not go quietly.

"We're organizing," said one IT employee, who requested anonymity. "We're communicating with one another. They need the knowledge that we have. They can't transition [to Cognizant] without the information that we have. That puts us in a position of strength -- they can't fire us for organizing; we're protected by the law," she said.

Computerworld interviewed two of the IT employees on Sunday; the interviews were arranged by Sara Blackwell, a Florida labor attorney who is helping the workers. She has held two conference calls with employees.

"The people at EmblemHealth have seen this happen to their other friends in the tech field, and they know what's happening," said Blackwell. "They are standing up not only for their rights" but "for the future of America."

The employees say there are about 60 IT employees involved in their organizing effort and the numbers are rising. Exactly what actions they will take remains to be determined.

A group recently "stormed" the insurer's HR offices seeking answers. It resulted in a series of meetings last week, where company officials tried to calm nerves. They told the workers that nothing has been finalized, and a contract with Cognizant has not been signed.

Employees also say the outsourcing may involve other departments outside of IT.

"Our immediate goal is to prevent them from signing the contract," said a second IT worker, and they want to do "whatever is possible."

"I think we're trying to use the window of opportunity," he said.

The second IT worker believes the insurer will put itself in a stronger position if it works with the employees it has, instead of shifting work to offshore workers.

But the contract with Cognizant sounds like it is a done deal, according to statement from the company.

In an email sent Monday, William Lamoreaux, chief operating officer at EmblemHealth, said: "We are committed to creating a stronger company that will provide the best possible service and products for our members. Employees impacted by these changes will receive assistance through severance packages and retraining opportunities."

EmblemHealth, a nonprofit firm, is facing financial difficulty, and the employees are aware of it. They are also aware of the trend to offshore outsourcing in their industry and others. But they also believe that they could update its legacy systems if given the chance.

The steps toward a shift to outsourcing have been going on for a considerable period of time, said employees.

In October, EmblemHealth changed its severance policies, the employees said. Now, if an employee is offered a position and doesn't take it, that employee will not get severance, the employees said. Employees who are laid off do receive severance. The changes are designed to all but force employees to take jobs with outsourcing firms.

Cognizant employees have been on-site gathering information. There have been preliminary meetings with employees.

The IT employees said it's been rough working at the firm but they have maintained their commitment and have strived to see it succeed. That includes working long hours with no bonuses or pay raises, and being on call around the clock.

"We worked and never missed a milestone," said the first IT worker. "We worked 80-hour weeks to get these things (systems) up."

One person who believes this type of organizational shift isn't healthy is Dr. Billie Blair, an organizational psychologist and author who heads Change Strategists, a consulting firm.

These offshore processes "are heart-wrenching; CFOs have definitely taken control of these companies and CFOs and their staffs function by numbers only -- they're not people people," said Blair.

"The mistake these companies make is that they have no hope their outsourced workers [will be] loyal, trustworthy kind of workers, as would a U.S citizen," Blair added.

Blair said corporations could do more to better the circumstances for both the employees and firm "but they are reticent about taking up the challenge."

For employees who go through the offshoring process, including knowledge transfer, "this kind of stress is very threatening to a person's well-being," said Blair.

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