Bank’s severance deal requires IT workers to be on call for two years

Employees said SunTrust requires laid-off IT workers to be available to help by phone or in person -- without additional pay

SunTrust Banks in Atlanta is laying off about 100 IT workers as it moves work offshore. But this layoff is unusual for what it is asking of the soon-to-be displaced workers: The bank's severance agreement requires terminated employees to remain available for two years to provide help if needed, including in-person assistance, and to do so without compensation.

Many of the affected IT employees, who are now training their replacements, have years of experience and provide the highest levels of technical support. The proof of their ability may be in the severance requirement, which gives the bank a way to tap their expertise long after their departure.

The bank's severance includes a "continuing cooperation" clause for a period of two years, where the employee agrees to "make myself reasonably available" to SunTrust "regarding matters in which I have been involved in the course of my employment with SunTrust and/or about which I have knowledge as a result of my employment at SunTrust."

The employees were informed of their layoff at the end of September, and the last day of work for some is on Nov. 1. This is according to several of the affected employees, who requested anonymity for fear of retaliation.

The severance is seen by affected employees as a requirement to provide ongoing technical assistance as needed. The severance agreement itself says that this assistance from former employees "will be requested at such times and in such a manner so as to not unreasonably interfere with my subsequent employment." An employee shared the severance clause with Computerworld.

This assistance can be by telephone or in-person meetings, and provided without "additional consideration or compensation of any kind," it says.

"How do they think this is acceptable?" said one affected IT worker about the clause. He couldn't fathom how the bank can cut its IT staff and yet insist that former workers be available to fix problems.

SunTrust, with about $189 billion in assets, declined to discuss the severance, and a spokesman said the company isn't commenting on its "HR policies or procedures."

Bank employees provided the estimate of the number of workers affected by the layoff. The bank declined to provide any specifics. The bank's only comment was general: Like all businesses, "we are constantly reviewing and adjusting our staffing -- hiring in some areas while reducing in others." The goal is "to ensure we're meeting client needs effectively and efficiently," said a spokesman, in an email statement.

Sara Blackwell, a Florida attorney who is representing Disney workers in a discrimination complaint after they were replaced by foreign workers, said the SunTrust "contract requires them to be on call for two years and they agree to not be paid for any time used to assist the company."

However, if the company called them and did not pay them, that is "a clear violation of the Fair Labor Standards Act," she said. That law establishes wage standards. There may be exceptions for participation in certain aspects of litigation, but Blackwell said, "this clause is too broad" and is likely unenforceable.

Cooperation agreements are uncommon for mid-level employees and typically apply only to C-Level executives, such as the CFO and CEO, and then usually when there is ongoing litigation, said several attorneys who handle these types of agreements. The SunTrust severance also requires the laid-off workers be available for depositions, hearings and other proceedings.

Bryan Sullivan, partner at law firm Early Sullivan Wright Gizer & McRae, said cooperation agreements are usually for highly paid executives at a firm. When consulting expertise is required, there may be a separate consulting contract as part of the severance, he said.

SunTrust has been working for a number of years with IT contractors that have large India and overseas operations -- including IBM and Infosys -- said bank employees. Employees said the "knowledge transfer" -- the euphemism used to describe training contractors who are taking their jobs -- is well underway and is being done both over the Web and in person.

SunTrust employees said they were told to cooperate with whatever the "vendor partners" asked. The vendors have access to employee systems and are shadowing them in their day-to-day work.

Contractors with H-1B visas are also being used at the worksite, according to Labor Condition Application filings, which attest to wage level and worksite location.

SunTrust workers have been filing Trade Adjustment Assistance (TAA) applications for several years, citing a shift of work to India or jobs lost as a result of foreign outsourcing. TAA provides benefits to displaced workers, such as college tuition help.

The employees could not say exactly how big of a role outsourcing contractors are now playing at the bank because they don't know the bigger picture. But they did observe that in IT offices many of the workers appeared to be Indian or from that part of the globe.

They said that in terms of ethnic makeup, IT operations were becoming less diverse as reliance on the contractors increased.

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