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Published: Tuesday, 3/1/2005

City paves the way for bank's job giveaway

Last Tuesday, in yet another groveling attempt to "save jobs," city council invited Fifth Third Bank to disregard a ban against downtown surface parking lots.

Go ahead! Tear down three buildings! Pave away!

A majority of council argued that, without the waiver, the bank would follow through on its threat to up 'n' move 200 downtown operations center jobs to suburban Sylvania.

Three days after the council vote, Fifth Third laid off between 16 and 19 of these very workers.

(The bank says 16, but workers I spoke with all put the number closer to 19.)

At an afternoon downtown meeting Friday, bank president and CEO Bruce Lee gathered some 20 employees in a conference room.

"Bruce Lee asked us to keep this hushed until they could make a statement, but they never make it public when they let people go," said a laid-off worker.

No employee I spoke with would jeopardize severance pay (a maximum six weeks' salary) by being named. But all blamed regionalization.

"That means the work we once did is being done by Grand Rapids [Mich.]," said one worker.

Mr. Lee, she said, told the group there'd been a regionalization study, "and they're seeing it is quite effective. He had a somber tone in his voice, and he was sorry to say, but we're going to be regionalizing."

Meanwhile, bank spokesman Karen Fraker said, "I'd call it a consolidation, not a layoff."

Fifth Third, she added, will offer jobs in Grand Rapids, "and we will try our best to accommodate and integrate these individuals into our operations here."

But, as one targeted worker said, "there aren't many positions within the bank anymore."

One employee, recounting the Friday meeting with Mr. Lee, said the group was told "they'd known about [layoff plans] for a week, and that would have been before the council meeting."

Considering all the public debate about job retention, I asked Ms. Fraker why the bank didn't disclose the pending layoffs - er, consolidations.

Her circular answer left me dizzy.

"Because," she said, "this wasn't an issue when we were talking about saving jobs in downtown Toledo."

And why wasn't it? I asked.

"Because it hadn't been announced."

Unless Fifth Third announces something, it's not an issue?

(Hey, the bank STILL hasn't "announced" any of this - I called to confirm what workers said.)

"It just seems funny, their timing," said a laid-off worker. "I feel deceived. They said they were going to save all these jobs."

So, are any other downtown bank jobs at risk? Ms. Fraker's careful answer:

"Not that I'm aware of."

Tonight, there's an all-employee meeting at SeaGate Centre with bank big-shot George Schaefer. Ms. Fraker described it as "a very positive meeting, very upbeat. We'll be talking about our company and our success .●.●."

Will workers facing consolidation be eager to attend?



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