Citicorp announced yesterday that it will lay off 149 people, or nearly 15 percent of the work force, from the Towson headquarters of its Choice credit card program as part of a companywide reorganization of credit card operations.
The restructuring also will affect Citicorp's Hagerstown customer service center, where about two dozen people are expected to lose their jobs out of roughly 1,700 who work there, a Citicorp spokeswoman said.
The New York banking company told its employees yesterday that the various supporting operations for the company's two MasterCard and Visa divisions -- the Citibank and Choice brands -- will be combined, although the separate cards will remain.
The impending organizational changes had been hinted at for several months, but news of the layoffs came as a shock to employees in Towson, some of whom said they were led to believe their jobs were safe.
"They told us for months this was not going to happen," customer service representative Lynette Smith said as she left the company at 4:15 p.m. yesterday, minutes after being informed that her job would end July 1.
She said she and her co-workers had shown up for work at their regular 4 p.m. starting time, and had been pulled aside and told of the layoffs.
"They said we have to qualify for severance pay and job placement," Ms. Smith said, adding that she didn't know whether she qualified for the benefits. "I'm really [upset]," she said. "I've been here a year."
Co-worker Susan Green said the layoffs did not appear to be based on seniority. "I'm so upset," Ms. Green said. "It is all favoritism."
Susan Weeks, Citicorp spokeswoman in New York, said the company will try to place laid-off employees in other positions, but she held out little hope, given the cost-cutting and reduction in size Citibank has undertaken over the past two years, during which staff has been trimmed by about 85,000.
The 1,000 employees -- along with 400 or so temporary and part-time workers -- at the York Road offices of Citibank (Maryland) N.A. have been responsible for all marketing, customer relations, credit and collections work to support the 2 million Choice cardholders, Ms. Weeks said.
Richard Srednicki, Citicorp's Manhattan-based general manager of credit cards, "wants one support structure that serves both Choice and Citibank" cards, Ms. Weeks explained.
Yesterday's move follows by two months the job change of Margaret Alton, who was president of Citibank (Maryland), the Citicorp subsidiary that ran the Choice operation. Ms. Alton's new role is in Washington as head of the company's 28-branch mid-Atlantic region, which is split about evenly between Maryland and the district.
After the credit card restructuring, the customer-service and collections work done in Towson will be shifted to centers in Hagerstown, Sioux Falls, S.D., and Las Vegas, which currently provide support services for the 30 million Citibank Visa and MasterCard clients.
The Towson operations will take on three new responsibilities, Ms. Weeks said: a fraud early-warning operation, which is now handled in New York; some marketing programs that are handled in New York and Sioux Falls; and taking calls from people who haven't received their cards in the mail, which is also done in New York.
Citibank acquired the Choice card when it was part of a Baltimore-based company called National Acceptance Corp. The NAC card, for many years a fixture around Maryland, became known as Choice when Citibank acquired the company in the late 1970s. About a decade later, Citibank linked the Choice cards with the Visa and MasterCard networks.
The Choice Visa and MasterCards became the banking company's low-priced, no-frills cards for creditworthy customers who didn't need the extra products and services of the Citibank credit cards, Ms. Weeks said. That won't change with the reorganization, she said.