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Rather than passing out pink slips to unsuspecting employees, BellSouth Corp. is instituting a voluntary separation plan to pare its work force by as many as 5,000.

Citing the economy, company officials say the cuts will affect white-collar and non-management positions. The Communications Workers of America will oversee the non-management reductions. BellSouth expects to take an after-tax charge of between $250 million and $300 million. It is unclear when the charge will be recorded.

If BellSouth eliminates 5,000 jobs, it will be the largest round of cuts at the company thus far. Last year, the company reduced its staff by 3,000 in October and 1,200 in December.

At the end of the fourth quarter, BellSouth had 729,000 DSL customers — 80 percent of which were residential customers. The company is forecasting it will have 1.1 million DSL customers by the end of the year.

Last week. SBC Communications Inc. revealed plans to eliminate 5,000 jobs. The Baby Bell also blamed the economy for the cuts.

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