Monday, Dec. 3, 2007 | In an age when dialing 1-800 seems more often than not to connect disgruntled consumers with call answerers in far-away lands, this massive gray corporate building, just down Scripps Poway Parkway from million-dollar homes, still bustles with more than a thousand professional phone-talkers.

One Wednesday morning in November, young business-casualites stream into the building, the western regional headquarters for insurance company Geico. As they enter, they breeze past a host offering full-color invitations to the company multicultural lunch celebration, promising foods from every continent but Antarctica. A nearby flier announces the company’s upcoming holiday fair where workers can hawk their hand-made goods.

They swipe security clearance badges to enter a maze of hallways covered in enough brightly colored bulletin boards to rival the warm-fuzziest elementary schools, passing sick rooms and the company cafeteria, an outdoor lunch patio and the indoor fitness center. Likenesses of the company’s iconic gecko and cavemen peer out from stickers, posters, newspaper clippings, bobbleheads and magnets.

The employees swim through a sea of cubicles to find their spot in the 300,000-square-foot building. The floor where customer service rep Sheila Moskaly sits is buzzing with halves of conversations and bursts of out-loud number-crunching.

The 34-year-old Moskaly wears a green sweater and black pants, resting her black boots on an ergonomic footrest under her keyboard. She delivers a spiel about customer service into the headset she has tucked over her long brown hair and ends the call she’s been on for a few minutes. She takes a swig of water from a half-gallon purple Tupperware container.

It’s just after 9 a.m., and Moskaly’s been awake for hours. She slipped into her white Geo Metro at 6 a.m. and left her house in Winchester, a small town of a couple thousand people in Riverside County. Barring a Sig-alert bottleneck on Interstate 15 or some other hang-up, she usually arrives at work just in time to start her shift at 7:15.

It’s a commute that costs, every month, about $200 in gas and 50 hours in time. She listens to talk radio on the way down, music on the way up. The trip and her shift take her away from her house for at least 11 hours every day. And her husband, retired from the Marine Corps and now an elevator mechanic in San Diego, makes a similar commute, though his is in an expenses-paid company car.

Moskaly grew up here, but affording a house is nearly impossible for her generation anymore in San Diego County. By moving 60-some miles out of the county, the couple could afford a larger, newer home than they could in San Diego, Moskaly says.

And so they join a flood of San Diego County’s middle-class households who’ve migrated to neighboring counties to find more bang-for-their-buck housing than they could by staying here. But with gas costs nearly higher than ever and freeways packed with folks who had the same idea, they sign themselves up for a costly commute, starting with the two weekly fill-‘er-up stops at the gas station Moskaly makes.

At her desk, Moskaly has pinned her insurance licenses: North Carolina. Texas. Hawaii. Washington. Idaho. Alaska. California. Oregon. She picks up a call, which begins with an automated, “Thank you for calling Geico, this is Sheila Moskaly, can I have your policy number?” To the caller, it sounds as if she’s been talking the whole time, but the automated greeting gives her a second to push a button and speak in real-time for the follow-up greeting.

It’s a woman calling to renew her insurance policy; it lapsed in October. Moskaly asks how much she drives that car. The answer: they’ve been “trying not to drive it too much” since the tags expired. It’s illegal to drive a car without insurance in California.

“Sometimes we have to say, ‘You do realize you don’t have insurance, right?’” Moskaly says later. “We try to help them stay legal.”

On the next call, Moskaly asks a policy holder if her teenage child drives yet. Not yet, the caller answers; she’s in no hurry to see her premiums rise.

Between phone calls, Moskaly shares bits of her life with a visitor who’s wheeled an office chair into her cubicle for the morning. She grew up in Lakeside, riding horses and dreaming of being a large-animal vet. When she married her husband, his military service took them to Illinois. Coming back to San Diego, she’s worked at Geico for four years. Having kids is a possibility — “hopefully, someday,” she says — but “it’s a conversation.”

When the next caller is re-routed from a center in Florida asking about a quote, Moskaly crunches a few numbers on a couple of options for one of the accident coverages. For one line in the quote, he’s deciding between $10,000 and $5,000 in case of an accident. It doesn’t cost much more per month to go for the 10, she says.

“Five thousand just goes in a heartbeat,” she tells him, sounding more like a sister offering take-it-or-leave-it advice than the stereotypical insurance salesperson.

Many of Moskaly’s calls come from other service centers around the country, because not all associates are licensed for every state. During the recent wildfires, the Poway office closed for three days, and their calls were re-routed to the other centers in the country.

Two weeks ago, Moskaly’s schedule changed from the less desirable Sunday-to-Thursday workweek to the traditional weekends off. But even with the commute, and the unconventional work week, she says the benefits to working here are worth it. Starting pay for daytime customer service reps is between $16 and $17 an hour. Hourly wages bump up by a couple of dollars for the evening shift. And for a claims adjuster, for which a bachelor’s degree is required, the wage pushes $20 an hour.

It’s a step up from a previous job, where she worked for a mail order company answering customer service calls. Now she answers just a fraction of the number of calls she had to answer there. The spiels do get stuck in your head, she says.

“I haven’t done it with this job, but with my last job, because I was answering 170 calls an hour, I used to answer my alarm clock,” she says.

About halfway through the morning, her visitor asks if she insures her own car with Geico. She doesn’t.

She blushes and rattles off an explanation.

“My husband has motorcycles, and another company had a good policy, and at the time we had a Corvette, and at the time we didn’t insure Corvettes, but now I think we do everything,” she says, trailing off. The phone beeps, signaling another call and a convenient exit.

The different pieces of information can get confusing, but the employees write cheat-sheet notes and post them on their computer monitors for the things they forget. Training is a serious venture at this company. New hires spend between 12 and 14 weeks in closely monitored sessions.

It’s a competitive marketplace in San Diego, a region where entry-level workers seek higher-than-ever wages just to make ends meet here. But the workers in the pool are better-qualified, says associate vice president Frankie Silva.

Earlier in the morning, Silva offered his take on the company’s decision to keep a center open in expensive Southern California, where employees are compensated at higher rates according to a cost-of-living scale than are the employees in the same position in a center in, say, Macon, Ga.

In the six months he’s been working in San Diego, he’s noticed the Poway center winds up with more educated, more talented (a measure he qualifies subjectively) employees than some of the other offices he’s worked in his 14 years with the company. It’s a statement he makes to the chagrin of his colleagues around the country, he imagines.

“Better quality associates cost a little more,” he says.

(Close to lunchtime, Silva is spotted along with regional vice president Greg Kalinsky, sporting socks and sandals and wielding cameras — dressed as tourists at the multicultural lunch.)

Moskaly says her job makes her a better customer. Sometimes she’s more patient with telemarketers.

“If they’re reading their scripts at the end of the call, I’m saying, ‘OK, I’ll let you finish your spiel because I have to do it, too,’” she says.

But other times, she says she can perceive when someone’s blowing her off, and she knows how to get what she wants.

Moskaly forces herself to eat lunch away from her desk to keep the day from dragging, she says. The interaction with the others in her cubicle alley helps; so does, sometimes, the interaction with people on the phone. And sometimes, she imagines the lifestyles of her callers, like the one whose policy covered a Maserati.

One notable call ate an hour-and-a-half of her day, she remembers.

“He had so many questions and ‘can you quote this’ and ‘quote that again’ and …” she says, trailing off. “I don’t even talk to my family that long!”

The bulletin boards in the building are covered with employee faces and names, the gold stars that the top brass say keep morale up. A whiteboard near Moskaly’s desk shows her current percentage, 83.3 — “I wish it was higher,” she says — of mandated things to mention in phone calls, like the option to set up automatic withdrawals for payments online, or the option to purchase umbrella coverage on homes and vehicles. That option’s called “PUP” on the board, and later in the morning, two nearby workers congratulate each other on selling one recently.

Moskaly recently sold a PUP, but only because the customer asked, she admits.

“I don’t have one bit of pushiness in me,” she says, shuddering at the thought of trying to close a deal. “‘You don’t want it? OK.’ If they decline, that’s it. Sales isn’t my forte. But when someone calls in and asks, I’m like, ‘Yes! I can’t sell it otherwise.’”

Please contact Kelly Bennett directly with your thoughts, ideas, personal stories or tips. Or send a letter to the editor.

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