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Hundreds of Fleet layoffs expected

Bank of America set to make cuts today

Bank of America Corp. plans to lay off hundreds of tellers and other branch employees at Fleet banks today, asking them to leave the building immediately as part of the process, according to documents obtained by the Globe and Fleet branch managers told of the decision.

The layoffs will affect nearly every city and town in which Fleet does business, as the North Carolina bank continues to absorb the Boston-based FleetBoston Financial Corp. Bank of America plans to convert Fleet's 1,500 branches to its own model, which for the most part uses fewer full-time staff members per branch, the Fleet workers said.

In addition to the layoffs, Bank of America plans to move some employees from branch to branch and to reduce some staff members' hours. Branch managers learned of the planned cutbacks at a meeting in late July, but staff members are expected to be told today.

One Fleet manager who was informed of the plans put the staffing reductions and relocations at one or more per branch. According to that manager, who asked not to be identified, that means that 1,500 or more employees could be affected by today's personnel moves.

Last night Bank of America said there would be some job reductions, but declined to say how many and confirmed that it was in the process of switching the way Fleet branches are operated to its model.

"As we roll out the model, there will be some job reductions in some centers, but there will also be increases in other centers," said Eloise Hale, a Bank of America spokeswoman. She denied that laid-off bank employees will be asked to leave immediately.

Bank of America has aggressive expansion plans in New England, which it says will eventually offset any job losses. The bank has decided to put headquarters for five of its divisions here, including wealth management and small-business banking. The bank plans to open 150 new branches across the nation this year, including some in the Northeast.

The bank's wealth management arm, which includes mutual funds and the so-called private bank for wealthy clients, is also hiring investment advisers and brokers throughout the Northeast. Already this year, the bank has hired 240 client managers, and it expects to hire another 130 by the end of the year.

Today's expected cuts are likely to be especially painful because many Fleet employees thought they had received assurances from Bank of America that the branches would escape the brunt of the 12,500 nationwide layoffs Bank of America is implementing as part of the merger.

In a set of talking points that branch managers are supposed to use while informing Fleet tellers of the decision, question number one deals with a hypothetical bank employee who says, "Originally, we were told not to expect impact to customer-facing positions." The bank's answer does not refute that statement, but goes on to talk about the need for "optimal staffing levels" necessary to provide "customer delight" at Fleet.

Hale, the Bank of America spokeswoman, said yesterday that the bank has never indicated that branch positions were exempt from layoffs. Fleet's branches stretch from Maine to New Jersey. The layoffs and other changes will probably not affect Bank of America branches elsewhere.

Bank of America had said it would maintain the same number of employees that Fleet had in New England before the merger, though it has also said it will cut some jobs and create others. Already, Bank of America has trimmed positions across Fleet's operations, including corporate functions such as derivatives trading and marketing. The bank has told state officials that Massachusetts' total job loss will be about 500, but that number is almost certainly too low.

A timeline for the pending layoffs obtained by the Globe explained that the branches performed an evaluation of the skills of each bank branch worker about three weeks ago and that the managers received training last week on how to talk about the layoffs. They are slated to tell employees on "one common notification date," which is listed as today.

The layoffs are likely to happen at the end of the day, with one-on-one meetings between the branch manager and the affected workers. Employees who are not offered comparable jobs will receive two weeks' notice plus a severance package more generous than average, but they will be asked to leave the premises soon after being told of the decision, according to the documents. Employees making under $75,000 will receive between 17 and 48 weeks of severance pay, depending on their length of service with the bank.

"I want to let you know that you have not been selected for a position with the company," Bank of America managers are supposed to tell displaced employees, according to the "talking points." "Please understand that we will be making this your last day in the banking center. . . . I will need to collect all bank property from you before you leave today."

Though Bank of America has talked publicly about a national job loss of 12,500 in the merger, it has refused to give a regional breakdown of the cuts and, in most cases, will not confirm layoffs when asked about them. Fleet had about 47,000 employees before the merger, including thousands who worked at its headquarters at 100 Federal St. in Boston.

The bank's policy of keeping regional layoffs secret has attracted fierce criticism from a handful of New England public officials, including a chairman of the state's Joint Committee on Banks and Banking, Representative John Quinn, Democrat of Dartmouth. "Being vague and less than forthright is not the way to do business," he said of Bank of America in the spring.

The bank has told managers about the importance of "delivering high-quality service" for customers during a period of transition. "Transition periods like this can cause anxiety and frustration," the bank's "communication toolkit" for branch managers states. "The stress level will increase and people's feelings about the organization will be tested."

Sasha Talcott can be reached at stalcott@globe.com.

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