By L.M. Sixel of the Houston Chronicle

At one moment, Jeanine Brown is selling Ronco knives. Five minutes later, she’s answering questions about the secrets of getting rich from real estate foreclosures.

Brown is an agent for LiveOps, a company based in Palo Alto, Calif., with a national network of 16,000 operators who work from home answering the phone for TV infomercials.

Brown, who lives in Houston, works in her pajamas and never knows what she’ll be selling until the script pops up on her computer screen.

“You have to learn to be relaxed,” Brown said.

LiveOps is on a hiring spree, ramping up to handle all the calls for exercise machines and diet plans from viewers trying to live up to their New Year’s resolutions.

LiveOps would like to add 200 agents to the 180 who are already working in Houston, said Tim Whipple, vice president of the virtual call center, whose clients include the sellers of Ronco knives and rotisserie ovens, Hip Hop Abs fitness program, WalkFit shoe inserts and the Whitney Education Group’s program on foreclosure investing.

LiveOps also handles the calls for and Pizza Hut, he said.

The work-at-home model works well for the company, which must staff up when its customers are in the buying mood – and that often occurs in the middle of the night.

The sophisticated shift-scheduling program it uses can also handle huge short-term spikes such as pizza orders during the Super Bowl, Whipple said.

It’s also an attractive model for the many stay-at-home moms – and some dads – who want to pocket extra cash.

“It’s been the best thing that ever happened,” said Brown, who has a degree in marketing.

She has four children, ages 2, 3, 7 and 10, and wanted a way to supplement her husband’s salary as a middle school teacher.

Day care is expensive, Brown said, so she wanted a job that she could do when her children sleep and her husband is at home. A friend told her about LiveOps.

As a telephone agent, Brown picks her own schedule once a week. She often signs on at 9 p.m. and works for several hours. And there’s no commute.

Brown said she earns between $12 and $14 an hour and that she works about 20 hours a week. She has to provide – at her expense – a dedicated phone line, phone, a computer and high-speed Internet access.

She only earns money when she’s on the phone, which Whipple said is roughly 25 cents a minute plus any commissions.

The number of calls routed to Brown and other agents depend on their selling skills and ability to sell up – selling extra items callers agree to buy after listening to the agent’s sales pitch – as well as their speed. The better you do, the more calls you get.

When there is a lull between the calls, Brown said she watches movies or pays bills.

Not for everyone

However, the job may not be for everyone. That’s because agents aren’t paid for the time they spend waiting for calls and training, including watching the infomercials.

LifeOps treats its agents as independent contractors rather than employees, Whipple said, which means they don’t receive overtime pay when they work more than 40 hours a week. While agents can earn as much as $20 an hour, the average is more like $8 to $12 an hour, he said.

But a recently filed lawsuit by two agents in Georgia contends they don’t even earn the minimum wage when their training time and nonpaid downtime between calls are factored in. The two women argue they’re employees – not independent contractors – and are entitled to minimum wage and overtime pay.

The federal court rules in the Southern District of Georgia discourages attorney comment on pending litigation, said Mark Johnson, a lawyer with Gilbert, Harrell, Sumerford & Martin in Brunswick, Ga., who is representing the two women.

LiveOps spokeswoman Elizabeth Gordon said the company had no comment.

No office politics

Rose Johnson Branch, who is not a part of the lawsuit, estimates that she works 50 hours a week as a LiveOps agent in Houston, fielding infomercial calls as well as pizza orders from all over the country.

Branch said she typically earns between $15 and $20 an hour with LiveOps, depending on bonuses.

“The phone doesn’t stay idle much,” she said, crediting her experience and picking up every call with a smile in her voice. And there’s no office politics.

“In corporations, there are certain politics to play to get promotions,” she said. “The system has no idea you are in your pajamas. It just knows a lot of orders, a lot of up-sales. It’s a very nondiscriminatory system, and I love it.”

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