As call centers across the country provide support to consumers navigating the coronavirus pandemic and corporations rely increasingly on remote assistance with many storefronts closed down, call center workers are being forced to make difficult choices about whether to follow their employers’ demands to work in close proximity to others, or heed recommendations by the WHO and CDC to shelter in place and social distance to prevent community spread. The Center for Disease Control (CDC) has made clear that all companies should take steps to protect their workers and the public, including telework where feasible. Industry leaders have acknowledged that call centers present special risks for the spread of covid-19.
Some major corporations have transitioned their call center employees to remote telework and instituted emergency paid leave provisions to support employees impacted by the pandemic. Union-represented companies including Verizon, AT&T, CenturyLink, and American Airlines have all negotiated quickly with the Communications Workers of America (CWA) to implement temporary telework arrangements and emergency paid leave that covers school closures, high risk individuals, and caregiving responsibilities.
Workers at major call center operators are speaking out about their concerns. Some of the companies have failed to move their employees to telework or have only moved a percentage of their workforce home. Some companies have also failed to implement effective social distancing policies and cleaning to protect employees.
- The financial industry, which employs thousands of call center workers to support its customers, is also plagued by systemic issues of discrimination, low-wages, extreme sales goals, and whistleblower retaliation. The industry also has one of the lowest rates of union representation in the country. In recent weeks, employees at bank call centers including Wells Fargo’s, who have been deemed “essential workers,” have tested positive — but protective measures are slow to be implemented.
- At Alorica, a massive business process outsourcing company that has been accused of exploiting workers both in the U.S. and overseas, many employees are still expected to come into the office, and disinfectant wipes or hand sanitizer have not been available to all workers. Moreover, workers say that social distancing measures have not been taken and desks are not spaced six feet apart. Last week, workers at an Alorica call center in Tucson with about 800 workers reported that they are still clocking in to work despite cramped workspaces and sick colleagues, according to the Arizona Daily Star. An ABC affiliate also recently reported cramped conditions in Alorica’s El Paso call center.
- Customer service representatives in some departments at a Cherry Hill, New Jersey call center operated by Conduent, a BPO company that services clients like USAA, Rite Aid, Edison, Reynolds, Honeywell, and Verizon, have yet to hear back from management as to whether they can work from home as anxieties rise amidst the coronavirus pandemic. According to one employee, Conduent is not abiding by the CDC’s social distancing recommendations. Conduent has ironically been tapped by state and local governments to track coronavirus cases with its software product, Maven.
- CyraCom International bills itself as the largest provider of telephone interpretation services in the United States. One worker at the CyraCom International center in Phoenix, which houses hundreds of workers at a time, started to show coronavirus-like symptoms in February and had to go to the emergency room. CyraCom gave its employees the option to work from home after workers walked out in March due to reports that their colleague fell ill and went to the emergency room. According to one agent, the option to work from home is only available so long as employees have access to or purchase the necessary equipment themselves. Otherwise, they are still expected to come into the office.
- The Results Companies, a business process outsourcing services provider with over 20 call center locations, gave workers in St. Joseph, Missouri, a few options in response to the coronavirus: they said employees could take a temporary layoff, an unpaid personal leave of absence, or continue going to work. However, according to a worker, The Results subsequently reversed its position and withdrew the option for employees to take a temporary layoff. Moreover, The Results agents in Missouri say that social distancing requirements issued by local authorities have not been followed adequately.
Call center workers are demanding that employers take immediate steps to allow all workers the option of working from home and the option of taking emergency paid leave while keeping their insurance coverage. This leave should be extended to anyone who has been diagnosed or exposed to coronavirus or anyone who would be at high risk if they contracted it, or who needs to take leave to care for a dependent.
Call Center Worker Voices on the Frontlines of the Covid-19 Pandemic:
"Call centers by design make social distancing a challenge. We are essential workers, and I'm proud of the work we do. But Wells Fargo needs to treat us with some respect," said Carl Sandstrom, Executive Case Specialist at Wells Fargo's Hillsboro, OR, call center and a member of the Committee for Better Banks. "Now as Wells Fargo call center workers test positive for COVID-19, it is crystal clear that the bank has been too slow in taking adequate steps to ensure our safety. That is unacceptable. We need immediate action from Wells Fargo to safeguard the health and safety of all call center workers."
“Only some employees are working from home. In the office, we are not six feet apart from each other by any means. We don’t have any disinfectant wipes or hand sanitizer. If the company won’t let you work from home, the only other option is to take a leave of absence without pay,” said Frances Buxton, an Alorica agent in Saraland, Alabama.
“We are in tiny cubicles. Every three to three-and-a-half feet, there’s another person next to you,” said a Conduent agent based in Cherry Hills, NJ. “They do not supply us with cleaning supplies to clean our desks. There are no signs reminding people how to wash your hands or how to cover your cough. Sanitation stations are empty. Sometimes when you go to the bathroom, the soap dispensers are empty or the batteries have died. They never prop open a window, they don’t change the air filters; they never vacuum the floors or mop the bathrooms. We take that back to our cars; to our kids; to our homes. During this pandemic, they should be on top of this. It is their responsibility to keep us healthy to help us serve our customers.”
Steve Sheil, an employee at a Conduent call center in Staten Island that services New York State Thruway, Port Authority, and MTA, said most of his colleagues have not been given the option to work from home in light of the virus. “At the start of the coronavirus, I was a full-time employee. I am now a part-time employee. They slashed my salary. They did that to everybody. A lot of people are scared to speak up. They’re afraid to lose their jobs. When we ask about working from home, it’s just story after story. It’s like beating a dead horse, like they’re just hoping we give up.” On top of cutting hours and salaries, “three of the machines we use to clock in don’t work, so everyone has to clock in on the same machines in a cluster.”
“They should’ve done more to protect workers given that people in the U.S. were already getting sick with coronavirus,” said a CyraCom International agent based in Phoenix. “I really don’t think they care about their employees. Many workers are there who have underlying conditions and can’t afford to do other jobs that require physical labor.”
“I was worried about getting sick, not because of me, but because of my family,” said another CyraCom International call center worker, who was finally able to work from home starting Friday. “My daughter has asthma and it’s very stressful for me to think that something could happen to her. I was worried for my husband too, because he has diabetes.”
“Their response to the coronavirus has been lethargic,” said Benjamin Stevens, an employee at The Results’ call center in St. Joseph, MO, who works on accounts such as Hills Pet Food. “Until the city of St. Joseph declared a shelter-in-place order, they did not mandate that cubicles be separated by six feet. Even after the order, they took duct tape and taped off every other cubicle, which doesn’t really measure to six feet in practice. Beyond that, they don’t enforce any other measures of social distancing. People are gathering in groups, and when you’re walking around, people are sneezing and coughing right next to you. It will only take one person here to get it for everyone here to get it.”
CWA is also supporting call center workers at government contractor Maximus who have put forward a set of demands that lays out their safety concerns in detail. Despite their efforts to communicate with management, Maximus has been slow to move to telework and inconsistent at best in its efforts to adopt socially distancing in its call centers. Some workers have also reported difficulties accessing the leave options that are available.
In a recent In These Times piece, Maximus workers shared their stories about Maximus’ inadequate response to the pandemic despite its role as a federal contractor helping American access Medicare and Medicaid. New York Magazine broke a story in February about Maximus’ anti-union campaign, revealing the crux of a larger problem at the company: most Maximus workers are paid low wages, and many can’t even afford prescriptions and necessary procedures; a “uniquely American irony” for health care administrative workers. Those concerns were echoed in a recent Mother Jones article.
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About CWA: The Communications Workers of America represents working men and women in telecommunications, customer service, media, airlines, health care, public service and education, and manufacturing.
About the Committee for Better Banks: The Committee for Better Banks, the only independent voice for frontline bank employees, is comprised of bank workers, community and consumer advocacy groups, and labor organizations, coming together to improve conditions in the banking industry. Committee for Better Banks members include current and former employees of banks and credit unions across the country, including Wells Fargo, Santander, Bank of The West, and Bank of America.