As companies continue to shutter amid the ongoing global pandemic, urging and in some cases mandating that staff continue to work from home, one of the country’s largest telecommunications providers is facing allegations that top executives, contrary to expert medical advice, have prohibited employees from working remotely. This, even though the company has acknowledged it would continue to function.
A senior employee at Charter Communications, which provides internet service to more than 20 million U.S. households under the Spectrum brand, told Gizmodo on Tuesday that the decision not to implement a work-from-home policy during the coronavirus outbreak is exposing employees to peril and inciting “verbal confrontations” between workers and management.
The employee, who was granted anonymity because they feared retaliation, described Charter’s decision as “short-sighted” and “extreme self-serving.” The company, they said, is at present forcing thousands of workers to continue commuting to offices in Denver; St. Louis; Charlotte, North Carolina; and Stamford, Connecticut. The decision comes on the heels of warnings by top medical officials that gathering in large numbers only heightens the risk of contracting covid-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus strain wreaking havoc across the globe.
Charter supervisors have instructed their employees to stay home if they feel sick or unsafe, the source said, but they are not permitted to work and any days spent outside the office are being deducted from their accrued sick leave.
Gizmodo’s emails to multiple corporate officials at Charter on Tuesday received no response.
There is no discernible rhyme or reason informing Charter’s corporate mandate, said the employee, who has worked at the company for roughly a decade. “The office only provides a place for visual accountability and direct vocal communications,” they said. But for many employees, their work can be accomplished from virtually anywhere. “Charter has always had a robust VPN/remote capability (as did [Time Warner Cable] and the other companies it purchased a few years back).”
“In a communications company this massive, there is very, VERY little ‘hands on’ work, with field technicians and data centre hands (the dudes who actually walk through data halls doing wiring and other physical tasks doing the lion’s share of that work.),” they added.
Gizmodo is not the first to report the claims.
TechCrunch reported on Monday that staff were “angered” by the no-work-from-home policy and told of one employee—Nick Wheeler, a video operations engineer—who left the company due to the decision.
In an email blast to one executive and hundreds of engineers last week, Wheeler reportedly wrote: “I do not understand why we are still coming into the office as the COVID-19 pandemic surges around us.” Added Wheeler, according to TechCrunch: “The CDC guidelines are clear. The CDPHE guidelines are clear. The WHO guidelines are clear. The science of social distancing is real. We have the complete ability to do our jobs entirely from home.”
Wheeler was reportedly reprimanded for “inciting fear” and within hours had resigned from the company. Charter refused to comment, but otherwise told TechCrunch it was continuing “normal operations” while reviewing it’s “business continuity plans daily as conditions are changing rapidly.”
An internal email shared with Gizmodo, which the source described as sent by Charter CEO Thomas Rutledge on March 14, offers a glimpse at how the company is currently handling the outbreak. In it, the CEO asserts that while some “back office and management functions can be performed remotely, they are more effective from the office.”
The letter reads in part:
You may have heard that some companies are instituting broad remote working policies for some of their employees. While we are preparing for that possibility by geography, Charter is not doing the same today. We provide critical communications services and we believe our approach to supporting front line employees is the right way for us to operate at this time to continue to deliver those important services to our customers.
The message goes on to say that roughly 15 per cent of the company is office-bound and work to support the other 85 per cent who “perform the critical delivery and servicing of our products for customers.” It is “crucial,” the Rutledge email says, that the 15 per cent continue to perform their duties in the office in order to provide “frontline operators the highest level of support.”
According to the source, Charter management was asked by top brass last week to “suppress employee chatter regarding Coronavirus.” However, the employee was unable to provide a written copy of this directive and acknowledged they were unsure if managers in other departments received similar commands.
“[T]his has nothing to do with shirking responsibility or letting certain departments hit the road while others stay behind to do the grunt work,” the source said, admitting their knowledge of human resources was limited. “But even by requiring 15,000 employees to put themselves at risk as well as act as vectors of infection (infiltration and exfiltration to their various social circles) in the name of ‘solidarity’ and the perceived effectiveness of environment is short sighted and extremely self-serving.”
Charter has otherwise responded to the coronavirus outbreak by offering two months of free wifi to new customers in households with a K-12 or college student.
In an address to the nation on Monday, President Trump reversed course after weeks of downplaying the outbreak—presumably in attempts to stave off market panic—releasing new guidelines that include avoiding groups of more than 10 people. Doing so, he said, while flanked by senior medical officials, will aid in limiting the fatalities.
Such sacrifices, Trump said, are among the “critical changes” Americans must enact now to help contain and “defeat” the virus.
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