US Telco Workers Inevitably Got Covid-19 After Being Barred From Working At Home

US Telco Workers Inevitably Got Covid-19 After Being Barred From Working At Home

Employees of Charter Communications, which sells internet service under the name Spectrum, have tested positive for covid-19 in several states, according to emails obtained by Gizmodo. The confirmed cases follow a dispute between labour and management last month over a no-work-from-home policy that was later reversed—at least in part, for some employees.

Company emails shared by Spectrum employees in Brooklyn, New York, for example, cited “a number of people” self-reporting that they’d contracted covid-19, the disease caused by the novel coronavirus. Others “known to have recently had direct contact with these individuals” were also notified, emails said. Although New York City is particularly hot—having confirmed more than 139,000 cases as of Tuesday—Charter has seen outbreaks among its workforce in cities big and small.

But even in cases where multiple employees have confirm testing positive for the virus, which has killed more than 175,000 people worldwide, Spectrum’s call centres and storefronts have kept their doors open, serving as potential hotspots for exposure. While Charter has allowed some workers, in certain circumstances, to temporarily work from home, its pandemic response has largely focused sanitizing its workspaces after hours. Employees fear that this is doing too little to shield them from the disease or prevent them from giving it to customers, whose equipment they handle and whose homes they enter daily.

Similar to New York, another email was sent out to workers on Thursday at a Spectrum building in Orlando, Florida, reporting its second confirmed case of the virus. In neither instance did Charter mention taking any additional precautions, beyond telling workers to visit the CDC’s website for themselves and to properly dispose of their food and beverage containers at their desks.

The New York Times reports that as many as 230 Spectrum employees may have tested positive for covid-19, citing a source with direct knowledge of the company. It also reported first that an investigation of the company’s practices is underway at the office of Letitia James, the New York attorney general.

Emails blasted out to Spectrum employees occasionally claim that a person has not had “direct contact” with other workers while symptomatic. The median time between catching the virus and displaying symptoms, however, is thought to be five days and some patients have gone as long as two weeks without symptoms. Some remain asymptomatic while the disease runs its course. (A New York City labour and delivery unit found, for instance, that 88 per cent of infected patients showed no symptoms, per the Washington Post.)

Two Spectrum employees in Kettering, Ohio, also tested positive for covid-19 this month, according to local news station WHIO. TechCrunch reported the first confirmed cases of covid-19 at Charter’s offices in mid-March.

A Charter spokesperson declined Gizmodo’s request to comment on employee allegations, including whether the company had closed any offices in which multiple infected people are known to have shown up for work, though Gizmodo confirmed at least one.

More than two dozen Spectrum employees said they felt Charter’s response to the virus was inadequate, if not severely negligent. Many dropped the blame squarely at the feet of CEO Thomas Rutledge. Many said he failed to implement work-from-home procedures during the crucial early days of the pandemic because—as one high-level Charter employee put it—Rutledge is “of a different era” and believes workers “will just screw around at home.”

All Spectrum workers who spoke to Gizmodo were granted anonymity because of concerns over retribution, which some said they’d witnessed personally. Employees have been instructed by email not to speak with reporters.

A Spectrum building in Austin, Texas, was closed last week after more than 15 employees contracted covid-19, an ex-employee, whose spouse currently works at the company, said. The staff there not visibly sick were transferred to a nearby office, she told Gizmodo, and crammed “into a space a quarter of the size.” Three days later, the transferred workers—whom she said all feared “the wrath of CEO Tom Rutledge”—were then instructed to self-quarantine. But the workers they had come in contact with were not, she said.

Several employees said it appeared as though not every Spectrum call centre was following the same guidelines with regards to sensitization and social distancing, despite certain directives being issued company-wide. “While they were definitely originally hardcore about not letting us work from home, that has changed,” one call-centre employee said. Their office, unlike some others, has sent at least half of its staff home so that those in the office can work six feet apart.

A Spectrum employee at a Midwest network operations centre told Gizmodo that his managers had put employees on a two-week rotation. “Half of us work in the office and the other half works from home for two weeks,” they said. Although Charter says employees on salary are given the same three weeks paid time off as its hourly workers, one salaried employee said his manager told him he could only use it while working from home.

Spectrum’s brick-and-mortar shops are a different animal entirely, and the employees in them have questioned what about the storefronts Charter considers “essential.” One worker said that they continue to serve “technology-challenged” customers in face-to-face interactions, usually handling their phones, modems, and routers, without protective equipment, heightening the risk of infection for everyone involved. A small percentage of customers, typically those advanced in age, prefer to pay their bills in person.

The same retail worker said that their colleagues have had to bring in their own supplies to sanitize their workspace and claimed that social-distancing measures were only implemented after public health officials conducted a surprise spot-check. Employees have not been provided with masks or gloves, they said, and are actively discouraged from wearing them around customers because it “instigates alarm and panic with the customers.”

Last month, several of Spectrum’s field technicians, who said they’d been entering five to six customer homes per day, said they were told that wearing masks would only frighten people. One tech sent Gizmodo a screenshot of a job order in which a customer confessed they had contracted covid-19. (Charter previously told Gizmodo it told field technicians not to enter homes if customers appear sick.)

Another retail employee said they were told by a manager that if a customer appeared sick to put their equipment in a resealable bag usually used for bug infestation. The only other change at the store was to its hours, they said; at least six days a week it shuts down two hours early. “I have a coworker that was sick with [covid-19] symptoms and was bullied into coming to work,” they said. “A coworker had to purchase cleaner for us to use. All of this because we may miss a sale. There is nothing we do that cant be handled over the phone or online. Even equipment can be shipped.”

Several Spectrum employees also said their retail bosses have handed down higher sales goals amid widespread stay-at-home orders. At one storefront, one said, traffic has dropped by 600 to 700 per cent. And while the Federal Emergency Management Agency has labelled Charter’s upkeep of broadband service “essential” amid the crisis, employees wonder why the storefronts aren’t better equipped. “Is it ‘essential’ to have people coming into stores to spread this virus?” asked one worker, whose main walk-in traffic now consists of the elderly paying their bills.

“What do we do when the whole Spectrum staff is sick?” they said. “What do we do when cleaning supplies run out? How much longer can I go to work and see the elderly pour themselves into our store with the thought in my mind that me being here might be the cause of their death.”

Tom McKay contributed to this report.