Coronavirus Diaries is a series of dispatches exploring how the coronavirus is affecting people’s lives. For the latest public health information, please refer to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s website. For Slate’s coronavirus coverage, click here.
This diary is written by a Charter Communications call center employee, whom Slate granted anonymity to protect against retaliation. Some details have been changed. This piece was supported by the Economic Hardship Reporting Project.
I work for Charter Communications. Despite stringent recommendations from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and orders from some state governors, I continue to report to a call center with hundreds of people sitting in tightly packed, open-air cubicles.
The tempo of emails and notices from my managers and our CEO, Thomas Rutledge, has accelerated over the past week as the pandemic has spread. On Saturday, March 14, he wrote, “The safety of Charter employees is paramount to the Company. At the same time, Charter must maintain continuous and effective business operations in order to keep our commitment to customers. Therefore, the Company will strive to remain open and operate normally to the extent possible.” At the same time, he says. My experience is typical. Gizmodo ran an article on Wednesday with the headline “Charter Communications Employees Say Bosses Ignore Expert Covid-19 Advice, Put Profit Before Safety.” There is also an online petition.
None of the notices have expanded our paid sick leave or enabled working remotely, despite the fact that we are a telecommunications company. We are essentially being told to work sick in a sick-making workplace. There is no escaping the feeling that business calculations have been taken over the collective well-being. The inspirational slogans painted on our walls and hallways feel increasingly ghoulish.
Charter is the cable company for many Americans. If your internet or cable TV isn’t working while you are #StayHome self-isolating and you call Charter about its Spectrum services, you might get me on the line. I am a full-time employee. I’m paid hourly, and I take home about $1,000 every two weeks.
Our call center work is deemed “mission critical” during this pandemic by the CEO. (He made $98.5 million in 2016, when Charter acquired Time Warner and Bright House.) It’s true we keep people connected through the community, such as it is, of cable TV and internet, whether it’s Netflix or working remotely. A person safely working from home is supported by a hive of workers at the other end of the line. We are a front line for people sheltering in place and telecommuting, along with all the students now using remote learning—no one could work from home or take classes if the internet is down.
There are call centers like mine nationwide, including in Kentucky; in Texas; in Portland, Maine; and in New York City. Shifts share “hot desks” where we can end up sitting anywhere in the vast gray cubicle farms. At daily peak, we have hundreds of agents at work.
The cubicles are not spacious. If we stood up at our desks and extended our arms, we could clasp hands across the call center.
It is soul-destroying work. I leave exhausted. I’m supposed to troubleshoot Charter equipment and service problems, but much of the time, I’m helping people who are aggravated that they can’t operate their TV or cable box. A lot of the callers are confused seniors. My job—besides fixing anything—is to first express empathy for the customer’s predicament and then build rapport. We are not trained for this emotional labor. With the onset of COVID-19, we were given hand sanitizer and alcohol wipes for the cubicles, and promised more frequent office cleanings.
The workplace policies effectively encourage us to work sick. We get a maximum of seven days of sick leave each calendar year—this during a pandemic that requires self-isolation of 14 days to prevent spread. If you use up your paid sick days, you earn an hour for every 30 hours work, so it takes two months to “earn back” a single sick day. If you can’t afford to take off, you come in sick, touch multiple door handles and elevator buttons, and sit a few feet from your colleagues. Meanwhile, the odds of an asymptomatic carrier in our office increase every day, along with the fears and anxieties of my co-workers.
What is to be done? The obvious solution is to allow workers to telecommute during the pandemic. We market ourselves as great enablers of telecommuting. Ellen DeGeneres is our celebrity spokeswoman pushing the wonders of expanded bandwidth for remote connections.
This pandemic exposes—as it does many of the more arbitrary restrictions on work, movement, and social life—that Charter management is most interested in control of its employees. And now more than ever, it makes no sense. Going to work has become harrowing and dangerous. If I get sick, I may have precious little paid time to recover. If I were able to field calls from my desk at home during the pandemic and focus on my actual work, I bet my excellent “first-call resolution” score would get even better.
As public pressure increased and state governments began to lead on self-quarantine, Charter has started to relent. On Thursday, the CEO announced an additional three weeks of “flexible paid time” to be used for “any reason related to COVID-19,” with an attached incentive that unused time will be paid back “after the end of the year.” The communication included a note that salaried employees should consider working from home if they need to take this leave.*
When should you use those three weeks in a pandemic that could rage for months? During the initial spike in cases? When you or a family member get sick?
Talk among veteran employees cautioned “not to trust the company”—and to get everything in writing before using the leave.
On Friday, a curiously worded email arrived saying a “portion of front-line” agents would get a work-from-home option, starting with my higher-risk colleagues, then on to tenured agents who have adequate performance and home infrastructure. While this would allow an increase in social distancing at the center, it suggests management is still comfortable bringing 60 percent of the workforce into the call centers, which also means public transit in some cities.
Again, the infrastructure for working from home has always been available. This is what we do. All of these measures could’ve been taken weeks ago. There are already positive cases in many call centers, and most certainly asymptomatic carriers.
The language the company sends us continues to paint us a necessary, and nearly heroic, first responders in all but name. There is a strong temptation to answer: “Thank you for calling Spectrum. What is your emergency?”
*Correction, March 24, 2020: This post originally said salaried workers at Charter Communications are allowed to work from home. Their status varies.