Installing cable during a pandemic

Workers at Spectrum, the telecommunications giant that provides cable and internet service to 29 million customers, say the company is failing to take basic steps to keep them safe during the COVID-19 outbreak. 

A Spectrum technician in New York City, which is now the epicenter of the outbreak, tells Popular Information that he is being dispatched into homes without any protective equipment. The technician relies on gloves purchased by a relative and his own personal supply of hand sanitizer, which is running low. The technician says workers throughout the city report similar shortages. Spectrum brought in $45.8 billion dollars in annual revenue in 2019. 

The technician says the company has provided little information about what protocols should be followed while installing equipment in cramped city apartments. The only communications the technician has received are generic tips like washing your hands and avoiding standing close to people. 

The technician lives with their parents and is deeply concerned about their parents' health. Their mom and dad are both in their early 70s, and have underlying health conditions, including diabetes and difficulty breathing. 

The lack of protective equipment, at least in the New York area, is reflected in a New York call center's instructions, obtained by Popular Information, which says representatives "must not speculate on additional precautions technicians may or may not take (e.g., wear masks or gloves)."

A Spectrum technician in California reports that he has been provided a "dust mask" but no hand sanitizer or disinfectant wipes. This technician wants to continue working because "we do provide a service, and we do need to continue to keep our fellow Americans connected with the world." But the technician has a "pregnant woman at home" and fears infecting her with COVID-19. "I just wish we would be provided… the right equipment if they expect us to provide service," the technician said. The technician said the company priority is maintaining "the numbers" rather than employee health.  

Spectrum is offering 60 days of free broadband internet access to students whose schools are closed. It's a laudable policy, but it has also increased the volume of new installations and the burden on technicians. 

Gizmodo, which covered issues at Spectrum last week, published a screenshot of a technician dispatched to a residence where a resident allegedly had COVID-19. According to the call script obtained by Popular Information, that practice, at least in the New York area, is no longer permitted. 

The open office

A Spectrum customer service representative in Texas reports that the company was still holding multi-day trainings with 20 people in a classroom. The trainer said the session could not be postponed because it would delay instruction for the next group of trainees. The worker told Popular Information what it's like to answer customer service calls in an open office during a pandemic: 

Eerie would be the best way to describe it. You can tell most people that aren't in leadership roles feel stuck in a Petri dish. You cough, and you get weird looks. They started sending people home if they cough too much, and walking past an older coworker is heartbreaking because you know they are risking their lives.

Social distancing protocols are also violated whenever a call center worker needs help because a supervisor is dispatched to their desk. 

A Spectrum customer service representative in Massachusetts describes a similar scenario:

We have roughly 200-240 employees there. The agents are in rows of about 10-20 seats, depending on the row and area of the center. Our desks are all connected to one another. If I were sitting at my desk and someone was right next to me, I could stretch over and touch them or their desk.

At the Massachusetts call center, supervisors now assist representatives via Skype. Since day and night shift workers share a desk, employees are provided with Clorox wipes to clean their workspace. But the Massachusetts representative told Popular Information that she is pregnant and concerned about the safety of her family:

It's scary and very uneasy. Knowing that people could be sick… before they show any symptoms but we are all in a building together. I can get from one end of the call center to the other so it's not a very spacious place… The reality of feeling like you are more of a number than a human being with a family to take care of has set in. I worry about spreading the virus to my kids or grandparents at home because of the selfishness of the company.

An anonymous first-person account of working as a Spectrum call center operator, published in Slate, has a similar account of cramped, dangerous conditions. "There is no escaping the feeling that business calculations have been taken over the collective well-being," the author writes.

Gizmodo reported that at least one person at a Spectrum call center in North Carolina tested positive for COVID-19. 

Spectrum's CEO, Tom Rutledge, told staff in an internal communication that "we plan to give an option to some employees, who can be more productive remote from the office to work from home for a period of time." In the meantime, it appears to be business as usual. On Saturday night, a Spectrum executive sent an email to employees in St. Louis, which is under a "shelter-in-place" order, informing workers that they "are exempt from these orders and should report to work unless instructed by your Charter leadership otherwise." 

Popular Information has learned that a survey has been distributed to workers to determine their eligibility for work-at-home privileges. Among the requirements is having a room with a lock, where you can be alone for the entirety of your shift. With many schools closed, this would likely disqualify a large number of call center employees.  A company spokesman told Popular Information that it had to “ensure proper security of our employees while working in their home.”

Rutledge was paid $8.7 million last year. In 2016, after his company acquired Time Warner Cable, he was paid $98.5 million. 

Spectrum’s response

In response to an inquiry from Population Information, Spectrum did not dispute the core allegations from its employees. A company spokesperson sent the following statement:

Earlier this week, we announced a series of steps that will help our employees manage through this difficult time while maintaining our vital broadband internet services to our customers, including hospitals, emergency first responders, government facilities and media to stay connected, help flatten the curve and protect the country.

We are providing all employees an additional 15 days paid time off, to be used for any COVID-19-related personal need. We are developing and implementing increased social distancing plans in our call centers and operations facilities. And we will provide the option for remote work to employees whose jobs allow them to work outside the office without endangering our obligation to provide critical services.

What Spectrum is doing right

To its credit, Spectrum is offering its workers a paid leave program that is superior to many other corporations. A message from Rutledge says employees impacted by COVID-19 can receive up to 3 weeks of paid leave. Critically, this benefit is available in a variety of circumstances, according to internal communications obtained by Popular Information:

In order to help ease the balance of personal and professional responsibilities, we are providing all employees an additional three weeks of flexible paid time to be used during 2020 for any reason related to COVID-19. Please get approval from your manager so that we can get all of our required service done. 

Accordingly, starting tomorrow, use this time first if you have, for example, a coronavirus-related childcare emergency or need to care for a family member.

Amazon, by contrast, is offering its employees two weeks of paid leave, but only if they test positive for COVID-19 or are formally placed in quarantine. 

Photo credit: Tony Webster via Flickr.

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