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.
Charter declined to answer questions about specific policies and told Gizmodo that reporters should be wary of statements by employees. “I would strongly caution against taking everything at face value and making sweeping assumptions,” a spokesperson said.
In a statement, Charter said it is working “around the clock to deliver uninterrupted internet, telephone and TV news services to our 29 million customers including critical institutions like hospitals, first responders and government facilities,” adding: “During this time, continuing to maintain our operations, while applying the latest CDC guidelines, ensures we provide these vital communications which help flatten the curve and protect the country. “
Charter is reviewing its “business and employee continuity plans daily,” it said, and “will adjust accordingly.”
A second employee, who works in a Spectrum call center and also spoke to Gizmodo on condition of anonymity, said they had witnessed other employees with flu-like symptoms taking sick leave. When they left the office, their desks were cleaned using disinfectant in full view of other employees. The employee stressed that their main concern was the lack of communication from the corporate office.
“I’m disappointed because on one hand they are doing amazing things like giving away services to children in need and even suspending disconnects during the pandemic, but it’s all at the expense of the 100k employees,” they said. “There really aren’t a lot of people talking about this because of the free internet. I just wish they would give the option to work remotely for those that need it most (i.e., employees with children or elderly employees) because it is possible and if employees are unable to work not to terminate them because this really isn’t something that you can plan for.”
There is no discernible rhyme or reason informing Charter’s mandate, the first employee, who has worked at the company for roughly a decade, told Gizmodo. The only benefit of being in the office is “visual accountability and direct vocal communications.” Many employees and contractors have assigned laptops and can do their jobs from 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),” they said.
“In a communications company this massive, there is very, VERY little ‘hands on’ work, with field technicians and data center hands (the dudes who actually walk through data halls doing wiring and other physical tasks doing the lion’s share of that work.),” they said.
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, according to TechCrunch.
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 percent of the company is office-bound and work to support the other 85 percent who “perform the critical delivery and servicing of our products for customers.” It is “crucial,” the Rutledge email says, that the 15 percent 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.
“This 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 Donald 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 casualties.
Such sacrifices, Trump said, are among the “critical changes” Americans must now enact to help contain and “defeat” the virus.
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Update, 7pm: An additional source at Charter reached out to Gizmodo and was granted anonymity to speak about their experience at the company.