Americans have entered a crucial hour in the lifespan of an epidemic that’s so far crippled stock markets and claimed thousands of lives while cutting a footpath of disease across six continents. Fortunately, covid-19 is not invincible. Public health officials say there is one surefire way to limit the spread of the disastrous virus, which has so far infected more than 200,000 people worldwide: isolation.
The problem is that not everyone intends to comply. Some can’t—worse, some who say they could are being told by their bosses they’re not allowed.
Nineteen employees at Charter Communications, whose Spectrum brand serves consumer cable television, internet, telephone to more than 20 million U.S. homes, say the company is going against the advice of federal and state health officials, as well as the White House. In open offices in North Carolina, Colorado, Connecticut, and elsewhere, many say they work a hundred or more to a floor, often in close proximity. For a pathogen that spreads via sneezes and coughs and clings to surfaces and clothing, the offices seem like a target-rich environment. The workers, who say they fear retaliation for speaking to reporters, accuse the company of needlessly placing them and their families at risk; if only, as one put it, “to keep their numbers up.”
In Charter’s Columbus, Ohio, office, for example, employees said three floors house more than a hundred people each. The air circulation sucks, they said, and its residential technical support teams often share desks while working in shifts to maintain 24/7 customer support. Some workers sit three to five feet apart, which is notably closer than virologists recommend to avoid exposure. Those who show symptoms are usually gone the next day and their desks later reek of chemicals, usually cleaned over night. Explanations, however, are rare. Health privacy laws have been cited, workers said, when they’ve asked whether sick colleagues have gotten tested. [After publication, TechCrunch reported that employees in different offices have shown symptoms and have been tested positive for the virus, citing internal emails.]
While Charter operates in several states where authorities are urging businesses to keep employee gatherings small, Charter’s workers say not only are their offices still teeming, but encounters with symptoms are becoming more and more common.
Charter’s response to the grievances has been to tout its status as “indispensable” to the federal government. To say that internet service is just that would be no exaggeration. Still, the question remains whether, in a national emergency, a handful of executives get to spontaneously decide what deserves more consideration: the duty to protect workers from a virus that could kill them or the pressure to carry on with business as usual, for as long as possible, as if that’s even a feasible plan.
Asked why none of its employees have been ordered to work from home—even though many say not only is it possible but that they do all the time—Charter only offers that its work is vital to “flatten the curve and protect the country.”
Employees say that’s hyperbole.
“Friends/coworkers are stressed out about going to work and getting sick more so than usual in a call center environment, their children are out of school/daycare due to state mandated closures, and with shared desks its not just people going sick having to have their desks wiped down, it has to be done prior to starting a shift because you don’t know if the person who was just sitting there for their shift is sick or not,” said one employee from Columbus, Ohio, where on Wednesday a 2-year-old toddler tested positive for covid-19.
In a flood of emails and text messages on Tuesday, current and former Spectrum and Charter employees from several areas of the business—managers, field technicians, engineers, sales executives, and customer associates—as well as some employees’ spouses, told Gizmodo they feel both exposed and neglected by Charter, which has long barred employees from doing any work from home (WFH). Many characterized themselves as dutiful employees who loved their jobs. They reached out now, they said, because they’re afraid of getting sick. They all requested anonymity, too, because they fear losing their jobs. Several say they were warned not to speak to reporters.
“I am choosing to remain nameless as there has been documented retribution from Charter Communications regarding the directive that no employees will work from home,” said an employee of Spectrum’s advertising division. On Monday, the employee said, their manager met with human resources to determine what criteria, if any, should excuse an employee from work. “Some of us, who are known to be diabetic with a history of asthma, or have other pre-existing conditions, were determined by managers and HR to not be high risk,” they said. “Neither medical professionals nor the employees themselves were consulted.” When the employees disagreed with an order to return to the office, “we were instructed to drop the subject,” they said.
Several employees told Gizmodo that even if, officially, working from home is prohibited, they’ve been doing it for years anyway. Most are assigned to company laptops and can connect over a virtual private network. “I can let you know that when they said you could not work from home, you always worked from home,” a former employee said. “[M]issing a single day of work could sometimes set a team back in a big way.” Others characterized the no-work-from-home policy as having a little to do with technological capabilities. Instead, they called it the “culture” of the company whose top brass, they said, like to do things “the old way.”
“As one of FEMA’s Community Lifeline sectors, our services are essential,” Charter has said. “We are 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. 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. We are reviewing our business and employee continuity plans daily, and will adjust accordingly.”
Charter declined to answer any questions about its workplace policies or specific employee allegations. Asked what about being designated as “essential” by the federal government precludes Charter from allowing employees to work from home, the company did not provide an answer.
One Spectrum manager, who works in a city where more than a thousand cases of covid-19 have been confirmed so far, said his entire job could be easily performed at home. While their boss initially encouraged them to do so, they later learned he wasn’t authorized to make that decision. Because the employee and their partner have no children, they were asked to drum up a reason (other than the pandemic itself) for not coming in. “Apparently the guidance from the city and state for everyone to stay home and WFH if possible wasn’t enough,” they said.
Another employee, who confessed they might be showing symptoms, told Gizmodo by email that without an immediate shift in company policy, they would feel compelled to return to work. “To be told it’s impossible to do this job from home is simply a lie,” they said.
A Spectrum contractor told Gizmodo that while he was barred from taking time off, his manager planned to do so himself because he has children. “Somehow, his family is more important than mine,” said the contractor, whose wife has a condition that’s left her vulnerable to infection. He’s doing the only thing he can now to shield her from the virus: refusing to come to work. “If I lose this contract, I’m okay with it,” he said.
Several Spectrum field technicians told Gizmodo that they had repeatedly stressed their concerns about covid-19 exposure with management. They were told, as one put it, “to make sure our numbers don’t fall.” One said his boss had instituted “mandatory overtime” and, while making light of the outbreak in emails, had pushed technicians to “continue getting numbers in spite of the obvious safety issues.”
“God forbid if you get sick or have to watch your kids,” he said. “The manager makes you call him directly in order to call off, instead of your supervisor, and he will guilt you as much as he possibly can to go to work.” He continued: “What the company is doing is disguisting [sic]. They have given away free internet, but put their workforce in danger by doing so.”
“We are working overtime around people all day,” said another technician. “When we ask for supplies to help us at work we are told that we are overreacting.” The only precaution the techs were instructed to take, they said, was to not allow customers to sign for services using the app on the employee’s phone. “We are in people’s houses, no masks, no gloves,” they said. “We are all worried but CEO TOM seems not to care for the people keeping things running on the field,” they added, speaking of Charter CEO Tom Rutledge.
Wrote another tech: “Corporate management and local management have not addressed nor are [they] providing any safety precautions. For example [they] have not said anything about providing us with respirator masks, disposable gloves, hand sanitizer, or sanitizing wipes. We deal directly with customers and enter their homes.”
A screenshot provided to Gizmodo appears to show a technician receiving instructions from a customer who claims to have contracted the coronavirus. In an email, a separate employee told Gizmodo they had knocked on the door of a Spectrum customer who claimed to be under quarantine.
In another email, a San Diego call center employee told Gizmodo they were “absolutely disgusted” with Charter’s handling of the pandemic. Describing the environment in their office, they said:
There are many other employees that are older or have underlying issues and I worry their nonchalance will get someone seriously ill. Many employees also take care of elderly family and could potentially carry the virus home to them. Management knows they don’t want it and are relatively removed from the floor while the reps sit 6 to a pod with about 4-5 feet between each other. Desk sharing between shifts takes place and while some agents use their own keyboards from home, others use the same one their deskmates use. Reps are provided with cleaning wipes if they’re available.
“I am using a burner email and I would like to remain anonymous,” the employee said. “They’ve been exceptionally clear about their feelings toward us speaking with the media. I really just want them to give us the option to isolate without fearing we’d lose our jobs over it.”
In an internal chat leaked to Gizmodo, Charter employees were warned that someone at the company’s corporate campus in Charlotte, North Carolina, had displayed symptoms. The message read in full:
Today (Mar 17) and employee in our 7820 Crescent Drive building shared with us that they have signs of an have been tested for COVID-19. The employee works from the 4th floor and was last in the building on Friday, March 13. Testing was conducted today and the employee is under self-quarantine. Others who worked in close proximity or known to have recently had direct contact have been instructed to leave the office, and in some cases to self-quarantine until test results have been finalized.
Out of an abundance of caution, the building will undergo a deep cleaning and disinfection in accordance with CDC guidelines. This work will be performed throughout the night. Unless otherwise instructed by your leader, plan to report to the office for work tomorrow.
Employees in the chat quickly identified a flaw in the missive. “How do we know if we’ve been in contact with that person if we don’t know who they are?” one asked. “Exactly,” said another.
On Facebook, one technician wrote that supervisors had told his team their equipment would be brought to them outside. “We can not go into the office at all for our safety,” they said. “Now what safety are they talking about? We go into people’s homes but we can’t go into the office? Sounds like it’s their safety [they’re] thinking about, not ours.”
Many of the employees take issue with the positive attention Charter received for offering “free internet for students” amid the crisis. It’s a good idea, they say, but some of its lowest-paid workers are the ones paying the price. Technicians, in particular, have to install that hardware. So each day, they’re entering strangers’ homes with no protection. Any one of their customers could have the highly-communicable virus. The technicians might carry it inside with them. Protective equipment, if it can even be found it stores, comes out of their own pocket, they said. And according to one worker’s spouse, wearing masks is prohibited. “They might scare the customers,” she said.
“Charter was one of the first telecoms to publicly declare ‘free internet for students.’ but it’s at the risk of the health of not just the techs installing and maintaining equipment, but everyone in the company,” said an employee with Spectrum Reach, the company’s advertising branch. “Employees are scared, employees are getting sick, and no one in upper management seems to care. We’ve been instructed do whatever it takes for our clients, but for a multi-billion-dollar company with over 90,000 employees, no one is doing anything for us.”
After Gizmodo reported on Charter’s workplace conditions Tuesday night, the wife of one employee at Charter’s Stamford, Connecticut, headquarters, blasted the company in an email to the tip lines of several local and national news outlets. “I would like to bring to your attention the complete and utter failure of Charter to respond to this humanitarian crisis with any empathy or regard for the health and safety of their employees,” it reads. She had spoken to several lawmakers about the issue, she said, but bizarrely, they all had assured her that Charter was working with its employees to permit flexibility where appropriate.
“This could not be further from the truth and Charter is spinning their story when pressed.”
She went on:
The continued refusal by Charter to allow employees whose work is able to be performed remotely is astounding. Outwardly, the company claims to be working with employees to permit remote work arrangements. However, in reality they will not permit a remote work arrangement 5 days a week and are requiring non-essential employees to report to the office or face taking PTO or unpaid time off if they will be at home. My husband works [REDACTED] and can perform his job wholly from home, there is no reason for him to be in the office petri dish.
The irony of it is that Charter is one of the country’s largest telecommunication companies. As the employee’s spouse put it, the company is “not hindered by some remote work challenges as other small businesses may be.” It is a national company, she said, whose entire business model is communications infrastructure.
On Tuesday, a petition addressed to Charter/Spectrum CEO Tom Rutledge was making the rounds. It demands only a “little flexibility working during this time.” It had more than 325 signatures at press time.
“There are a lot of us who are in the high risk group due to old age and you are putting us and our families at risk of getting exposed to this virus,” the petition reads. “If any of us gets exposed to this at work we will hold you personally accountable.”
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