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Tuesday, Mar 17, 2020, 3:55 pm

Call Center Workers Fear For Their Health as They Work in “One Big Germ Pool”

BY Hamilton Nolan

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Call center workers fear for their safety. (Photo by James Leynse/Corbis via Getty Images)  

Employees of a large Consumer Cellular call center in Arizona say that their health is in danger from the spread of the coronavirus, as their company has kept hundreds of people in the call center working in close quarters even as it has shuttered its corporate headquarters in Portland, Oregon.*

Consumer Cellular’s 164,000 square foot call center in Phoenix, one of three call centers the company has in Arizona, is housed in a former Sam’s Club warehouse. Inside, hundreds of employees answer customer service calls for the cell phone carrier, sitting in clusters of 15 cubicles. Two people who work in the call center told In These Times there has been “no formal communication” from their supervisors about social distancing during the coronavirus outbreak, and no health measures at work other than available hand sanitizer, which they said ran out one day late last week. 

One of the employees said that he has stayed home from work since Sunday with a cough and a fever that continues to rise. The employee said that he stayed home out of fear for the health of his colleagues, particularly older people who work in the facility. But he also said he was unsure how long he would be able to stay out from work sick, because workers, particularly new hires, can be terminated after using up their few allocated sick days, and he has been unable to get any answers from supervisors about the possibility of changing that policy now. He said that employees are paid hourly and time out sick is not compensated.

“They haven't said anything to us, no emails, no sick time pay, it's like they're pretending this isn't happening,” the employee said. “I truly can’t afford to not work but I also don’t want the guilt of potentially spreading something that someone else might not recover from.”

A Consumer Cellular spokesperson sent the following statement: "Consumer Cellular's headquarters and customer contact centers remain open. Our customer contact centers are extremely important right now as we work to serve nearly 4 million customers - the majority of them in the senior demographic, who need to stay connected during this very challenging time. As always, our top priority is the health and safety of our employees and customers. We have implemented a number of measures to protect our employees including, but not limited to, expanded distance between work spaces, vast reduction in in-person meetings - including all offices being closed to visitors, as well as increased cleaning and sanitation measures throughout our buildings."

The predicament of the hundreds of call center employees highlights a larger problem: even as better-off Americans hunker down at home and depend on virtual communication to ride out the quarantine, there is an enormous, unseen body of people working in close physical quarters to make that virtual infrastructure run. The call center worker who is out sick called the entire building “one big germ pool.” 

Another employee who works in the call center said they did not go into work yesterday, in fear for their health, but that taking any more days off could result in them being fired. They noted, with trepidation, the fact that one of the early coronavirus clusters in South Korea was located in a call center, where the infection spread easily. The employee said that as of Monday, there had been no communication about reducing staffing or offering paid sick leave or otherwise changing any policies. Yesterday, the White House urged Americans to avoid groups of more than ten people, and advised older people to stay home.

Ironically, Consumer Cellular is a company that targets older cell phone users, with an average customer age of 64

*Correction: We incorrectly reported the corporate headquarters in Portland were closed. In fact, they remain open.


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Hamilton Nolan is a labor reporter for In These Times. He has spent the past decade writing about labor and politics for Gawker, Splinter, The Guardian, and elsewhere. You can reach him at Hamilton@InTheseTimes.com.

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