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

Hamilton Nolan March 17, 2020

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.

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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