Belabored is a labor podcast hosted by Sarah Jaffe and Michelle Chen. Belabored Stories, a new feature, will present short accounts of what workers are facing during the coronavirus pandemic. Send us your stories at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Call centers are the backbone of both the public and private sectors, and many are especially busy right now, as businesses and government agencies scramble to adapt to the virus. Yet call centers are also practically designed to be spreading grounds for COVID-19. It might seem easy for workers to do those jobs from home, but in practice many are still reporting to work. I spoke with three call center workers, two from the company Conduent, and a third from Maximus.
One of the Conduent workers, who did not want her name used to avoid retaliation, described her facility as having “no social distancing,” and said as far as she could tell the cleaning process had not changed. “Apparently they did get some hand sanitizer, but it’s in the back, so we have to use our break time to have it filled, and there’s one bottle for people to share, every so many rows.”
The workers sit in cubicles that she described as “like sardine cans.” In response to the virus, she said, they were spaced out to every other cubicle, “so there is a three-foot gap between desks, but there is no gap in front of you, and the wall is only a foot and a half or so tall. All you have to do is sit up real tall, and then you can make eye contact. Meanwhile, the management sits on the end, and their desks are raised, looking down over us.”
This was all even more frustrating because, she noted, one of the services Conduent provides is tracking the coronavirus. A statement on its website described its services as “an essential tool for public health, especially when health agencies require more timely and accurate analytical tools for collaboration — a critical part of preventing the spread of highly contagious diseases.”
“To me, it’s a real slap in the face that they know how bad it is at a higher level, and they did nothing to prepare,” the worker said. Her typical work volume had doubled since the virus began, she noted, because her work involved processing people’s paperwork for healthcare plans and time off for illness. In other countries, she said, the company had closed its facilities—contributing to the increased call volume—so why not in the United States?
Stephen Shiel, another Conduent worker from Staten Island, works with state agencies like the MTA and Port Authority, and said, “We found out there was somebody who was in the office with COVID-19, and he reported it to them on Friday. The place is not clean. It’s not like they closed the area down to do anything. It’s just a nightmare.” Meanwhile, management was mostly working from home, along with other departments—but the call center workers were still in the office. “If you’ve got us coming in as essential workers, at least give us the proper tools that we need to clean.”
In order to socially distance the workers, he added, they’d cut people’s hours back so there were fewer people in the office—but that meant “the phones are constantly busy.” The union (Communications Workers of America) has proposed the company provide extra pay, to make up for the risk they are taking and the cutbacks to their hours, but has had no luck so far. “It’s made so many employees feel like they don’t want to work there anymore,” he said. “It’s in how you treat your employees, and especially with a pandemic as we’re in now, you can at least show us—we’re family and everybody’s sticking together.”
The unnamed worker was frustrated with the lack of preparation for work from home at Conduent. “They’re dragging their feet. The longer they take, the less they have to worry about getting people back into the office. They’re not offering to pay anybody’s phone bill or Comcast bill for working at home. They’re not increasing their pay. They’re not accommodating anything.” Some people have been able to take equipment home in order to work from home, but she said that she was told she would not be able to.
Kristen Runk, who works at a Maximus call center in Lawrence, Kansas, spoke of similar conditions. She takes calls related to the health insurance marketplace, and she too has gotten much busier since the coronavirus crisis began. “It’s not necessarily about the coronavirus, it’s about people wanting to change their income, people saying they’re now out of work, I have a different source of income now, or just wanting to update something.” This time of year is already a busy time for them, she said, since people get a ninety-day window to verify their income from the open enrollment period.
Maximus, she said, was allowing more people to work from home, but her position would be one of the last to be allowed such accommodation because of the nature of her work. “If it’s a representative who calls us, we actually get into their computers, so we can take over the screen and look at it. And they’re trying to figure out how to do that from home.”
In the meantime, her supervisor had spaced them at alternate desks, but, she said, “there are spaces within the building [where] you can’t physically be six-feet apart if you’re walking in the same hallway.” And doing the job with a mask on, she said, might make phone communication difficult.
“What I would like personally with all of this is a little bit more transparency,” Runk said. It was unclear what the process was for getting sick time approved, and, she said, people complained of the approval process taking days. She understood, she said, that there is “an increased need for what we do right now. And we need to help people. We need to do it safely.”
Runk has been part of a process to organize her workplace to join the CWA, which is still in progress. She said that some of her coworkers seemed more interested in the union because of the crisis. The workers are collecting signatures on a petition to Maximus’s CEO, calling for him to meet with them to clarify the processes and ensure that safety precautions were being applied across the board. But, she noted,
some people really just want a place to vent. We are really trying to get people who want to be a part of this and who want to work at this. Because that’s what it is. It’s not somebody coming in and saying, “I’m going to fix everything for you.” We need to decide what we want. In terms of the union, that’s what I’m interested in. I want to be part of the change.
Sarah Jaffe is a reporting fellow at the Type Media Center, the author of Necessary Trouble: American in Revolt, and the co-host of Dissent’s Belabored podcast.