More than 230 Charter employees have tested positive for COVID-19, and at least two have died, The New York Times reported today.
New York Attorney General Letitia James’ office has opened an inquiry into Charter’s labor practices and management of employees during the pandemic, a spokesperson for James confirmed to Ars today.
Charter has faced numerous complaints from employees about the company’s refusal to let them work from home during the pandemic. The cable company partially backed away from its strict rules on March 20, saying it would let up to 40 percent of call-center employees do remote work. But Charter’s slow reaction to the pandemic—while the similarly situated Comcast moved aggressively to get employees into work-at-home situations—may have contributed to the spread of coronavirus in the company.
“Of the [Charter] Spectrum employees who tested positive for COVID-19, roughly half worked in offices or call centers… at least two Spectrum field workers have died,” the Times reported, citing an anonymous source.
“Any worker who has tested positive for COVID-19 is given two weeks of paid sick leave,” a Charter spokesperson said, according to the Times. Charter has 95,000 employees in 41 states, including about 40,000 in call centers and offices, and 55,000 who “deal with customers face to face as field technicians or retail employees,” the Times wrote.
Charter has apparently expanded work-at-home rights since its March 20 announcement. A Charter spokesperson told Ars today that “the significant majority of our office and call-center employees are working from home.” Charter declined to provide details on the number of illnesses and deaths from COVID-19 at the company, and it declined to comment on the New York attorney general’s inquiry.
“Breeding ground for germs”
Charter CEO Tom Rutledge angered employees last month when he issued a memo telling them to keep coming to the office even if their jobs can be performed from home, because people “are more effective from the office.” In mid-March, we talked to several Charter employees who complained that they should be able to work at home instead of in call centers; one employee described a call center as “an absolute nightmare breeding ground for germs.” Several Charter office buildings were shut down temporarily to be disinfected after employees got sick. Charter also faced criticism last month for giving its cable technicians $25 restaurant gift cards instead of hazard pay for going into customer homes during the pandemic.
Charter yesterday announced that it won’t do any layoffs or furloughs “for at least the next 60 days.” Other previously announced concessions to workers included pay increases “for all hourly workers from $15 to $20 over the next two years with an immediate increase of $1.50 an hour for the frontline field and customer operations employees and an additional $1.50 starting March 2021.” Charter is also offering “three weeks of COVID-19-related flex time” and upgraded health plans “to waive costs for diagnostic testing services and telehealth visits for 90 days.”
“Employees may take those [three weeks of flex time] off, though salaried workers have been encouraged to use that time to work remotely,” the Times wrote.
A month-old petition on Change.org urging Rutledge to let more employees work remotely has received about 7,800 signatures. “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 said.