Charter has partially backed away from its strict rules against working from home during the coronavirus pandemic and will let up to 40 percent of call-center employees do remote work.
Charter Executive VP Cliff Hagan sent a memo to employees today, explaining that employees will have to meet certain conditions before being allowed to work at home:
A balance of “In Center” and “Remote Work” will be maintained. We’ll begin offering remote work opportunities to those who are at higher-risk from a health standpoint, and then open the option to additional employees who are tenured, taking into account performance, the home infrastructure to support remote work, and agreement to the terms and conditions of a remote work assignment. During this time, we anticipate up to 40 percent of call center employees could be working remotely. These actions will further our ability to create greater physical separation and reduce the overall on-site staffing levels in our call centers.
The memo was shared with Ars by Charter employees. A Charter spokesperson told Ars that the memo was sent “to our Customer Operations organization, which includes our customer service call centers and related activity, but not the whole company.” The Charter spokesperson did not tell us how many call-center workers it has or how many non-call-center workers will be allowed to work remotely.
As the memo makes clear, Charter doesn’t trust all of its employees to get their jobs done remotely. Although Charter will prioritize employees with health problems, the cable company will also evaluate employee performance before giving healthy workers the green light to do their jobs at home.
Call center is “breeding ground for germs”
As we reported in previous articles, Charter has resisted requests to let employees work at home during the pandemic even as Comcast has been shifting thousands of call-center employees to remote work. Charter CEO Tom Rutledge told employees in a memo last week to keep coming to the office even if their jobs can be performed from home, because people “are more effective from the office.” Charter has 95,000 employees and is the second-biggest cable company and Internet provider in the US.
One Charter engineer resigned rather than be forced to keep working in the office, saying that his job can be performed just as easily at home. We talked to several other 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.”
Media attention and pressure from employees seems to have caused Charter executives to rethink their position. The memo today explained:
In response to the extraordinary circumstances we find ourselves in, for the next few weeks and maybe months, we will be enabling Remote Work options for a portion of our front-line agents. This is being done to allow for greater social distancing in our centers. We are taking these steps to further ensure the safety of our employees while balancing Charter’s commitment to keeping our customers connected.
The memo said the process will take multiple weeks. “We are working through the details of the deployment over the next several days with the first wave of remote workers planned for next week and continuing until we have the desired number,” the memo said, adding that “additional details will follow.”
While at least 60 percent of call-center workers will have to remain in the office, thinning out the numbers will let employees work in less-cramped quarters. Charter employees who talked to Ars described working in rooms with hundreds of people. Some Charter employees have reportedly tested positive for COVID-19, and at least three Charter facilities have already undergone “a deep cleaning and disinfection” after employees reported having symptoms. Those facilities are in Charlotte, North Carolina; Austin, Texas; and Greenwood Village, Colorado.
One Charter call-center employee in the Orlando, Florida, area does not agree with Charter’s decision to determine each employee’s work-from-home status based partly on their performance.
“If I am one of the 40 percent chosen because of my scores I will decline on the grounds that I am not going to put one of the other 60 percent at risk for illness and death just because I happen to be good at my job,” the employee told us.
Disclosure: The Advance/Newhouse Partnership, which owns 13 percent of Charter, is part of Advance Publications. Advance Publications owns Condé Nast, which owns Ars Technica.