Spectrum Employees Are Getting Sick Amid Debate Over Working From Home

Employees at Charter Communications, the internet, cable TV and phone giant known as Spectrum, have been getting sick while adhering to a company policy that has required thousands of them to work in offices and call centers rather than from home.

More than 230 Spectrum employees have tested positive for Covid-19 since the pandemic hit the United States, according to a person with knowledge of the company who was not authorized to speak publicly. They have fallen ill at a time when some rank-and-file workers and managers have questioned how many Spectrum employees must work in offices and call centers.

The New York attorney general’s office said on Monday that it has opened an inquiry into the company because of its handling of employees during the pandemic. Spectrum declined to comment on the inquiry.

The company has been deemed an essential service because it keeps its 29 million customers connected and allows people and businesses across the country to function remotely. Spectrum, based in Stamford, Conn., employs 95,000 people in 41 states. About 40,000 people work in call centers or offices; roughly 55,000 workers deal with customers face to face as field technicians or retail employees.

Of the Spectrum employees who tested positive for Covid-19, roughly half worked in offices or call centers, according to the person with knowledge of the company. At least two Spectrum field workers have died, the person said.

Cameron Blanchard, a company spokeswoman, would not comment on the number of illnesses or deaths, but said Spectrum was looking out for its employees while providing a crucial service for millions of customers at a difficult time.

“We have dramatically reduced the number of employees going into the field or into the office while maintaining the efficacy of our business operations that is so critical to fighting this pandemic,” Ms. Blanchard said in an email. “We have also announced a variety of enhanced benefits to help alleviate employees concerns while still being able to meet the elevated needs of our customers and businesses across the country during the crisis.”

Since March 19, Spectrum has given all its workers three weeks of flexible paid time to use during the crisis. Employees may take those days off, though salaried workers have been encouraged to use that time to work remotely.

Some Spectrum employees have been going to the office in shifts, to reduce the number of people in workplaces. Any worker who has tested positive for Covid-19 is given two weeks of paid sick leave, the spokeswoman said.

The company’s stance on working remotely became the subject of internal debate on March 13, when Nick Wheeler, an engineer in Denver, sent an email to hundreds of colleagues and a senior vice president with the subject line “Coronavirus — Why are we still in the office?”

“Coming into the office now is pointlessly reckless,” wrote Mr. Wheeler, who provided a copy of the email to The New York Times. “Charter, like the rest of us, should do what is necessary to help reduce the spread of coronavirus.”

On the day of Mr. Wheeler’s email, President Trump declared a national emergency. The number of confirmed coronavirus cases in the United States stood at 2,100, and officials had only just started to ban some large gatherings.

After Mr. Wheeler sent his email, as TechCrunch reported last month, he was summoned to a meeting with a vice president and a human resources representative, who criticized him for spreading fear. Mr. Wheeler offered to resign, but was told to think it over, he said in an interview. Within hours, he received word that his resignation had been accepted.

The next day, March 14, Charter’s chief executive, Thomas M. Rutledge, sent a memo to employees saying the company was preparing a work-from-home plan. He noted that roughly 80,000 employees — whom he described as “front line” workers — had jobs that “cannot be performed effectively from home.” Another 14,000 office employees across the country had the ability to work remotely, but “they are more effective from the office,” Mr. Rutledge said in the memo.

A day after the memo went out, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommended against gatherings of more than 50 people. In the days that followed, Spectrum’s plan got more specific.

On March 19, the company told its employees that they would have the three weeks of flex time, but suggested salaried workers could use it to work remotely. “There may be times when you are using this special time but still have capacity to work remotely,” Spectrum said in a memo to the staff. “We certainly encourage and appreciate that; we need you now more than ever.”

In other memos to various Spectrum departments, the company said that roughly 60 percent of call center workers would still need to go to the office, and that people in management roles would be expected in their usual workplaces.

Spectrum has further revised its policy on working remotely since then, said Ms. Blanchard, the company spokeswoman, so that a “significant majority” of office and call center employees are now doing their jobs from home. She would not specify how many are working remotely or when that shift had happened.

The changes have not fully addressed the concerns of rank-and-file employees and executives, some of whom have said that Spectrum was still not doing enough to protect its workers, according to the person with knowledge of the company.

As of Monday, nearly 8,000 people had signed a petition on the website Change.org demanding that more Spectrum employees be allowed to work from home. The petition was posted last month by a person identifying as a worker at the company.

“Our families at home are under mental agony, thinking of us getting exposed to virus at work,” the petitioner wrote under the name Johnny E. “A little flexibility working during this time really helps all. The work we do can be done remotely without any obstacles. We do on-call and work through the nights from home all the time. I do not see a reason why we cannot work remotely during these difficult times.”

Jeanine Ramirez, an anchor at NY1, Spectrum’s local news channel in New York City, said in an interview that the company should allow more employees to work remotely.

“Why would a sales job have to be in the office?” Ms. Ramirez said. “Why can’t you do sales over the phone?”

Ms. Ramirez, one of five female journalists who filed a discrimination lawsuit against Spectrum in June, has been broadcasting remotely in recent weeks, with lights, a microphone and camera equipment set up in her home.

“If we could build an entire studio at home, a sales job should definitely be able to be done remotely,” she said.

The Department of Economic and Community Development in Connecticut, where Charter is based, has said on its website that “essential employees who are able to work from home should be working from home.”

On Monday Spectrum announced that “there will be no layoffs or furloughs for at least the next 60 days.” The company also noted in a news release that it had already planned to raise the pay of hourly workers from $15 to $20 over the next two years and to increase wages for field workers and sales employees. In addition, Spectrum has waived the costs of diagnostic medical testing for employees over the next 90 days.

Credit…Andrew Sullivan for The New York Times

Mr. Wheeler, the former Charter engineer, said he felt torn about his March 13 email. Because he resigned, he is not eligible for unemployment benefits, and he is having a hard time finding work. But he feels that he influenced his former employer to allow more people to work from home.

“There were a lot of people who thanked me for doing that,” Mr. Wheeler said. “I don’t want to say that I wish I didn’t quit, but there is a part of me that regrets doing it that way.”

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