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Experts: Call Centers Pose High Risk for Coronavirus

According to the research director of the National Association of Call Centers, the centers have a greater risk of exposure for employees due to the tight spaces, shared equipment, and people moving for shifts.

by Steve Collins, Sun Journal / March 19, 2020
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(TNS) — These are hard times for call centers, including a large one operated by TD Bank at the Auburn Mall.

Paul Stockford, a Tennessee-based research director for the nonprofit National Association of Call Centers, said Wednesday that the entire call center industry is scrambling to figure out how to handle issues brought to the forefront by the spread of the coronavirus.

The reality, he said, is that call centers have a “pretty high” risk of exposure for their employees because they have tight spaces, some shared equipment and a lot of people coming in for different shifts.

After two workers at the TD Bank call center in Auburn told the Sun Journal they’re worried, the Canadian-based bank said Wednesday it implemented new policies “to provide colleagues with the time they need to take care of themselves and their families and to also protect themselves.”

The employees, who asked to remain anonymous, said the company hadn’t taken enough steps to keep them safe or to make provisions for sick co-workers to stay home.

In response, according to a statement issued by Matthew Doherty, corporate communications manager, the bank said it would provide full-time employees who have children home because of school closures with up to 10 extra paid personal days.

It also said employees who are told to stay home because of symptoms or exposure and who cannot work remotely will receive up to two weeks of extra pay so they don’t have to dip into their normal time-off benefits.

Those at the call center who simply can’t come in or work remotely, the company said, will be allowed to take regular time off.

TD Bank’s statement said it understands “this is a trying time for everyone involved and we thank all of our employees for their dedication as we navigate through these unprecedented events together.”

Its Auburn call center is set up with many cubicles, each with a phone and computer. Workers said they share workspaces, moving around from day to day to available spots.

At its busiest times, they said, the center has at least 250 workers in a large room.

Stockford said “harried and worried” executives realize the dangers and are trying to find a way to deal with them while simultaneously coping with a surge in the numbers of calls.

“It’s a real challenge right now, more so than most industries, in untested, unprecedented waters,” Stockford said.

He said the crisis they face “demands a solution” that may overturn how the business has operated for years, especially given that experts are calling for limits as low as 10 on how many people should be together at one time.

Stockford said he tells executives in the business to “automate and go to the cloud as fast as you can” because it’s the only way to cope with the spreading virus.

He said his first advice is to “get your agents home immediately.”

Doherty’s statement said employees who can work remotely have already been directed to do so.

In addition, he said, “we are working on plans to increase work-from-home capabilities” throughout the company.

Stockford said it is possible to shift almost any call center to a cloud-based service swiftly and that agents can work from home easily, even if they only have an inexpensive computer and a broadband connection. Companies that offer the service, he said, are putting out sweet deals to lure more customers now.

In addition, Stockford said, firms need to start automating more of the calls so that many of the simpler requests or questions can be dealt with by a chat box rather than a human. He said only difficult inquiries should flow to people.

Stockford said he figures that once call centers shift their employees to their homes they “probably will not go back” to the conventional model because it’s unnecessary.

“Right now, they’re just scrambling to get something done,” he said. “But I think this is going to change everything permanently.”

The virus, he said, may be the thing that forces wholesale reform of the business.

An outbreak at a South Korean call center caused a spike in COVID-19 cases, Reuters reported.

It said that Seoul’s mayor, Park Won-soon, told reporters last week that “mass infections at the call center could be the beginning of a fresh tide that leads to a widespread regional outbreak.”

Call center employees in Arizona and California have issued complaints similar to the ones made about the Auburn workplace. Another call center, in South Carolina, had to be closed down for deep cleaning after an employee tested positive for the virus.

The federal Occupational Health and Safety Administration issued suggestions to employers about how to deal with COVID-19 concerns.

Aside from urging more hand washing and good health etiquette, it said companies should “encourage workers to stay home if they are sick,” explore flexible work sites and hours, and discourage employees from using each other’s desks, phones and equipment.

The two call center workers who spoke with the Sun Journal said employees are concerned TD Bank hasn’t been following those guidelines.

Doherty said the company has “increased the frequency of cleaning at our call center locations and provided additional sanitizing wipes and supplies to our staff.”

It is also, he said, “deploying plans to maintain social distancing as much as possible.”

Jay Martin, the interim head of the bank’s U.S. contact center, told employees in a Tuesday email that he wanted them “to know how much I appreciate your continued commitment to deliver legendary service to our customers.”

He said that company leaders “are working through various go-forward strategies as the situation continues to evolve.”

“Most importantly,” Martin said, “I cannot stress enough that your health and well-being is – and will continue to be – our primary focus.”

Martin told bank workers they should “stay calm, stay vigilant” in what he called “a worrisome situation.”

He urged them to “take care of yourselves and one another,” to practice good hygiene and workspace cleaning habits.

Martin also urged his employees to “listen to the facts, not rumors,” and pay attention to facts. He also warned them to “exercise good judgment by thinking before you post” anything online.

Auburn Mayor Jason Levesque said he hasn’t heard any complaints about safety at the call center, where a family member works.

Levesque, who once owned a large call center in Lewiston, said facilities like it are generally run professionally and have plans in place to deal with infectious diseases. Basically, he said, they try to practice social distancing and try to keep everything sanitary.

Levesque said when he ran a call center they were concerned about the spread of the flu, leading to assigned seats, everyone possessing their own headsets and ensuring plenty of space between workers.

If the call center follows proper guidelines, he said, “it should be absolutely fine.”

Stockford said, though, that even with the best practices in place, call centers need to embrace new technology and the new reality that the coronavirus has made plain.

©2020 the Sun Journal (Lewiston, Maine), Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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