On the second floor of a nondescript corporate building in Chandler, scores of OnTrac workers are packed into an open office, where they answer customer service calls and emails for eight hours a day.
The workspace is an affront to social distancing principles.
OnTrac employees sit in cubicles separated by partitions. They share clock-in stations, elevator buttons, and break rooms. Sickness spreads easily in such close quarters. "If someone gets a cold, normally, everyone in here gets it eventually," one employee said. (Fearing retaliation, four OnTrac workers who spoke with Phoenix New Times did so under the condition of anonymity.)
Add a global pandemic to the mix — Arizona has 508 confirmed cases of the coronavirus as of Thursday — and even the slightest symptoms carry life-or-death significance.
"Every time you hear someone cough, it’s like a gunshot went off," an OnTrac employee said.
OnTrac, a private company based in Chandler, offers shipping services to companies and distributors. Its customer service representatives work in one of metro Phoenix's roughly 350 call centers. As a logistics company that deals with food — among other goods — OnTrac almost certainly qualifies as an "essential service" under Governor Doug Ducey's definition of businesses exempt from any potential enforced closure related to COVID-19.
Amid the coronavirus emergency, call centers across the world have come under scrutiny. Employees of a Consumer Cellular call center in Phoenix recently told In These Times , a news organization that covers labor, that their supervisors had not formally communicated with them regarding COVID-19. One of the early outbreaks of coronavirus in South Korea originated from a call center. And a Department of Motor Vehicles call center in California recently shut down after one of its employees tested positive for COVID-19. Workers at call centers have said that they are being unnecessarily exposed to risk when they could be working from home.
OnTrac workers also said they could be doing their jobs from home, where they could better follow the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention social distancing recommendations to slow the spread of the coronavirus. All they would need is a computer, a phone, and an internet connection, they said. Yet OnTrac has only permitted 25 employees to work from home as part of a pilot program.
In an email to employees obtained by New Times, OnTrac call center director Robin Thompson said the company does not currently have the capability for all of its employees to work from home.
"We are working hard to add as many people to this test as possible, it’s just a process and there are technical limitations," she wrote to employees on Wednesday.
Some employees told New Times that OnTrac's decisions on who gets to work from home felt arbitrary. They believe OnTrac should have prioritized the elderly and immuno-compromised when deciding who to send home.
Rob Abel, OnTrac director of corporate branding, said in a statement to New Times that the company chose employees to participate in the test who "best meet the technology, environment, and business needs for a proper evaluation of the proposed solution."
He added: "OnTrac is closely monitoring the guidance from the CDC, WHO, and government authorities regarding COVID-19, and we are taking proper precautions where warranted. The well-being of our employees and business partners is our first priority, and we will continue to adapt our processes and procedures to best support the supply chain during this national emergency and keep people safe."
Why Not Work From Home?
One OnTrac employee who spoke with New Times suggested that call centers let workers take work computers home so they can do their jobs remotely, as he heard happens elsewhere. Another OnTrac employee said she calls other call centers as part of her job and recently spoke with a different call center worker who was incredulous that she was still working in an office.
All call centers should be moving to the cloud, automating calls, and getting agents home as quickly as possible, said Paul Stockford, research director for the National Association of Call Centers, a nonprofit research organization based in Tennessee.
Stockford said there's no reason why any call center should have its workers in the office still.
"I’m not running that business, but I would get them home and out of harm’s way first," he said. "You can have cloud delivery of virtually ever technology and solution available within 48 hours. You can get a home agent up and running on a $200 Chromebook in 30 minutes." He added that he has heard "horror stories" from call center workers across the country that don't have the option of working from home amid the coronavirus pandemic.
The employees New Times spoke with said they feel they're being forced to choose between their job and their health. Late last week, in response to the spread of the coronavirus in Arizona, the company offered workers up to 16 hours of unpaid time that they would have to use before May 31. As of this week, the company is allowing people to take up to two weeks of unpaid time, the four staffers said.
"That’s why people feel like people have to be at work. Because rent is due next week," one employee said. "If you’re not going to pay me for two weeks, then I have to be here."
In her email to employees on Wednesday, call center director Thompson addressed social media posts from OnTrac employees claiming they were being "forced" to go to work, calling them "very disappointing and simply not the truth."
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"I have had several people mention they feel they 'have' to be here. I want to be clear – everyone has options. These are unprecedented times and we’re working hard to provide options to everyone," Thompson wrote. "We ARE an open business and offer employment for those who can work but we are also making every effort to allow people time off or a leave of absence, if desired."
Like most businesses, OnTrac has taken steps to encourage hygienic best practices. The company has moved all meetings to Skype and restricted elevator rides to two people at a time. It removed chairs in the break room to encourage social distancing and has been propping open doors so employees don't have to touch handles.
Other steps were taken far too late, employees said. The company only started moving desks to create distance between workers early this week, staffers said, well after the CDC issued its recommendation for people to maintain six feet of distance to prevent the spread of the coronavirus.
Call center workers now sit one desk apart from one another. But workers said they still face co-workers sitting well within six feet front of them. One employee said the co-worker sitting in front of him was recently coughing loudly. "When I told them something about it, they said it could be his allergies," the employee said. The employee felt so uncomfortable that he clocked out early and took the rest of the day off without pay.