Area call centers at various stages in moves to work from home

Local Coronavirus Coverage

(WJHL) – Cars were parked along the roadside leading up to the full Advanced Call Technologies (ACT) center parking lot in Boones Creek Wednesday. Parking lots at Citi in Gray and AT&T in Johnson City had space, but still had quite a few cars in them.

Meanwhile, the Agero call center in Blountville was a virtual ghost town.

Call centers are a significant driver in the regional economy. They can also be, National Association of Call Centers (NACC) head of research Paul Stockford said, “an environment that is perfect for spreading viruses and colds and flu and everything else.”

Two women walk toward the ACT call center Wednesday.

WJHL has heard concerns from several people working in the industry regarding safety in light of the COVID-19 virus. Wednesday, statements from AT&T, Citi and ACT offered similar information — the companies are endeavoring to get people working from home to the greatest extent possible, as quickly as possible.

Some have added paid time off options for certain workers, or bonuses, and all stressed they’re following health guidelines and that their employees’ health and safety is their top priority. None of the three had anyone available for a phone interview, and Teleperformance, which has a Bristol location, hadn’t responded to a list of questions by Wednesday evening.

Will Fugette of Agero

In a phone interview late Tuesday afternoon, though, Agero’s Will Fugette addressed what the Massachusetts-based company has done since a leadership huddle March 16.

“Our team’s safety is at the forefront of all of our decisions,” said Fugette, Agero’s senior director of contact center operations. The company, which offers roadside assistance, put together a pandemic response team “to really start having these conversations about how do we quickly transition from our current brick and mortar approach to remote.”

Agero had been testing remote with a small number of workers across the country, but was planning a slow rollout. That changed.

“We started very aggressively on the 16th and from then to now, at Tri-Cities we are a little over 90 percent at home now,” Fugette said. Those still at the sparsely populated center, he said, don’t have home internet but the company is working on a fix.

Stockford said getting workers home — but still working — is not only the safest option right now, it’s also very feasible technologically. Options include virtual private networks or the cloud, and Stockford said security, efficiency and other business necessities are not an issue.

“It’s not the technological challenge that it used to be,” he said. “The cloud offers identical performance to any technology that’s in the brick and mortar call center, but it’s delivered through the internet to the agent’s home office. That could be up and running within 48 hours,”

Paul Stockford, National Association of Call Centers

As for hardware, Stockford said it’s cheap, and even quicker than cloud setup. “You can get up and running with a $200 Chromebook in 30 minutes. From zero to 100 miles an hour in 30 minutes.”

Fugette said Agero’s experience has been positive, even under such unexpected circumstances.

“We had hoped to expand this year with more work from home,” he said. “Obviously we didn’t want to do it this way, but as we go through this we’re learning a lot, we’re testing things that normally we may not have tested and we’re finding them to be successful. And our leadership is having to learn to operate in a different way.”

Critical work solving first world problems

Though call center operations tend to get short shrift in the company hierarchy, Stockford said, everyone can easily see now how important they are. He said companies tend to view them as a cost center, not a contributor to profitability.

“Clearly the country is not prepared for an emergency like this, but for the call center industry it’s particularly bad just because of the working conditions,” he said. “I think what’s happening now, though, is companies are finding out it’s a critical function, because they’re not closing them down. They’re not sending them home.”

Stockford said that’s causing emotional distress for lots of workers. He said a woman sent him an email plea for help Friday night. “When I finally connected with her, she said she quit her job, she just couldn’t do it anymore. 65 years old, asthmatic, working for $12.25 an hour at a call center in (a Western state) because she needed the job for the benefits.

“She said ‘I just walked in, set the headset on my desk and walked out.'”

Stockford said the woman told him her company was sending employees messages about taking extra measures for cleanliness.

Cars at the AT&T call center in Johnson City Wednesday.

“She said there was a video from the CEO that got sent to everyone, you know, sort of sunshine and lollipops and everything’s fine and we’re going to be with you through this. But she said they’re still working in these same cramped conditions, sharing workspaces and she said it was just too much for her.”

What the companies are saying here

Citi, which the Business Journal of Tri-Cities TN/VA’s most recent “Book of Lists” listed as the region’s sixth-largest employer with nearly 1,900 employees, sent WJHL a brief statement.

“The health and safety of our colleagues are our top priority,” it read. “Citi is accelerating plans to move our colleagues at our Gray operations to ‘work from home’ and expect virtually all colleagues at Gray to transition in the coming weeks. Citi operates its facilities consistent with CDC guidance and recommendations regarding mitigating exposure to the virus.”

Spokesman Drew Benson said Citi, which pays associates around $15 an hour to start, is offering some employees $1,000 bonuses right now.

AT&T spokesman Jim Kimberly said most employees are able to work from home, but that “we have teams that need to be in the field performing critical work to keep millions of people connected.” He added that the company is paying a 20 percent bonus above regular pay.

AT&T is also taking numerous measures at its sites, he said. These include closing fitness centers, in-person meetings of no more than five people, limiting on-site cafeteria service to pre-packaged food and providing employees with supplies to clean workspaces daily while cleaning offices more regularly.

Paid time off above and beyond what’s earned is available for COVID-19 positive employees, those with children whose schools or daycares have closed, those who are primary caregivers for someone with COVID-19, those experiencing symptoms, and those at high risk due to age (60 and up) or underlying health conditions.

ACT, listed as having 1,650 employees by the Business Journal, said in a statement it was “working aggressively to initiate work-at-home procedures to reduce the number of teammates in the call center at any one time.”

The first cohort began working from home this week, “and we will continue to transition more,” the statement said. Like the other respondents, ACT’s statement mentioned heightened cleaning measures and supplies for employees to sanitize.

The company also said it is working with staff “on a case-by-case basis should anyone feel uncomfortable working in an office at this time or need to stay at home to care for children or other family.”

The ACT statement noted that “we support the work of financial, telecommunications and healthcare companies, many of which are deemed as essential businesses during this time and require our continued support.”

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