Biotech & Health

Staff angered as Charter prohibits working from home despite spread of coronavirus


Image Credits: Brian van der Brug (opens in a new window) / Getty Images

An engineer from Charter Communications, one of the largest phone and internet providers in the U.S., sent an email blast to a senior vice president and hundreds of engineers on Friday.

In the email, Nick Wheeler, a video operations engineer based in Denver, criticized his employer for not allowing its staff to work from home despite ongoing efforts to lock down vast swathes of the U.S. to combat the coronavirus pandemic.

The email was short. “I do not understand why we are still coming into the office as the COVID-19 pandemic surges around us,” he wrote.

“The CDC guidelines are clear. The CDPHE guidelines are clear. The WHO guidelines are clear. The science of social distancing is real. We have the complete ability to do our jobs entirely from home,” he wrote, reeling off the advice from several state and federal government departments and international health organizations. “Coming into the office now is pointlessly reckless. It’s also socially irresponsible. Charter, like the rest of us, should do what is necessary to help reduce the spread of coronavirus. Social distancing has a real slowing effect on the virus — that means lives can be saved.

“A hazard condition isn’t acceptable for the infrastructure beyond the short-term. Why is it acceptable for our health?” wrote Wheeler.

Hours later, he was no longer an employee.

Just a few minutes after Wheeler sent the email, he was summoned to a vice president’s office to a conference call with human resources. In a call with TechCrunch, Wheeler said his email was described as “irresponsible” and “inciting fear.” He said it was hard to understand why Charter had not implemented a work-from-home policy after the coronavirus outbreak was upgraded to a pandemic.

Wheeler said he was given an ultimatum. Either he could work from the office or take sick leave. Staff are not allowed to work from home, he was told. Wheeler offered his resignation, but was sent home instead and asked to think about his decision until Monday.

Later in the day, he received a call from work. Charter accepted his resignation, effective immediately.

“I do not understand why we are still coming into the office as the COVID-19 pandemic surges around us.”
Nick Wheeler, former Charter employee

Although Charter — and others — have pledged not to charge late fees or terminate its services to customers during the pandemic, employees are internally expressing frustration that their health and safety appear not to be a priority.

Wheeler is going on the record because he said it was unacceptable that Charter is, unlike other companies, not employing a work-from-home strategy in an effort to combat the spread of COVID-19.

Just on Monday, the San Francisco Bay Area was put on lockdown, and both New York and Denver — where Wheeler lives — announced the closure of bars and restaurants and the banning of public gatherings of more than 50 people to limit the virus’s spread. Shortly after, the White House said it is advising against gatherings of 10 people or more, and that Americans should continue to practice social distancing.

“If I can understand and do this at a human level, Charter should be able to do it at a larger level,” he said.

Cameron Blanchard, a spokesperson for Charter, said the company does not “discuss individual employee circumstances.” In a broader statement, Charter said it’s “continuing our normal operations” but that it’s “reviewing our business continuity plans daily as conditions are changing rapidly.”

Charter finds itself largely alone in mandating employees to work from its offices as its rivals push ahead with advising staff to work from home where possible.

AT&T said in its guidance that it’s asking employees “who are in jobs that can be done from home should do so until further notice.” Verizon, which owns TechCrunch, also said it’s encouraging employees to work remotely. Comcast is reportedly testing a number of work-from-home scenarios.

TechCrunch spoke to several Charter employees, whom we are not naming as they fear retribution from the company. The employees said they had seen Wheeler’s email. One described the email as speaking what was already a “bubbling of concern” among employees.

The employees said that Charter’s leadership has long disallowed working from home, and that management decides on a case-by-case basis and only when they’ve seen a doctor’s note. The employees said that in absence of a work-from-home policy, employees are expected to burn through their sick leave.

Staff are given a week of sick leave a year, which accrues over time, but current government guidance is to self-quarantine for two weeks after symptoms subside, meaning some staff would have to take a portion of unpaid sick leave.

But Charter has shown little sign of backing down. In an all-staff email sent Saturday and seen by TechCrunch, Charter’s chief executive Tom Rutledge doubled down on the policy.

“You may have heard that some companies are instituting broad remote working policies for some of their employees. While we are preparing for that possibility by geography, Charter is not doing the same today,” said Rutledge. “We provide critical communications services and we believe our approach to supporting front line employees is the right way for us to operate at this time to continue to deliver those important services to our customers.”

The email said that the 15% of its employees who perform back-office work and management are expected to continue coming into the offices.

“Stay home if you are sick, or caring for someone who is sick, but continue to report to your usual work location if you are not,” the email said. “While some back office and management functions can be performed remotely, they are more effective from the office,” said Rutledge.

One of the employees we spoke to described the email as “tone-deaf.”

The employees said two or three staff had been tested for coronavirus, according to internal emails from Charter’s human resources, but that their test results had not been disclosed, compounding their fears about having to continue to go into the office.

Wheeler is not alone in his concerns. At least two other emails allegedly sent by employees, which were posted anonymously to Reddit but TechCrunch is unable to verify their authenticity, criticized Charter for putting its employees “under harm and risk.”

One of the employees we spoke to agreed. “There’s no reason why the back-end staff can’t be working from home,” they said.

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