Last week, after a two-week coronavirus-related shutdown, employees once again filed into the Tustin AT&T call center.
Much has changed. Now, the 150 men and women who provide customer service pause for temperature checks before entering – no more “honor system” of self-evaluations. And they must wear face masks, even while speaking with customers on the phone.
But the biggest difference is a tragic one — a pair of empty desks; the work spaces where two popular colleagues used to sit.
In mid-October, a coronavirus outbreak began its march through the building. Soon, Gale Ballard, 51, and Darrell Harper, 40, both would both be dead from COVID-19.
At least 46 employees who work in the call center have contracted coronavirus, according to Kenny Williams, a local representative for Communications Workers of America.
Facing pressure from the union that represents the call center workers, and from local elected officials, AT&T closed the building Oct. 26 – three days after Ballard’s death.
During the closure, the company conducted deep cleaning in the office and installed new air filters. “This workspace is safe for employees to return,” AT&T spokesman Jim Kimberly said in an emailed statement.
On Oct. 28, Harper posted on Facebook that he was suffering from COVID. “I’ve not eaten or had any strength to move. It’s worse than you thought. You are not in your body.”
That message prompted an outpouring of concerned comments from friends and out-of-state family. On the same day, Harper responded, “This could have been avoided if they let people work from home.”
On Nov. 4, the 40-year-old was found dead in his Los Angeles apartment.
Harper had broached an oft-asked question: Why were some customer reps given the option to work remotely, while others were not?
The building houses hundreds of service representatives, with residential calls handled on one floor and business client calls handled on another. Only the reps who who assist business customers have been allowed to work from home.
U.S. Rep. Katie Porter, whose district includes Tustin, addressed that inconsistency in an Oct. 29 letter to AT&T CEO Jeff McElfresh.
“Since March, the residential customer service units have been requesting a work-from-home option.” Porter wrote. “These requests have been denied repeatedly.”
Company spokesman Kimberly did not explain in his email why employees helping business clients can work remotely, saying only, “There are customer privacy issues that must be accounted for.”
In 2015, AT&T was fined $25 million by the Federal Communications Commission for a residential customer data breach at a call center in Mexico. After that, the company tightened security to prevent sensitive information from leaking again.
However, workers are quick to point out that the 2015 transgression involved contract workers, not AT&T employees.
What’s more, working in the office or out of the office doesn’t really address the issue of customer security, as people can easily take customer information while in the office, said Domonique Thomas – an employee at the Tustin location until February, when she took a full-time position with the union.
“It’s not like there are security cameras pointed at you,” Thomas said. “Only 1% of employees do something unethical. If that’s how you want to operate, well, you will find a way.”
After the outbreak, AT&T did offer to let about one in four employees work from home, handling billing and technology inquiries.
“There is no reason all employees can’t have that option,” Thomas said. “This is a telecommunications company, after all. They can make it happen.”
Restrooms in the building are now sanitized every two hours, Thomas said. Yet although employees sit at least six feet apart, cubicle partitions are still low and plastic dividers have not been added.
Santa Ana resident Cynthia Phan, 44, reluctantly returned to the office Nov. 9. She is 23 months pregnant.
“My OB-GYN said, ‘You should not be going in there. I will write you a letter saying you need to work from home,’” Phan said. “I said, ‘That’s not how my company works.’ I don’t feel safe, but I need the hours.”
Phan has applied to be part of the group selected to manage customer calls at home. “I don’t know how it will work out,” she said. “I think a lot of people put in for the option.”
Darlene Nguyen, 42, of Garden Grove, also hesitantly came back.
Customers often have trouble understanding her because she must wear a mask during calls, Nguyen complained. “I could do my job from home so much better,” she asserted.
Many of the 150 residential customer reps have worked at the call center for years, forming close bonds. Before coronavirus, they lunched together, kept tabs on each other’s families, organized office parties and stayed late chatting in the parking lot.
All of that camaraderie and laughter has disappeared, Nguyen said: “We’re scared to come close to each other.”
Even so, some employees are glad to be back, working among people they consider family-away-from-family.
“It’s isolating to be at home all the time,” said Alicia Palmer, 48, who commutes from Rancho Cucamonga.
Palmer is still grieving the loss of Harper, whom she described as her “best friend.”
“He was an old soul,” Palmer said, choking up. “Very focused, very energetic, very determined, very creative. He loved to write, and he was really good at it.”
Harper’s website, scareofthelight.com, lists two novels. Playfully, Harper tagged himself, “Future New York Times Bestseller.”
Like Harper, Westminster resident Julia Huynh, 55, contracted coronavirus. She unwittingly went to work sick Oct. 22, she said, and left early when she started feeling ill. The next day, she tested positive.
“I am on disability until Nov. 23. And then I don’t know what I’m going to do,” said Huynh, whose asthma has slowed her recovery and turned the act of speaking into a struggle for oxygen.
“The company did not protected us,” Huynh said. “I don’t feel valued.”
Santa Ana resident Anh Ho, and two of her children also suffer asthma. She, too, remains out on leave.
“They have not given us any good reason for making us go in,” Ho, 45, said. “It’s nonsense.”
Ho has applied for the work-from-home option, and likely will go back if she doesn’t make the cut. “I need to pay the mortgage,” she said.
Meanwhile, Porter continues to grill the telecommunications giant.
“AT&T had $42.3 billion in revenue last quarter, beating estimates,” Porter said in an email. “AT&T could have spent that money to make sure employees in Tustin could work from home, or to implement a COVID testing program at the call center.”
Porter said she was not satisfied by the CEO’s response to her queries, including “whether AT&T followed state and local reporting requirements when the outbreak began.”
“I remain gravely concerned,” she said, “and I’m continuing to push for answers.”