Business as usual, despite pandemic —

Charter workers apparently face choice in pandemic: work in the office or resign.


Charter CEO Tom Rutledge gesturing with his hands and speaking at a conference.

Enlarge / Charter CEO Tom Rutledge speaks during the New York Times DealBook conference in New York on Thursday, Nov. 10, 2016.

A Charter Communications engineer called the company’s rules against working from home during the coronavirus pandemic “pointlessly reckless” and “socially irresponsible” before subsequently resigning instead of continuing to work in the office, according to a TechCrunch article published yesterday.

Charter CEO Tom Rutledge last week told employees in a memo to keep coming to the office even if their jobs can be performed from home, because people “are more effective from the office.” Employees should only stay home if they “are sick, or caring for someone who is sick,” Rutledge wrote.

Nick Wheeler, a video operations engineer for Charter in Denver, sent an email expressing his displeasure with the policy to a senior vice president and “hundreds of engineers on Friday,” TechCrunch wrote. The email said:

I do not understand why we are still coming into the office as the COVID-19 pandemic surges around us. The CDC guidelines are clear. The CDPHE [Colorado Department of Public Health & Environment] 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. 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?

The CDC’s advice to businesses stresses that sick people should not come to the office but also urges businesses to “Ensure that you have the information technology and infrastructure needed to support multiple employees who may be able to work from home.”

Resignation accepted

Within hours of sending the email, Wheeler was out of a job. The TechCrunch article explained:

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.

We contacted Charter and Wheeler today and will update this story if we get more information. With 26.6 million subscribers, Charter is the second-biggest home-Internet provider in the United States after Comcast.

Charter explains policy

Internet providers are in a tricky situation. Broadband is crucial to people’s daily lives and their ability to work, even though it’s not regulated like a utility. Maintaining home- and mobile-Internet connectivity is even more important than usual because of the pandemic, and that means sending technicians to customer homes and going into the field to fix broken equipment or wires.

But back-office functions can be performed remotely at many companies, and Wheeler argued that Charter is no exception. Despite that, Charter argued that even employees whose jobs can be done remotely should still come to the office.

Rutledge’s memo to employees was posted on the company website Saturday. Rutledge wrote:

Across 41 states, we have 95,000 employees, of which there are more than 80,000 frontline employees including maintenance and construction technicians, customer service specialists, sales and retention professionals, supply chain, employees in network construction, operations, monitoring and field dispatch facilities with their associated support functions across Spectrum Residential, Business, Enterprise, Reach and Networks. You provide and service important broadband connectivity, video, telephone, mobile services, local news and advertising for our customers, and those jobs cannot be performed effectively from home.

What about those other 15,000 employees? Those people are based “primarily in Denver, St. Louis, Charlotte, and Stamford, [and] are here to support the front-line [workers],” Rutledge explained. The CEO then acknowledged that some of these employees could do their jobs from home but aren’t being allowed to. “While some back office and management functions can be performed remotely, they are more effective from the office,” Rutledge wrote.

Rutledge said that Charter’s policy could change, but he didn’t say when. “You may have heard that some companies are instituting broad remote working policies for some of their employees,” Rutledge wrote in the memo. “While we are preparing for that possibility by geography, Charter is not doing the same today. 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.”

“Based on facts and circumstances we will modify our approach as needed as we navigate COVID-19’s development,” he also wrote.

By contrast, AT&T told its staff that “Employees who are in jobs that can be done from home should do so until further notice.” Comcast is testing a work-from-home system with some workers but still tells most employees to come to the office or retail stores where they work, unless they are sick.

Wheeler not alone in objections

Wheeler apparently was not the only Charter employee to disagree with the ISP’s policy.

“Over 80 percent of Charter employees in and around the Denver area can work from home,” one person who claimed to be a Charter employee wrote on Reddit. But “Charter DOES NOT believe in work[ing] from home” and “as usual is being foolish and opening themselves up for huge legal troubles from the state, the federal government, and of course any employees that were/are affected,” the person wrote.

That Reddit thread also included the text of an employee email allegedly sent internally to Rutledge and executive VP of network operations Scott Weber.

“I am writing this mail under utter displeasure in the way Charter is treating its employees,” the email said. “As you are aware of the spread of coronavirus outbreak here in the United States, Charter is putting us the employees under harm and risk. There are close to 50 confirmed cases here in Colorado and this morning we were told by our leadership at Network Operations that there is no work from home policy and anyone who takes sick leave must produce a doctor’s note or else be fired.” (Colorado’s coronavirus cases rose to 160 by Monday.)

“If any of us gets exposed to this at work we will hold you personally accountable,” the email also said. “The work we do can be done remotely without any obstacles. We do on-call and work through the nights from home all the time. I do not see a reason why we cannot work remotely during these difficult times.”

Disclosure: The Advance/Newhouse Partnership, which owns 13 percent of Charter, is part of Advance Publications. Advance Publications owns Condé Nast, which owns Ars Technica.

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