Workers across the United States are adjusting to working from home this week as corporations and governments have implemented strict rules to prevent the spread of SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes Covid-19. At least one major telecommunications provider — my own, unhappily — hasn’t gotten the message. A Charter engineer quit the company in protest this week, drawing attention to the fact that some corporate executives to continue to believe they know better than medical experts.
A memo by Charter CEO Tom Rutledge lays out the company’s guidelines and thinking on the topic: “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.” Elsewhere in the document, he writes: “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.”
According to Rutledge, out of Charter’s 95,000 employees, 80,000 of them are front-line workers who cannot be deployed effectively from home. Given that we’re currently facing an unprecedented stress test of the nation’s internet infrastructure, that’s not a crazy statement. What about the other 15,000 workers, though? Of them, Rutledge states: “While some back-office and management functions can be performed remotely, they are more effective from the office.”
Engineer Resigns in Protest
One of those 15,000 backend employees, Nick Wheeler, took exception to being ordered in to a potentially infectious environment and asked a senior VP (along with hundreds of additional engineers) to explain why Charter was requiring people to come into the office against best practices as recommended by the CDC and WHO.
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.
Wheeler was immediately confronted over the email and told he could either choose to work at the office or take sick leave, but that working from home was impermissible. He offered his resignation, was told to think about it over the weekend, and then was told his resignation was accepted, effective immediately, on the same day after the company first pushed him to reconsider.
Charter has thus far refused to comment on the situation, but its actions stand in contrast to other ISPs. Wheeler has stated that he’s heard from dozens of employees thanking him for standing up to the company and that he only sent the email after talking to numerous colleagues who were similarly concerned. They ought to be.
The fact of the matter is, we still don’t know how many people in America have been exposed to SARS-CoV-2 because of how badly the government bungled its initial Covid-19 response. What we do know is that cases are growing rapidly, both in the United States and around the world.
It isn’t clear if Covid-19 can be spread by people who are asymptomatic, but it can definitely be spread by people who are only minimally ill. The risk to anyone who is young and healthy is quite low, but the risk to the immunocompromised and elderly is much higher. Pathogens spread well in offices because people are packed in together while using a common set of surfaces, door handles, and the like.
Given that the United States is so far behind where it ought to be in terms of testing, sheltering at home is the absolute best thing any corporation can allow its workers to do. We do not know who has been exposed. We do know there’s a limited supply of ventilators and ICU beds, and the slower coronavirus spreads, the more easily the medical system will be able to cope with the load.
We do not currently have very good information on the spread of SARS-COV-2 in the United States. That situation is improving as test kits finally ship out, but the one thing epidemiologists have confirmed we can do is shelter in place and ride out the storm. Obviously maintaining good internet service is essential right now, given that the rest of the country is shut down, but every non-essential employee who doesn’t have to be in the office needs to not be in an office. Tom Rutledge, CEO, has the wrong initials after his name to be countermanding best practices from the CDC and WHO.
Top image credit: Dwight Burdette/CC BY SA 3.0
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