Nick Wheeler, who worked as a video operations engineer in the Denver office of the telecom giant Charter Communications until last week, had a job that could easily be done from home. But when Wheeler intensified his pleas for a work-from-home policy during the current COVID-19 crisis, he lost his job.
Wheeler started asking management about the company’s response as the first cases were being discovered in the U.S., and was repeatedly told that remote work wouldn’t be possible—despite the fact that engineers in his office already worked remotely on systems in other locations. As the pandemic worsened, he sent an email to a vice president and fellow engineers last Friday:
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 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?
Across the country, many other workers have the same question. The White House’s guidelines now explicitly say that everyone should “work or engage from schooling from home whenever possible.” On March 19, California ordered residents to stay at home as much as possible and nonessential businesses to close, following an earlier shutdown in the Bay Area. On March 20, New York told nonessential workers to stay at home. In industries where remote working is feasible, countless businesses have already shifted to remote work voluntarily because of the extraordinary national emergency and the clear evidence that social distancing can save lives. (Many, it should be noted, were slow to take this action even in places where the virus was clearly spreading, but eventually made the call.) And yet many workers—even those with underlying health concerns or vulnerable family members—are still struggling to get permission to work remotely or to gain traction for the idea that the entire office should close.
In Wheeler’s office, he says, many of his coworkers shared his concerns, but weren’t voicing them to management. “I was not aware of other people raising the issue, which is one of the reasons I spoke up,” he says. When he sent the final email, after weeks of questioning management about the problem, the company didn’t respond positively. Wheeler was called to a meeting with HR, and told he was “inciting fear,” he says, though he was simply restating governmental guidelines, and then was told that he could either work from the office or take sick leave. In a heated moment, he offered his badge to a vice president; the vice president told him that wasn’t necessary and to think about it until Monday, which he agreed to do. But an hour later, he got a call saying that the company had “accepted his resignation.”
It’s not clear if the company’s action was legal: OSHA, the Occupational Safety and Health Act, allows employees to raise reasonable concerns about health and safety—and it seems reasonable to argue that the current situation qualifies.
Wheeler says that he doesn’t regret what he did, especially if it helped lead Charter to change its policy. On Thursday, the company announced that it would “provide the option to work remotely to employees we believe can remain productive outside the office without endangering our obligation to provide critical services.” It also said that it was giving an additional three weeks of paid leave to workers affected by COVID-19. But Wheeler is now stuck looking for a new job.
We reached out to Jennifer Dorning, president of the AFL-CIO’s department for professional employees, to ask her advice for workers in similar situations.
If you’re in a union, start there
Many workers don’t have this option, but if you happen to be in a union, turn to them first for help. “Your best option is always to have a union, because that’s where you have the power,” Dorning says. “Someone has your back when you have a union. And so your steward can go to your manager, and that manager must bargain over telework . . . you have less fear about getting fired, getting demoted, being retaliated against, things like that. You’re all able to stand together in a much more formal way.”
Join with coworkers to make a work-from-home proposal
For those not in a union, Dorning recommends working with colleagues to quickly create a plan explaining how you can work from home, the tools you’ll need, and how you’ll report progress. “From my perspective, I think management doesn’t like to be dictated to, saying ‘we’re making demands, and you must allow us to telework,'” she says. “I think it’s best to try to partner with management . . . I would talk with my coworkers about how we can demonstrate to management that we can be effective for the next four or eight weeks while teleworking.” That might include a budget for necessary tools, like videoconferencing software, and an offer to send daily reports about work if needed.
Point out that employees may be productive from home
“If employees are concerned about their health and their safety and their security, they are not going to be productive employees,” Dorning says. “Employees who are constantly checking the LA Times website and the NY Times website for updates on the ongoing crisis are not productive employees. The most effective way to keep people productive is to have them in a safe and secure environment.” Depending on the type of work and the employee’s home environment, being at home may also be a better place to work generally; one long-term Stanford study found that remote employees had a 13% improvement in performance, partly because they were more likely to work the full workday, and because it was easier to concentrate.
Reiterate the public health necessity
To prevent the worst-case scenario from the new coronavirus—by one estimate, 2.2 million deaths in the U.S. if the virus grows unchecked—it’s critical that we adopt mass social distancing. “I would say the easiest support of an argument to work from home is pointing out the guidelines of the state that they live in,” says Wheeler. “And, of course, the CDC and the WHO as well, which all encourage social distancing, and new guidelines in the last few days discouraging gatherings of more than 10 people. That’s a really supporting piece for saying that we should not be in the office right now.”
Wheeler says that he personally wouldn’t recommend that workers threaten to resign unless they’re facing high risk from the virus or live with someone in that situation. But he reiterates that he doesn’t regret the pressure he placed on Charter. “If it saves one life, it was the right thing to do,” he says.