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Charter tweaks policy, allows some employees to work from home

Altering its policies, Charter Communications will now allow certain employees to work from home while also providing additional personal time and enacting new social distancing plans in response to the COVID-19 crisis. The move follows other service providers and industry organizations that have made significant adjustments to how they and their employees operate.

Charter had been monitoring the situation and had hinted that changes to its policies were under constant review and open to adjustments. But an earlier policy that discouraged healthy employees from working from home sparked an uproar after a Denver-area Charter engineer was openly critical of the policy and resigned soon after.

According to an initial report from TechCrunch, that employee, Nick Wheeler, made his opinion known last Friday (March 13) via an internal email to his boss and other members of his team with the subject line: "Coronavirus – Why are we still in the office?"

"Coming into the office now is pointlessly reckless. It's also socially irresponsible," Wheeler wrote. "Charter, like the rest of us, should do what is necessary to help reduce the spread of coronavirus"

Wheeler told TechCrunch that the email prompted a meeting with his supervisor and human resources personnel and that he was told his email was "irresponsible" and "inciting fear," and that he could either continue to work from the office or take sick time. Wheeler told TechCrunch he offered to resign on the spot, but was then asked to think it over. He later received a call that Charter had accepted his resignation.

"If this pressure causes them to change their policy and one life is saved, if one person is saved having to go through a terrible ordeal because of some underlying conditions and flu-like symptoms, that's worth my job," Wheeler told The Denver Post in a story appearing in Thursday's edition.

Charter announced temporary changes to its policy today, noting that employees who are able to work from home effectively will now be allowed to do so.

"Today we announced a series of steps that will help our employees manage through this difficult time while maintaining our vital services," Charter said Thursday in an emailed statement. "We are providing all employees an additional three weeks paid time off, to be used for any COVID-19-related personal need. We are developing and implementing increased social distancing plans in our call centers and operations facilities. And we will provide the option to work remotely to employees we believe can remain productive outside the office without endangering our obligation to provide critical services. These steps will enable our employees to continue providing essential communications services to 29 million customers, including institutions like hospitals, first responders and government facilities, which help flatten the curve and protect the country."

Those new policies change what Charter originally had in place in response to COVID-19, though the company did allude that they would also be subject to change.

"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." Tom Rutledge, chairman and CEO at Charter, wrote in a memo distributed last week. "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."

Rutledge also noted then that Charter has about 95,000 employees across 41 states, of which more than 80,000 are "frontline employees" that include maintenance and construction techs, customer service reps and people involved with network construction, operations and monitoring. He added then that the remaining 15% of Charter's employees, in markets such as Denver; St. Louis; Charlotte, North Carolina; and Stamford, Connecticut, support the frontline workforce.

"While some back office and management functions can be performed remotely, they are more effective from the office," Rutledge wrote.

While Charter caught heat for that stance, the cable operator, along with hundreds of other service providers, has gotten behind FCC Chairman Ajit Pai's "Keep Americans Connected Pledge." That 60-day pledge calls on ISPs to suspend service terminations for customers who can't pay their bills, to waive late fees and to open up Wi-Fi hotspots.

New policy closer in line with other company policies
Charter's updated policies fall closer in line with those put in place temporarily by several other US service providers and industry organizations. Below is a summation of how some of those companies and organizations have implemented policies designed to help limit the spread of COVID-19 and to keep their people safe:

  • Cox Communications said it has closed its 6,000-person headquarters campus in Atlanta, save for a few, such as those handling building security, that need to remain on-site. And, in a first-ever move, Cox also has moved a "couple hundred" NOC (network operations center) employees to remote status. In the field, Cox is also encouraging telecommuting for any employees whose jobs can be performed outside an office environment and is working to increase the number of employees whose jobs can be performed from home, a company official noted.

  • Comcast has implemented a company-wide work-from-home policy for those whose jobs allow them to do so. "Our frontline employees are vital to ensuring our customers and our communities continue to have access to the internet and other services they need to stay connected. We are moving as fast as we can to have as many people work from home as possible," an official said in a statement.

  • Colorado-based Dish Network noted that it remains "fully operational, but we're definitely adjusting to promote social distancing across the organization. Those who are able and equipped to work remotely every day are now working from home; this has reduced on-site headcount significantly."

    For people whose work is "typically location dependent," Dish is equipping individuals with tools to work remotely, a spokesman said. Dish has also provided additional training to techs on best practices for staying healthy while in the field.

    "Of course, we are encouraging social distancing at all our locations and promoting healthy habits," the Dish spokesman added, noting that all employees are being asked to stay home if they aren't feeling well for any reason.

  • CableLabs said an initial COVID-19 policy took effect on February 28, which included a no-travel policy, the locking of front doors to better control traffic and providing antibacterial supplies for employees to frequency clean work surfaces. Last Friday (March 13), CableLabs added a work-from-home policy that utilizes video conferencing to help conduct business.

    CableLabs has also closed its office in Sunnyvale, California, with all Santa Clara county employees now working from home. Its Kyrio subsidiary is continuing to test and certify devices for manufacturers and other parts of the industry and continuing to provide services to customers, CableLabs added.

  • The NCTA – The Internet & Television Association said it implemented a work-from-home policy in which employees are strongly encouraged to telework for two weeks, starting March 16. "As the situation changes, we will continue to review and adjust accordingly," the organization said.

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    — Jeff Baumgartner, Senior Editor, Light Reading

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