Charter gives techs $25 gift cards instead of hazard pay during pandemic

A Charter Spectrum service vehicle.
Enlarge / A Charter Spectrum vehicle.

Charter Communications is giving its cable technicians $25 restaurant gift cards instead of hazard pay for going into customer homes during the coronavirus pandemic, BuzzFeed reported yesterday. The gift cards are a “token of our appreciation,” an internal email from management on Monday said, BuzzFeed reported. Of course, many restaurants are closed during the pandemic, so restaurant gift cards aren’t the most useful perk Charter management could have chosen.

“These gift cards never expire, so if you choose a restaurant that is currently not open, the card will remain valid for future use… Please take some time out of your busy day to enjoy a meal and recharge,” the email read.

Several Charter employees did not appreciate the minimal gesture. “It’s really insensitive, it shows they don’t care,” one New York City-based technician told BuzzFeed. “You think a gift card is supposed to make us feel better?”

No hand sanitizer or gloves

BuzzFeed previously reported that Charter technicians are being sent to customer homes without protective equipment such as masks, gloves, and hand sanitizer. The internal email to Charter technicians said the company has now “secured access to hand sanitizer and gloves, which would be available for workers to use ‘in the next few weeks,'” according to BuzzFeed. Numerous customers have asked Charter techs “why they aren’t in full protective gear.”

A Charter spokesperson told BuzzFeed that “The response from the technicians to all our recent changes, along with the gift card gesture, has been very positive.”

Charter, operator of Spectrum TV and Internet service, is the second-largest cable company in the US after Comcast. Charter has been slow to let call-center workers and other office-based employees work from home during the pandemic. We interviewed several Charter employees about their work conditions last week, with one saying a call center is “an absolute nightmare breeding ground for germs on a normal basis.”

By contrast, Comcast and AT&T have quickly moved many employees into work-from-home situations and given extra pay to workers who have to interact with the public. AT&T’s front-line employees are getting a 20-percent bonus, for example.

Home-Internet service is more essential than ever with Americans working at home en masse, so Internet providers have been exempt from state-issued orders to close businesses and shelter in place. Charter advised its employees in a memo this week that they should not be stopped by authorities from going to work.

“If authorities stop you, you should merely show them your Charter employee identification badge and explain to them that you work for a communications company that provides essential services,” Charter said in an email that employees shared with Ars. “If for some unforeseen reason you have difficulties with any law enforcement in commuting to work or carrying out your job duties, please contact your supervisor who will contact one of our attorneys right away.”

AT&T issued a similar notice to retail stores.

No free service for people with unpaid bills

Charter was also criticized by New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio for not letting customers with unpaid bills take advantage of free service during the pandemic. Charter on March 13 said it would give new customers with children in school free Internet access for 60 days. “But as teachers, elected officials, and friends directed low-income families to those companies for help, some soon learned they couldn’t take advantage of the deals… because of previously unpaid bills,” Chalkbeat reported yesterday.

Optimum, which is owned by Altice, initially imposed the same restriction but waived the rule after being contacted by Chalkbeat. “Spectrum has not yet followed suit. Mayor Bill de Blasio said Thursday evening the practice was ‘unacceptable,'” Chalkbeat reported.

We contacted Charter this morning and will update this story if the company provides more information.

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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