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Are Customer Service Agents Deemed “Essential Workers”?

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Matt Wujciak


Editor’s Note: No.

A call for digital transformation

As the continued spread of the novel coronavirus disrupts workflow management and demands miraculous operational shifts from industries around the globe, the customer service department can’t seem to find its place.

Approximately 90 percent of global organizations currently use an on-premises solution for their contact centers (as a primary means of consumer engagement), leaving them ill-equipped to manage unpredictable call volume, digitization, and remote work - that has now been behooved by the apocalyptic COVID-19 virus.

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As you might guess, call volume, support tickets, and general customer service inquiries are beginning to decrease substantially, as the spread of the disease continues to shift consumer behavior trends. However, that doesn’t mean the contact center is out of work. As you’ll see in our upcoming CCW Digital Market Study, calls are becoming more difficult for agents, requiring personalization like you’ve never seen before, emotional empathy, considerably more customer data to solve complex issues, enhanced omnichannel capabilities to solve “simple” ones, and adaptation to remote working. 

As brands scramble to adjust to unfortunate economic circumstances, remote work, and digital transformation, they’re desperately attempting to provide customers with services throughout the disastrous pandemic. 

Whether you need to get a hold of a customer service agent, or a therapist, social distancing remains a point of emphasis for most.

Many of our clients are shining, adapting swiftly, offering temporary free products, and providing the world with remote contact center solutions during times of desperate need. 

Unfortunately, others are not

Many agents still forced to work on-site

As the coronavirus has shuttered swaths of America's offices, many workers in corporate “call centers” (not the digital omnichannel contact centers that will survive the pandemic) say they are still expected to work on site, risking their own health. Call centers have been deemed "essential" by many, such as the Department of Homeland Security, but employees with little paid sick leave say they feel forced to work (in constant fear of infection) in order to keep customer service lines functioning smoothly.

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As states from coast to coast closed businesses in order to try to restrain the spread of the disease, call center workers across the country recently told In These Times that their standard jobs were continuing. 

“Many said that the policies instituted by their employers were wildly insufficient for protecting employees from the scale and danger of this pandemic. One person who works as a customer service rep at a Kansas call center for the government contractor Maximus, said that employees were told late last week that they could apply for leave for childcare reasons after schools shut down, but that the process was broken.”

Cassie Ludwig, who works at a Maximus call center in Kentucky, said that she is required to work 30 hours a week to qualify for health insurance, and she now fears losing it when she needs it most. 

"I got a schedule change because the schools in our area are closed due to COVID-19, but if I don't work the minimum hours and fall ill, I won't be able to afford treatment." 

(A Maximus spokesperson said that the company's updated sick leave grants up to 80 hours of paid leave to employees who are self-quarantined or forced to care for sick family members, and that "if an employee needs to take COVID related leave their health insurance coverage continues.")

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Additionally, many call center agents and front-line employees for Wells Fargo are spending their days grasping for clarity on whether they could keep themselves safe without facing unemployment.

Multiple California counties recently issued “shelter-in-place” orders. As seen in a recent CCW Digital article, that same day, Wells Fargo San Francisco bank’s head of consumer lending, Mary Mack, told employees in her division, in an email obtained by VICE, that the “branch, contact center, and operations center employees are considered ‘essential’ and exempt from the counties’ orders.”

The bigger picture

Looming essential worker benefits (such as health insurance) over front-line employees’ heads or even additional compensation does not serve customer service agents justice for putting their health at risk. The truth is, you can’t serve them justice for putting their health at risk because employee health should not be a negotiable compensation. 

While many brands are investing millions in their employees during the pandemic, offering new work-at-home (WAH) and PTO policies (such as Walmart, Amazon, Google, Microsoft, Twitter, and Kroger to name a few), Wells Fargo, The Department of Homeland Security, and many more contact centers are refusing to invest in the remote era of digital working. 

As CCW Digital Principal Analyst, Brian Cantor, recently stated regarding contingency plans (such as implementation of AI-driven infrastructures and remote capabilities), “The pandemic is reminding the industry that it is actually a need-to-have.”

In other words, if you’re a contact center or customer service department that doesn’t have AI-driven infrastructures, a virtual solution provider, effective digital channels, and cloud-based communication to operate from anywhere, COVID-19 is your wake-up call – for the health of your business and employees.