An AT&T employee went to work Thursday dreading the task ahead of him: handling strangers’ grubby smartphones all day, wondering if his job had made him a vector for the coronavirus.
Workers in the store had been using rubber gloves left behind by the cleaning crew days earlier. There were no caps on how many customers could be in the store at once. At times this week, the crowd reached a dozen in the relatively small space, with children running around and touching the display electronics.
The worker, who asked to speak anonymously for fear of getting in trouble, called cellphones “probably the dirtiest thing any human has on them at any time.”
“Myself and other employees really don’t want to touch other people’s phones,” he said. “When you work in an industry where you have to work on someone’s device if they have issues, it’s pretty unavoidable. Everyone is looking at customers coming in as if they are already infected. [It] has everyone scared and on edge.”
Workers around the country who don’t have the luxury of telecommuting have continued to clock in as the coronavirus outbreak spreads, wondering how essential ― and risky ― their work is during the public health crisis. Employees in wireless retail are in a unique position, not only interacting face-to-face with customers but also handling objects that modern Americans now touch probably more than anything else in their lives.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention considers cell phones “high-touch surfaces” that absorb germs and require regular cleaning, although many people never bother. AT&T advised customers to spray a non-abrasive or alcohol-based disinfectant onto a cloth to wipe down phones during the pandemic. The company also recommended people don’t pass phones around, although the company’s own employees have no other choice.
Cell service is essential for many people right now so they can reach their families, employers and doctors as the number of U.S. cases of COVID-19 grows. An AT&T spokesperson said customers and first responders consider the company’s services “invaluable at moments like this,” and that AT&T was “balancing the need to serve the public in our retail stores with the health and safety of our customers and our employees.”
But the AT&T employee said many customers were coming into the store for the most nonessential of reasons: to upgrade to the newest iPhone. And although the company announced plans Wednesday to close more than 40% of its stores during the crisis, keeping a select number of stores open from 11 a.m. to 7 p.m., memos to employees over the past week show how the company’s concerns have evolved.
Everyone is looking at customers coming in as if they are already infected.
A March 13 memo told workers to inform their health care providers and their supervisors if they feel sick, then offered tips on how to deal with customers in-store amid the pandemic.
“Let the customer open the door, greet them with a friendly and genuine hello from a safe distance (3-6 ft). No handshakes please! … Give the customer your undivided attention and eye contact. Maintain your ‘I can help you with that attitude,’ while minimizing device handoffs between you and your customers…. Offer to wipe down the customer’s device with a sanitizing wipe as a courtesy.”
The memo advised workers to be sure to wash their hands after handling a customer’s device and to wipe down the store every two hours. But it also reminded them to make new sales: “provide the customer with the personalized solution that meets their needs, leveraging our most recent promotions.” [Italics added.]
In a follow-up memo to employees on Wednesday, an AT&T executive walked back the sales push made by another company officer five days earlier.
“Let me stress that our focus is on serving customer needs in retail,” the more recent memo said. “New sales are not the priority right now.”
So far, the AT&T guidance has not limited the number of customers who can be in the store at once. A spokesperson for Verizon, which owns HuffPost, said it instituted a cap in its retail stores of no more than one customer per employee at a given time as of Tuesday. If there is already a 1:1 ratio inside, a new customer must wait until another one leaves. Like AT&T, Verizon cut back its number of open stores and their hours.
Many retailers have ramped up their paid sick leave policies amid pressure from the public and Congress. AT&T tailored one specifically for the coronavirus outbreak, providing paid time off for workers who have tested positive or shown symptoms of COVID-19, have to deal with school or child care closures, are at high risk for the disease, or meet other criteria.
But as with most retailers, there are no special offers of paid leave for workers who are simply uncomfortable working right now for fear of spreading the virus.
“People are still coming in in large groups to do something that really only requires one or two people, tops,” the AT&T worker said Thursday afternoon. “And for non-emergency reasons. They just want the latest iPhones.”
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