In the weeks since Wells Fargo decided that its workers must continue to commute into call centers despite the rising threat of coronavirus, employees for the bank have tested positive for COVID-19 at call centers in at least four different states, VICE has learned. The development has left many of the company’s own employees feeling as if their employer is making them choose between their health and their financial stability.
Wells Fargo employees at call centers in Hillsboro, Oregon, and in Phoenix, Arizona, have tested positive for the virus, a representative for the bank confirmed after an inquiry from VICE. Media outlets have also reported on positive COVID-19 tests at offices in West Des Moines, Iowa, and Charlotte, North Carolina, which VICE also confirmed.
The positive cases only seemed to confirm some workers’ worst fears about the potential for viral spread in the crowded office buildings.
“We’re all at risk right now. There’s a lot of people that go to work because we have to,” an employee at the Hillsboro call center told VICE. “We want to get paid, we want to take care of the people who depend on us. But it’s not worth it. I’ve got asthma, my son’s got asthma.”
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Last month, VICE reported that Wells Fargo employees were “terrified” about the call centers’ cramped working conditions, inadequate access to cleaning services, and lack of disinfectant supplies. The bank told VICE it could not allow the employees to work from home because of government regulations and said it was committed to adhering to social distancing measures and enhanced cleaning. It also offered extra hazard pay to workers who came in.
After the story, dozens of additional Wells Fargo employees reached out to VICE to express their own concerns with the working environment. VICE granted anonymity to employees who feared reprisal from their employer. Since the positive tests, employees at various locations have continued to come into work, said they had not seen much evidence of the company’s enhanced cleaning procedures, and were still sitting within a few feet of others until this week, when the company implemented six-foot spacing in its call centers after an inquiry by VICE.
On March 28, Wells Fargo call center employees in the bank’s Hillsboro campus received an email, which informed them that one of their co-workers had tested positive for COVID-19. The employee had last been in the office March 23, five days before. In the email, obtained by VICE, Wells Fargo detailed the company’s planned response, which included asking the employee to stay home for 14 days, sending home anyone who “has been in prolonged, close contact with this employee,” and performing a deep clean.
But in the same email, the company also told employees that the floor where the sick employee had worked—and where hundreds continued to work—would remain “fully operational.”
The news concerned call center employees, who confronted management on multiple occasions when the company did not immediately implement a six-foot separation between employees after the employee tested positive, three people told VICE.
Wells Fargo told VICE in a statement that after an employee tests positive for COVID-19, the company completes “a comprehensive disinfection protocol in the location, including in common areas, and we have on-site monitoring to confirm the cleaning is completed per the protocol.” The company said this cleaning is mostly performed “after hours, when employees are not in the office.”
Hillsboro employees themselves said they could find no signs of a deep cleaning several days after the employee tested positive. One said she had communicated with employees working different shifts, who could find no evidence either.
Oregon Gov. Kate Brown had called for the closure of all unnecessary businesses days before the employee had tested positive, but the bank continued to require workers to come into work afterward. Why the hell are we still here? one of the Hillsboro employees found themselves wondering.
While the bank implemented six-foot spacing this week, according to three sources in Hillsboro, Wells Fargo’s handling of the situation has disappointed employees. The bank had previously adopted the tagline "Wells Fargo, established 1852. Re-established 2018” in an attempt to move on from a fake-accounts scandal that led to the previous CEO’s dismissal.
“We’ve already been in a lot of hot water,” the first Hillsboro call center employee said. “We’re supposed to be changing things. We’re supposed to be going in a different direction.”
Carl Sandstrom, a Wells Fargo employee at Hillsboro, said that many employees still feel at risk. Sandstrom also works with the Committee for Better Banks, a coalition of workers and organizations working to improve the material conditions in the bank industry. He said Wells Fargo should invest the necessary resources to allow call center employees to work from home and protect their health.
“We’re not facing customers. It’s an unnecessary risk to us and our families to be in a call center where we’re still breathing in recycled air,” he told VICE.
In a statement, a Wells Fargo representative defended the company’s decision to continue to require call center workers come into work, saying their services are particularly “critical and essential” at a time when customers’ requests for help are near “record highs.”
To combat coronavirus, Wells Fargo currently guarantees extra paid time off for people who have tested positive for COVID-19, those who have been advised by a health organization or health care provider to self-isolate, and those who fall into high-risk categories. The representative added that the company had established protocols for workers in accordance with CDC guidelines and is working to expand employees’ ability to work remotely.
“[W]e have taken significant actions to protect employees, including social distancing, staggering staff and shifts and enabling more employees to work from home,” the representative said.
But employee concerns were largely the same in Charlotte, North Carolina, after a company spokesman told the Charlotte Observer on March 31 that two local employees had tested positive for COVID-19. The employees hadn’t been in the office since March 12 and 13, the spokesman told the newspaper, and the company decided to keep the Charlotte office open, as well as the floors that the two employees had been working on.
A Wells Fargo employee who worked on the same floor as one of the Charlotte employees who tested positive for COVID-19 said he felt his superiors minimized his fears. The employee said he and his co-workers continued to sit as close as three feet apart on floors that hold over 100 people and cleaning supplies like disinfectant wipes were difficult to locate.
“There’s no cleanliness,” he told VICE. “They say they have enhanced cleaning. They have two people who walk around the office. They have a mask on, some gloves, and they aren’t actually cleaning. They are taking a dry rag, and they have disinfectant in their hand but they’re not using it.”
Wells Fargo, the fourth-largest call center employer in the United States, is not alone in considering their employees essential when other workers have been sent home. A representative for AT&T, the country’s second-largest call center employer, outlined policies to VICE that were largely similar to Wells Fargo’s policies, saying AT&T had made adjustments including enhanced cleaning, greater separation of employees, and bonus pay.
Even still, employees working in various outposts of the country’s fourth-largest bank fear their offices could become the next location where an employee might test positive for COVID-19. Wells Fargo sent an email to all employees on March 23 stating that thousands of cleaning supplies were on the way to offices across the country. But one longtime Wells Fargo employee in El Monte, a city in Southern California’s San Gabriel Valley, said they had yet to come.
The El Monte employee’s manager wrote in an email obtained by VICE that there was no known date for the arrival of new supplies and that employees were “on their own.” Workers subsequently began to try to buy their own disinfecting supplies to use at work, which the manager said the company would reimburse for. (A Wells Fargo representative noted in a statement that the company has shipped more than “100,000 units of hand sanitizer pumps, disinfectant wipes and other supplies” to locations where employees continue to work.”)
In San Antonio, where Wells Fargo is the fourth-largest employer in the city, one employee told VICE he left the company entirely after what he saw as the company’s mishandling of a co-worker who had come into close contact with someone who had tested positive for COVID-19. The now-former employee said he was told to sit in a room for hours with the person who reported verified contact with a positive COVID-19 case before management sent the other employee home, and that employees were warned by management to keep quiet about the incident.
In emails provided to VICE, the employee—whose fiancé is considered high-risk—raised his concerns about his colleague and the lack of deep cleaning to the recruiter who managed his relationship with the company. In response, the recruiter tried to assure him by saying that the employee was sent home and wasn’t symptomatic. (Coronavirus can be transmitted asymptomatically.)
Another San Antonio call center worker who takes personal-banking calls fears contracting the virus and bringing it home to her elderly parents. She said she feels she cannot afford to quit her job. “It’s frustrating because I know people who are higher up, they have the ability to work from home,” the employee told VICE.
One Hillsboro employee who works in debt collections said the situation has been made all the more absurd by the functions he is asked to complete once he commutes into the office. The employee’s job is to collect the debts of the deceased from their remaining family members.
“We are still being told to continue filing claims and to continue calling family members to pressure them to pay the debts of the decedents,” the employee said. “Some cases are individuals who have died from COVID-19.”
In response, Wells Fargo said the company provides “compassionate care and probate solutions.”
Correction: An earlier version of this post misquoted the Wells Fargo misrepresentative and said the company had shipped 10,000 units of hand sanitizer pumps. It has shipped 100,000 units.
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