Customer service workers at E-ZPass’s Staten Island office say that the private company that operates the state’s cashless tolling system is refusing to allow them to work remotely or provide hazard pay, with some employees choosing to use personal vacation time or forgo a paycheck in order to stay out of harm’s way.
Communications Workers of America Local 1102 represents more than 280 employees who work at the E-ZPass customer-service center on Staten Island. The union and workers say that Conduent, the private contractor used by the state, has not allowed staff to work from home, even though other major communications companies such as Verizon have implemented telework amid the coronavirus pandemic.
'Treatment Not Human'
Steve Sheil, a Correspondence Clerk who has worked at the call center for seven years, said that his and his colleagues’ jobs could easily be performed remotely.
“The way they’re treating us is not human,” he said, noting that so far there had been four coronavirus cases at the center. “It’s really getting real.”
Conduent spokesman Sean Collins said that the company was in compliance with city and state coronavirus guidance. "Our employees play an integral role in our business, and their safety and well-being are our top priorities. We have taken extensive measures at all of our sites to keep employees safe, including achieving more than 60 percent of employees working from home," he said.
On March 18, Conduent closed the E-ZPass walk-in center located on a different floor in the same building as the call center after being notified of an unconfirmed case of coronavirus. But the call center remained open, with Conduent cutting the workers’ hours and spacing them out so that no worker was sitting next to another, as part of its attempt to limit the spread of the virus, according to Steve Lawton, president of Local 1102. For full-time workers, that meant their paychecks were cut due to being scheduled for 30 hours instead of 40.
“We asked for hazard pay but [Conduent] just flat-out said they weren’t interested in negotiating,” he said during a phone interview.
Mr. Lawton noted that Conduent’s handling of the pandemic highlighted that private contractors required more state scrutiny.
The union pushed for the employees to be able to work remotely, but Janay Crichlow, who has worked as a Customer Service Representative for the past year, said that management would not allow telework because staff members handled clients’ credit-card information.
“Plenty of companies deal with credit-card information so I don’t see why that’s the reason,” she said.
Mr. Lawton said the union was told that Conduent did not have the technological capability to set up telework, “but these are things we’ve overcome with other companies.”
“It just became a chain of excuses,” Ms. Crichlow added.
Staff members said their safety concerns had fallen on deaf ears. Mr. Sheil said that the company was providing gloves for workers, but both he and Mr. Lawton doubted that the level of cleaning in the space was up to par.
Conduent stated that it has increased the frequency of cleaning at the facility.
"At our Staten Island facility, 298 employees deliver critical services to support millions of motorists with tolling accounts," Mr. Collins said. "We have implemented work from home where feasible and taken a number of steps, in collaboration with the union, to protect employees at the facility to meet the requirements of our contracts while optimizing social distancing, such as modified operating hours, split and staggered shifts [and] assigned and spaced seating."
Fears Infecting Parents
Mr. Sheil lives with his parents, who are in their late 60s, as well as his siblings. “My parents are up there in age, so I’m afraid to give it to them,” he said.
Ms. Crichlow said that not long after the walk-in center was closed, she made a decision to use her vacation time so she would no longer have to return to the building. The company allowed staff to use vacation or sick time, or to take a leave with no pay, she explained.
The customer-service rep said she had asthma and lived with her grandmother; coronavirus is most dangerous to the elderly and those with serious health conditions.
“I felt as though they weren’t taking what we were saying seriously,” she said. “A lot of people are choosing to take leave without pay, because your health is way more important.”
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