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Wells Fargo workers contemplate using sick time to avoid dangerous office conditions

PMG PHOTO: CHRIS OERTELL - The William Barnhart Center in Hillsboro, which houses a Wells Fargo call center. Employees at the company's call centers say they are worried about the risk of reporting for work alongside hundreds of other employees in close quarters amid an outbreak of COVID-19.Gov. Kate Brown's March 23 stay-home order carved out exemptions for several industries, including the financial sector. Still, those exemptions have put employees at odds with their employers.

Wells Fargo employees at the company's three bustling call centers in Washington County and Portland say the company hasn't allowed the bulk of its employees to work from home, because they're considered essential.

At a banking call center in Hillsboro, employees describe "hundreds" of people in close quarters on the same floor of the building. Some say they're faced with risking their health or using up paid sick leave to avoid the office.

"One of our co-workers believes their spouse has the COVID-19 virus, and they have gone to HR and management and were told they need to keep coming into work until there's a positive diagnosis," a call center employee stated in correspondence to the company. "We aren't practicing social distancing here in our building. …"

Employees who spoke on condition of anonymity say they're worried about catching the virus at work and spreading it to their families.

Samantha, whose last name is being withheld for fear of retribution, said her husband works at one of the company's call centers in Washington County — the epicenter of Oregon's COVID-19 outbreak.

He doesn't interact with customers face-to-face, but instead does account servicing — primarily debt collecting — over the phone from a cubicle alongside hundreds of others on the same floor, with little separation.

She's pregnant and has three young children, including a 6-year-old with an autoimmune disorder. People of any age with compromised immune systems are at greater risk from the novel coronavirus, which causes COVID-19. Those who are pregnant should be monitored and may be at heightened risk for viral illnesses, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Samantha said she's worried about her husband contracting the disease at work and infecting someone else in the family. "There are about 200 people on his floor. On Monday, he asked (the company) about options," she said. "The next day, they sent an email saying some people would get to work from home."

But her husband wasn't one of them. Instead, the company's human resources department offered for him to use up to 14 days of accrued sick leave, or have a desk farther away from co-workers.

Statewide complaints

The call center is just one of a slew of complaints made to the state recently about potentially unsafe working conditions since the COVID-19 outbreak.

Since the first case was reported in Oregon in late February, the state's Occupational Safety and Health Administration has been flooded with complaints from employees who say their employers aren't complying with the state orders. Many come from employees classified as essential, who say little to no accommodations have been made for essential workers who are at risk of exposure to the virus at their job sites, or while performing work off-site, like deliveries.

As of Friday, March 20, the state agency had received more than 100 complaints related to potential virus exposure. Complaints ranged from inadequate personal protective equipment to insufficient distancing or disinfection at work sites, state records show. Six of the complaints involved call centers like the ones Wells Fargo operates.

The state agency says it has assigned 75 compliance officers to handle incoming complaints.

Aaron Corvin, a public information officer for OSHA, told a Pamplin Media Group reporter the agency now anticipates "hundreds of complaints per day."

"Within a 24-hour period in the Portland field office, we had over 400 complaints. … It's an all-hands-on-deck situation for us," Corvin said.

The state's caseload doesn't do much to assuage the unease of those hoping for solutions.

While some essential businesses, including a few grocery chains, have implemented new protocols in an effort to protect employees, others have been slow or nonresponsive.

"(Employees) have been asking for weeks now since the first case in Oregon, about working from home," Samantha said of the banking call centers. "They're not making any efforts to separate people while going to the bathroom or kitchen. They're still having their meetings once a week where they all stand in a circle and talk about what's going on."

Another Wells Fargo employee who agreed to speak on background voiced similar concerns, saying the workspace set up was noncompliant with social distancing guidelines. The call center worker said some have resorted to using their paid time off to avoid what they see as an unsafe workplace.

"The company is operating business as usual," the employee said. "There are multiple training classes going on per day … there are bathroom scenarios. There's just no way to keep six feet between us at all times."

A representative for Wells Fargo said the health of employees is the banking company's "top priority" and the company is taking action to protect its employees from exposure to COVID-19. Still, the call centers aren't likely to be closed.

"Wells Fargo and the services we provide through our branches, contact centers and operations centers are critical and essential services to the stability of the economy and the financial well-being of our customers," said David Kennedy, regional communications officer for the company.

"We are doing and will continue to do all we can to enable as many employees as possible to work from home. We have asked that non-customer-facing employees with remote access work from home. However, not all jobs can be done from home," he said.

"As we are able, we will continue to reduce in-office staffing. For example, we are exploring innovative ways to allow some contact center employees to work from home while adhering to regulations requiring that contact center lines be recorded."

For its employees who can't work remotely, Wells Fargo said it is implementing "enhanced social distancing, staggered shifts, and an enhanced cleaning program."

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