On April 21, 2020, the office of New York’s Attorney General Letitia James confirmed opening an inquiry into telecom company, Charter Communications, after more than 230 employees have reportedly tested positive for COVID-19. The company, also known by brand name Spectrum, was reticent to ease strict policies requiring employees to work in the office and call centers as coronavirus swept the country. Spectrum is now left to answer for their company practices that have left hundreds ill and two field employees dead. Accompanying the inquest by AG James, Spectrum will surely face future employment litigation for the workplace dangers suffered by their workforce.
Dated Corporate Policy
Spectrum provides internet, cable television, and telephone services to nearly 29 million customers—qualifying the company as essential during the pandemic. This has kept the Stamford, Connecticut-based company open for business and its 95,000 employees in 41 states reporting to work. About half of this workforce is based in call centers and the rest operate as field technicians or retail employees.
In early March 2020 as infections began to spike in the U.S., employees were questioning why they were still required to come into the office. The company was then forced to address this issue after an engineer from a Denver Spectrum office sent an email to hundreds of coworkers and executives calling their working situation, “pointlessly reckless.” Within the same day, the engineer was admonished for “inciting fear” and tendered his resignation. The following day, Spectrum’s CEO, Tom Rutledge, sent an all-company memo stating the company was preparing a work from home plan, though 80,000 employees have roles that “cannot be performed effectively from home.” The message continued to explain that another 14,000 employees did have the ability to work remotely, however, “they are more effective from the office.”
Dangers in the Workplace
As CDC guidelines became more stringent around social distancing, Spectrum issued another memo on March 19, 2020, announcing employees would be granted three weeks of paid time off to use as needed. However, the announcement also included a suggestion to salaried employees that they should use this time to work remotely.
Further announcements regarding remote working arrangements came piecemeal to various departments but the company still required over half of call center employees and management to report to the office. But outrage and concern against the company have not lessened. Increased media attention and a petition against the company’s remote work policy have put Spectrum on the offensive. A company spokeswoman speaking to the New York Times claimed a “significant majority” of employees are now operating remotely. But after shocking reports revealed over 230 employees have fallen ill— and two field technicians have died—it’s clear that change came too late.
Employment Litigation to Come
Spectrum’s lethargic response to the COVID-19 pandemic has irreparably harmed its employees and puts the corporation at risk of an abundance of legal action. As seen by the alarming volume of employee infections, Spectrum’s actions amidst a health pandemic failed to provide a workplace “free from recognized hazards,” as outlined by OSHA’s General Duty Clause. Employee safety claims and related OSHA complaints should follow this dark time for the company.
Similarly, workers’ compensation claims could cite contracting coronavirus as an “occupational disease.” These claims will allege Spectrum’s conduct related to in-office requirements was a direct factor in the spread of COVID-19 amongst employees. The plaintiffs may also rely on the CDC’s guidelines for employers during the public health crisis and argue for where Spectrum failed to take the necessary precautions for maintaining a safe workplace.
Spectrum could also face whistleblower-related litigation in the wake of the COVID-19 crisis. Though the engineer who first raised alarm bells resigned on his own accord, other employees may also voice their concerns against their employer. Should Spectrum take any retaliatory action against them, this places the company in a vulnerable spot for whistleblower protection liability. Regardless, Spectrum leadership has demonstrated a far too dated stance on the capabilities of the modern workforce and future litigation will reveal the extent of their missteps.
Expert Witnesses for COVID-19 Employment Litigation
In the face of this epic health crisis, Spectrum has shown its shortcomings in enacting reasonable safety measures for its employees. As employment and worker’s compensation cases are inevitably filed against the telecom giant, it will be critical to consult the right expert witnesses to discuss the extent to which Spectrum failed to protect its employees.
A labor and employment expert witness may be helpful for conducting workplace investigations and determining whether Spectrum was in compliance with CDC guidelines for COVID-19 safety.
An epidemiology expert witness or public health expert witness might also be able to speak to the presence of virus particles on the premises and the extent of the risk that employees were exposed to by coming into the office.