Only one in six major Canadian banks says it is developing plans to allow some customer service employees to work from home instead of in busy call centers – a type of enclosed space with more than 50 people whose public health officials have urged Canadians to avoid stop spreading COVID-19.
Global News reaches out to six major Canadian banks – TD, Royal Bank of Canada, Bank of Montreal, Scotiabank, CIBC and National Bank of Canada – to find out what they do to protect the health of thousands of call center employees who respond to inquiries from their customers.
The sixth said they had provided important services and dealt with high call volumes since the COVID-19 pandemic sparked tens of thousands of layoffs and the closure of several businesses and offices throughout the country.
The crisis has also prompted a flood of transactions and requests for emergency loans and other financial advice, the banks told Global News.
But none of the six major banks gives a detailed explanation of why their call center employees are – who do not need to meet with clients in person – are asked to work from offices with dozens of colleagues when federal, provincial and territorial governments ask Canadians to avoid gathering in a crowd that can accelerate the spread of COVID-19.
Although many other businesses are trying to provide employees with the tools needed to work from home, banks do not face mandatory regulations to protect employees, other than to ensure that they maintain physical distance.
In contrast, federal public health officials have promoted voluntary guidelines for businesses, including banks, to attend call centers and other workplaces.
RBC is the only other bank that says it has begun to allow some customer service employees to work remotely and that it “works diligently to enable safer call center staff to work from home.” RBC does not provide details about where and how it will be done.
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The Toronto-Dominion Bank said it would allow all staff at the Halifax call center for TD Insurance to work from home after staff were told on March 27 that one of their colleagues was positive for COVID-19.
TD told Halifax employees in an internal email, sent on March 30 and obtained by Global News, that they expect all TD Insurance employees at the call center to work from home “for the next few weeks.”
The message was triggered by news that one employee tested positive for COVID-19, which led to a deep cleaning of the third floor of the call center where the employee worked and forced 15 close contacts to isolate themselves.
An employee who Global News agreed not to name to protect their work said around 100 people were still working at the call center on April 1, and had not followed proper health guidelines.
“We often see people, even supervisors, not respecting social distance at the office,” the employee said.
An internal email said that 182 Halifax call center employees were working from home. A TD spokesman told Global News that the public area at the facility was closed and the remaining staff was divided between four floors to “increase physical distance.”
But TD did not indicate a similar plan would be carried out for its bank call center employees.
COVID-19 case also identified at the CIBC call center in Halifax at the end of March. A CIBC spokeswoman said it had carried out a deep cleaning at the site, where an employee told Global News that more than 100 people worked on each floor before physical distance steps were taken.
Action on the spot
Public health officials across Canada say that Canadians must aggressively practice physical distance and stay at home as much as possible to slow the spread of COVID-19 and prevent it from over-hospital.
CEOs of six banks and several small financial institutions have openly agreed that they have a role to play, and have urged other businesses to follow suit.
All banks told Global News that they are taking steps to protect call center workers. This includes reconfiguring workspaces within their call centers to separate staff, in accordance with the guidelines of health officials to remain at least two meters from each other.
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But a labor expert is skeptical about whether the steps are far enough to protect employees at work or on their journey, for those who use public transportation.
“To make a flat statement that you are important and therefore you will arrange everything and we must be sure that the arrangements will be safe – I mean, hopefully they are right, but this is a kind of big leap,” said Mark Thompson, a professor at Sauder School of Business at the University of British Columbia.
TD, Scotiabank and National Bank said they had divided teams between different floors, or different locations together, to limit the potential spread of COVID-19.
There are no banks outside the RBC and TD that indicate working from home is even an option for these workers.
BMO said it was necessary to retain some staff on site “to support critical operations.” Scotiabank also called his call center “critical.” No bank provided a detailed description of these critical operations, or why they could not be carried out from home.
An RBC spokesman said “a number of considerations” were taken into account to enable employees to work from home, “including employee health and well-being, technology and business continuity, along with the need to respond to our clients.”
When pressured by Global News, National Bank and CIBC refused to explain why call center employees need to do their work in the office.
Six banks said in addition to physical distance measures, improved cleaning guidelines have also been introduced at all call centers for staff to follow.
The banks offer various details about the steps they take to clean and disinfect their call centers.
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BMO said all call center facilities, private rooms and public areas were cleaned several times per day. CIBC says workstations are now cleaned at the beginning and end of each shift, while cleaners are also available during the day.
TD said cleaning and sanitizing all places has been improved, and providing space with hand sanitizers and cleaning wipes.
National Bank will only say they promote “basic hygiene measures” such as washing hands and cleaning surfaces. Scotiabank said they had improved sanitation and clean-up measures in all locations. RBC also said they had “improved sanitation.”
The banks also improved their facilities for call center staff. BMO, RBC, Scotiabank and CIBC have introduced a $ 50 allowance every day for each staff member for each day they work on the premises.
CIBC has thrown free parking. Scotiabank puts nurses in all call centers “to provide personal welfare support for mental and physical health problems.”
TD and CIBC offer up to 10 days of payment to anyone affected by the pandemic, including those who cannot secure childcare. TD also provides free counseling.
The National Bank does not say whether it offers the same incentives to its employees.
Only National Bank and TD will share the location of their call centers and how many people work in them. National said it had “five main teams working in various locations” throughout the Montreal area, with a total of 1,000 employees. The spokesman will not confirm with certainty how many locations are operated, or how many employees work in each location.
TD said they have call centers in Moncton, N.B., Montreal, London, Ontario, Ottawa and Markham, Ontario, although they do not share how many employees work in each, or if more than one site is operated in one city.
Other banks do not share where their call centers are located, or even if they are located in Canada.
In 2013, CBC reported RBC replaced some Canadian staff with temporary foreign workers from India, which caused a public apology from the bank. RBC finally walk back on the plan, is committed to only hiring foreign workers if Canadians are not available to fill the work.
Can the government intervene?
Along with health care, transportation, government centers and the media, banks and other financial institutions have been declared important services by the federal and provincial governments, and must therefore continue to operate.
The federal finance department refers questions about remote employment to call centers to Health Canada, which in turn forwards questions to Employment and Social Development.
In a statement, a department spokesman said employers had been asked to create or update existing hazard prevention programs in the face of the COVID-19 pandemic, and were responsible for monitoring the effectiveness of any changes to the plan.
“We recognize that many employers who can continue their operations during the COVID-19 crisis exceed and exceed health and safety standards, and do everything possible to accommodate reasonable requests from employees,” the statement said.
“We all have a role to play to help level the curve.”
Thompson, UBC’s business professor, said no matter how many precautions employers can take, they still “take risks” and pose risks to employees and the wider community by keeping the workplace open.
He acknowledged that banks could worry about security breaches in not moving the call center to the house, because they deal with sensitive information to confirm the caller’s identity.
But he said he was still “surprised” that a solution had not been found amid warnings and weeks of efforts to increase social distance to curb the spread of COVID-19.
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“We are still waiting to see if this effort is successful, but we must do as much as we can,” he said. “[The banks] must provide a safe workplace.
“If only one person catches this disease … I think we will find out what steps they will take.”
Canadian Employment says the requirement for businesses to make all of their employees work from home is a provincial issue. So far, no province has made such orders, although Alberta has now obliged companies to practice physical distance, threatening fines for those who do not comply.
All provinces and territories have limited meetings which lead to business closures and public space closures, with the exception of businesses and organizations that offer important services.
Many provincial governments that responded to Global News said that as long as the workplace, including the bank’s call center, could maintain a physical distance, they could continue to remain open and operational.
“If social distance cannot be maintained, businesses must limit the number of customers or clients at the site to no more than five people at once,” a spokesman for Nova Scotia’s COVID-19 response said in an email, arguing that the provincial social distance guidelines.
The Saskatchewan Ministry of Health said the bank was considered “permissible business services” in the province, along with health care, law enforcement, transportation and media.
“We cannot talk directly with the relationship between banks and their call center employees,” a spokesman said.
A statement attributed to New Brunswick Labor Minister Leigh Watson said that every employee who was worried that their employer violated the Labor Standards Act by forcing them to work in unsafe conditions could file complaints to the province, or through WorkSafe.
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But the British Columbia COVID-19 Joint Information Center said all employers “must support their employees to work from home whenever possible,” and “ensure that no more than 50 people work in the same confined space.”
“Employers have the responsibility and obligation to maintain a healthy and safe workplace for their workers,” said a spokeswoman.
In March, CEOs of all six banks signed an open letter, published in National Post, along with around 100 other Canadian business leaders who urged entrepreneurs to “immediately shift focus to the single goal of slowing down the rate of transmission of the corona virus.”
“Enabling your employees to practice maintaining social distance. Facilitating work-from-home for all business functions that are not important,” leaders stressed.
“Understand that your employees are looking for reliable leadership and information in turbulent times.”
– With files from Global Alexa MacLean and Graeme Benjamin
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