A call–centre company that employs almost a thousand New Brunswickers says it's ramping up efforts to keep its staff two metres apart but it's still a work in progress.
Nordia Inc. says some employees in its Moncton and Saint John call centres have been sitting only 1.4 metres apart, contrary to COVID-19 recommendations from public health officials.
But the company is urging them to spread out "to the extent possible" and "has moved" to increase the distance to two metres, said spokesperson Philip van Leeuwen.
He said the employees 1.4 metres apart are facing their screens, not each other.
Last week van Leeuwen told CBC News that "very few" Nordia employees were able to work from home, and said he wasn't aware of anyone in the Saint John centre who could.
But in light of increasingly strict recommendations and orders, the company is now "aggressively rolling out a work-at-home initiative which will directly further mitigate this issue," he said in answers sent by email. He refused an interview request.
Nordia employs about 400 people in Saint John and about 570 in Moncton, almost a quarter of its national workforce.
The scramble for distance highlights the dilemma facing the call centre industry, one of New Brunswick's biggest but most invisible job sectors.
It employs between 19,000 and 20,000 people, according to Jason Purdy, executive director of the industry association ContactNB.
In some centres, employees work closely together. But many of the centres, including Nordia, provide essential services and can't simply shut down. Nordia handles calls for organizations such as Bell Canada and Canada Post.
Purdy says ContactNB recently surveyed its members about COVID-19 and found about 80 per cent of their workers are at home.
"It's business as usual, running on skeleton crews, just trying to keep up with the demand of our customers," he said.
Most centres already had continuity plans so they could function in situations like a snowstorm when employees could not make it to work.
"We've long been prepared for these types of things," Purdy said. "Where we handle the North American market, we don't have the option of going down."
Nordia had 50 people working from home last Friday. Van Leeuwen said that number had reached 811 on Tuesday, though the company's website says the number was 480.
He said the goal was a thousand people, or one-quarter of the Canadian workforce, by Thursday.
"Moving those agents home will permit further distancing in the workplace," he said.
On March 18, Nordia CEO John DiNardo posted a message to the company's website describing a company protocol including "a minimum distance of more than 1 m between employee seating."
Van Leeuwen said "those were within accepted public health guidelines" on March 18.
However, Chief Medical Officer of Health Dr. Jennifer Russell said six days earlier, on March 12, that New Brunswickers should socially distance "ideally to two metres."
On March 19, New Brunswick declared a provincial emergency and ordered employers to "take every reasonable step to ensure minimal interaction of people within 2 metres of each other."
After CBC News asked about the one-metre reference in DiNardo's March 18 note, it was updated to say employees should respect "a minimum distance of 2 m in the workplace."
In another statement on the company's website, the company says it faces "a delicate balancing act" between protecting the livelihood of its employees and serving people who depend on Nordia's services during the COVID-19 crisis.
Nordia has been doing extra cleaning of its two centres and has been checking the temperatures of employees arriving at work. Those who have a temperature are sent home, the company says.
"No employee is required to come to work," it adds in the note on its website. "Any employee who is not able or not comfortable coming into work can elect to stay at home. We respect their decision and they will not be subject to any disciplinary action."
In 2015, Nordia was promised payroll rebates of up to $850,000 from Opportunities New Brunswick for 405 new hirings in the two locations.
Van Leeuwen did not respond to a question about whether employees choosing or required to stay at home would receive paid leave.
High call volume
Other call centres in the province have seen different impacts of the COVID-19 outbreak.
Air Canada's centre in Saint John is busier than usual and employees are being asked to volunteer to work extra hours.
"Our call volume is currently high while we are working hard to repatriate Canadians," said spokesperson Pascale Déry. She said social-distancing and sanitary rules were in place.
UPS, which has 450 people working at a centre in Fredericton, said in a statement to CBC News that it is cleaning and disinfecting workspaces and following World Health Organization and Canadian protocols on hygiene and social distancing.
The company has been designated a "critical infrastructure business" by governments around the world and is continuing to operate, though many employees are working from home.
Meanwhile, Wyndham's call centre for hotel reservations, also in Saint John, is less busy because conventional travel has largely dried up, Purdy said. Employees are working from home.
Other centres find themselves near the front lines of the pandemic.
Michael Moffatt, the IT director at Synoptek's Saint John centre, says his team provides support for a Colorado-based company that uses radiologists to read X-rays and MRI scans for doctors.
"When their services don't work, people in ERs get delayed care, and the IT support for those kinds of customers becomes a very real life-and-death proposition," he said.
Even so, about 90 to 95 per cent of his team, and the vast majority of Synoptek's overall workforce in Saint John, has been able to work at home.
"We're not just using it as a passive option," he said. "We're totally embracing the self-isolation.
"The reality is, if 98 per cent of the people decide to self-isolate and two per cent decide to come to the office and spread out all over the place, they're kind of self-isolating too. They're just self-isolating in a different place."
Purdy said most workstations in centres are already two metres apart to avoid sound from nearby workstations getting picked up on calls.
"The spacing already exists but [some members] have elongated it a lot more. They're keeping one pod empty and moving to another space."
Service New Brunswick call centres are also adopting COVID-19 protocols including giving employees wipes to clean their workspaces, restricting the use of common areas, spreading some workstations further apart and letting some people work at home, according to spokesperson Jason Hoyt.
Call-centre companies are allowed to lay off workers without notice during the outbreak because it's considered an unforeseen circumstance under the Employment Standards Act, according to Erika Jutras of the Department of Post-Secondary Education, Training and Labour.
WorkSafe NB is responsible for enforcing the province's directives for social distancing in workplaces, she said.
Jutras said it would not be appropriate for the department to comment on whether the Labour and Employment Board has received any complaints from call-centre employees about working conditions because the board is independent.