Call centers become front line of banks' COVID-19 battle as first workers test positive

©The Charlotte Observer

CHARLOTTE, N.C. — With millions of Americans unemployed as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, bank call centers are swarmed with thousands of requests to delay mortgage payments, get fee waivers and help people sort out the biggest economic dislocation in recent memory.

On top of that, their branches are generally thought of, by both the public and government as “essential,” meaning they have to figure out a way to keep them open, hygienic and safe.

And after Wells Fargo disclosed this week that two workers tested positive for the virus at its large customer service campus in Charlotte, N.C., and another worker tested positive at Wells call center in Iowa, tensions are running high for those who have to keep going into the office.

The pandemic has created a tricky balancing act for financial institutions: How do you assist millions of customers who need help, and in some cases are obligated to it, while maintaining workplace safety in a pandemic for jobs traditionally done in person?

Banks have responded by hiking pay, closing or restricting access to branches and doing their best to enforce social distancing while trying to convert many remaining in-office jobs to work-from-home.

Still, with call volume at record highs and waits stretching into the hours, the crisis is testing every bank’s customer service.

Take Wells Fargo, the country’s biggest mortgage lender with the largest branch network. It closed some branches, and moved staff to busier ones. Other banks are limiting branch access to appointments only, beefing up their online tools or allowing just drive-thru banking.

Hazard pay

Most banks have started paying branch bankers a sort of hazard pay, extra money for those who have to interact with people regularly, including tellers.

Wells, like most banks, has increased its branch cleaning, and tries to mandate social distancing in its branches.

As for its call centers, Wells is using distancing, offset shifts and amped up cleaning. But call centers, for the most part, are still an in-person business, particularly for banks.

Banks prefer to record every call a customer has with it, for legal protection. Combine that with the specialized software and hardware needed for the work, and it has not made economic sense for them to make the jobs remote.

But call centers, which can house thousands of workers at a time, are often one of the largest regular gatherings of people in any area.

For example, Wells Fargo’s Customer Information Center in Charlotte’s University City houses about 9,000 full-time workers, many of whom are still going into the campus regularly. Many work in the bank’s call center. Two workers at the campus tested positive for COVID-19, the company said Tuesday.

The employees had not been in the office since March 12 and 13, and are being monitored by public health authorities, the bank said. Bank spokesman Peter Gilchrist didn’t say if the employees were symptomatic while they were working at the office.

During a pandemic, two co-workers testing positive is bound to make people nervous. Some Wells employees wonder why a job conducted on a headset and computer can’t be done from home.

“The logistics of having things recorded from home and keeping the security of their financial information are not impossible,” said Carl Sandstrom, a case specialist at Wells Fargo who works at an office in Hillsboro, Ore.

“Amidst the pandemic, Wells Fargo needs to invest in its front-line workers and treat them as essential. That doesn’t necessarily mean working from home, but that’s not an unreasonable thing considering the resources of Wells Fargo,” said Sandstrom, a member of the Committee for Better Banks, which is trying to organize the bank.

Already, Wells Fargo has started to pay some “front-line” workers that have to be in the office an extra $200 every other week. At Bank of America, call center workers are getting double overtime during the pandemic.

Pilot program

Wells Fargo has a small pilot program ongoing for workers in contact centers (banker speak for call centers) to work from home, according to Mary Mack, the bank’s Charlotte-based CEO of Consumer & Small Business Banking.

The bank is experiencing record call volume in some areas, Mack said in an interview, and will start to expand work-from-home for some call center workers in the “coming days and weeks.”

“It’s an investment in the computers, the systems, the headsets, the encryptions, the tables, the desks. It’s all of that,” Mack said, in an interview before the positive tests were disclosed.

Meanwhile, they’ve taken tape measures and made sure that all call center workers are spaced at least six feet apart, Mack said.

“Customers are concerned they want help and support,” Mack said. “When we have those calls, we’re balancing the social distancing we’ve put in place in all of contact centers across the country with customer queues and how we can serve customers.”

Bank of America has a program that lets many of its customer service workers do their job remote, “where it makes sense,” according to spokesman Bill Halldin. The bank also has amped up its cleaning and increased social distancing, he said.

Truist is increasing the capacity for its call center employees to work from home too, spokesman Kyle Tarrance said, and is spreading its workers across more sites to space people out. The bank has also stopped in-person team meetings and ended desk sharing, he said.

It could cost between $3,000 to $5,000 to convert a call center worker to work-from-home, according to Bruce Morehead, a former executive at Washington Mutual and Columbia Bank. Even then, the process would still take weeks.

It’s a cultural shift for many in the financial services industry, which has outsourced thousands of call center jobs to the developing world in recent decades.

“Any business, especially a bank, that has been designated as essential by local governments will rely on its contact center now, more than ever,” Morehead said.

Despite the high call volume and heightened anxiety of a pandemic, workers feel the sense of purpose as well.

“I don’t think there’s any question as to the essential nature of what we’re doing here,” Sandstrom said. “We want to be sure that our American financial system keeps working.”

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©2020 The Charlotte Observer (Charlotte, N.C.)