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Coronavirus: Are call centre employees from Canada’s banks allowed to work from home?

Halifax call centre employee expresses concern over COVID-19 case
WATCH: An employee at the TD Insurance call centre in Halifax, claims there are still 'too many people' working in the building for him to feel safe at work. A confirmed COVID-19 case was reported at the building last week. TD Insurance says it's following public health guidelines and have updated several safety measures.

Only one of Canada’s six big banks says it is developing plans to allow some customer services employees to work from home instead of in crowded call centres —  the type of enclosed spaces with over 50 people that public health officials have urged Canadians to avoid in order to stop the spread of COVID-19.

Global News reached out to the six major Canadian banks TD, the Royal Bank of Canada, Bank of Montreal, Scotiabank, CIBC and National Bank of Canada to find out what they were doing to protect the health of thousands of call centre employees who are responding to inquiries from their customers.

All six said they have been providing essential services and dealing with high call volumes ever since the COVID-19 pandemic triggered tens of thousands of layoffs and a shutdown of multiple businesses and offices across the country.

The crisis has also prompted a flood of transactions as well as requests for emergency loans and other financial advice, the banks told Global News.

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READ MORE: TD call centre employee in Halifax tests positive for COVID-19

But none of the six big banks provided detailed explanations why their call centre employees — who don’t need to meet with clients face to face — are being asked to work from offices with dozens of colleagues at a time when the federal, provincial and territorial governments are asking Canadians to avoid gathering in crowds that could speed up the spread of COVID-19.

While many other businesses have scrambled to provide employees with tools needed to work from home, the banks are not facing any mandatory rules to protect employees, other than to ensure they are kept physically distanced.

Instead, federal public health officials have promoted voluntary guidelines for businesses, including banks, to follow in call centres and other workplaces.

RBC was the only other bank that said it was starting to allow some customer service employees to work remotely and that it was “working diligently to securely enable even more call centre staff to work from home.” RBC didn’t provide details about where and how that would be done.

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Toronto-Dominion Bank said it would be allowing all staff at a Halifax call centre for TD Insurance to work from home after staff were informed on March 27 that one of their colleagues tested positive for COVID-19.

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TD told the Halifax employees in an internal email, sent on March 30 and obtained by Global News, that it hopes to have all TD Insurance employees at that call centre working from home “over the next few weeks.”

The message was prompted by the news that one employee had tested positive for COVID-19, leading to a deep clean of the third floor of the call centre where that employee worked and forcing 15 close contacts to self-isolate.

An employee who Global News agreed not to name in order to protect their job said roughly 100 people were still working at the call centre as of April 1, and had not been following the proper health guidelines.

“We often see the people, even supervisors, are not respecting the social distancing in the office,” the employee said.

READ MORE: Halifax contact centre employee calls for temporary closure after COVID-19 diagnosis at workplace

The internal email said 182 employees of that Halifax call centre were already working from home. A TD spokesperson told Global News that common areas at the facility were closed and the remaining staff were split between four floors to “enhance physical distancing.”

But TD did not indicate any similar plans would be underway for any of its bank call centre employees.

A COVID-19 case was also identified at a CIBC call centre in Halifax in late March. A CIBC spokesperson said it had conducted a deep clean of the premises, where an employee told Global News over 100 people worked on each floor before physical distancing measures were put into place.

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Measures in place

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Public health officials across Canada have said that Canadians must aggressively practice physical distancing and remain at home as much as possible in order to slow the spread of COVID-19 and prevent it from overwhelming hospitals.

The CEOs of the six banks and several smaller financial institutions have publicly agreed they have a role to play, and have urged other businesses to follow suit.

The banks all told Global News they are taking measures to protect call centre workers. These include reconfiguring workspaces within their call centres to keep staff apart, in line with health officials’ guidelines to stay at least two metres away from each other.

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But one labour expert was skeptical about whether the measures go far enough to protect the employees in the workplace or on their commute, for those taking public transit.

“To make a flat declaration that you’re essential and therefore you’ll arrange things and we’ll have to be confident that those arrangements will be safe — I mean, let’s hope they’re right, but it’s kind of a big leap,” said Mark Thompson, a professor at the University of British Columbia’s Sauder School of Business.

TD, Scotiabank and National Bank said they have split up teams between different floors, or different locations altogether, to limit the potential spread of COVID-19.

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None of the banks beyond RBC and TD indicated working from home was even an option for these workers.

READ MORE: 4 things not to do while working at home during the COVID-19 pandemic

BMO said it needed to maintain some onsite staff “to support critical operations.” Scotiabank also called its call centres “critical.” Neither bank provided detailed explanations of those critical operations, or why they couldn’t be performed from home.

A spokesperson for RBC said a “number of considerations” are factored into allowing an employee to work from home, “including employee health and well-being, technology and business continuity, along with the need to respond to our clients.”

When pressed by Global News, National Bank and CIBC declined to explain why its call centre employees needed to do their jobs in the office.

The six banks said in addition to physical distancing measures, enhanced cleaning guidelines have also been introduced at all call centres for staff to follow.

The banks offered varying details about steps they were taking to clean and disinfect their call centres.

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BMO said all call centre facilities, personal spaces and common areas are cleaned multiple times per day. CIBC said workstations are now cleaned at the beginning and end of each shift, while cleaners are also present during the day.

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TD said the cleaning and sanitizing of all premises have been increased, and are stocking spaces with hand sanitizer and sanitizing wipes.

National Bank would only say they were promoting “basic hygiene measures” like hand washing and cleaning of surfaces. Scotiabank said they have increased sanitization and deep cleaning measures at all locations. RBC also said they have “enhanced sanitization.”

The banks are also increasing their perks for call centre staff. BMO, RBC, Scotiabank and CIBC have introduced a $50 daily stipend for each of those staff members for every day they work onsite.

CIBC has thrown in free parking. Scotiabank is stationing nurses at all call centres “to provide in-person wellbeing support for mental and physical health concerns.”

TD and CIBC are offering up to 10 paid days for anyone impacted by the pandemic, including those who are unable to secure childcare. TD is also providing free counselling.

National Bank did not say if it was offering similar incentives to its employees.

READ MORE: More Canadians afraid of becoming sick with COVID-19: poll

Only National Bank and TD would share where their call centres are located and how many people work in them. National said it has “five main teams working in different sites” across the greater Montreal area, for a total of 1,000 employees. The spokesperson would not confirm exactly how many sites were being operated, or how many employees were working in each site.

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TD said they have call centres in Moncton, N.B., Montreal, London, Ont., Ottawa and Markham, Ont., though did not share how many employees work in each, or if more than one site was operated in a single city.

The other banks did not share where their call centres are located, or even if they’re located in Canada.

In 2013, CBC reported RBC was replacing some of its Canadian staff with temporary foreign workers from India, leading to a public apology from the bank. RBC eventually walked back the plan, committing to only hiring foreign workers if Canadians aren’t available to fill that job.

Can government step in?

Along with health care, transportation, government centres and media, banks and other financial institutions have been declared essential services by the federal and provincial governments, and should therefore continue to operate.

The federal finance department referred questions about remote work for call centres to Health Canada, who in turn forwarded the query to Employment and Social Development.

In a statement, a department spokesperson said employers have been told to create or update existing hazard prevention programs in the face of the COVID-19 pandemic, and are responsible for monitoring the effectiveness of any changes to those plans.

READ MORE: Coronavirus: Finding social distancing loopholes not worth the risk, experts say

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“We recognize that many employers who are able to continue their operations during the COVID-19 crisis are going above and beyond standard health and safety measures, and are doing everything possible to accommodate reasonable requests from employees,” the statement read.

“We all have a role to play to help flatten the curve.”

Thompson, the UBC business professor, says no matter how many precautions employers may take, they’re still “taking a chance” and posing a risk to both employees and the public at large by keeping workplaces open.

He admits that banks could be worried about security breaches in not moving call centres to home, as they deal with sensitive information to confirm callers’ identities.

But he says he’s still “surprised” that a solution hasn’t been found amid months of warnings and weeks of efforts to ramp up social distancing to curb the spread of COVID-19.

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“We’re still waiting to see if these efforts work, but we should be doing as much as we can,” he said. “[The banks] are obligated to provide a safe workplace.

“If just one person contracts this disease … I guess we’ll find out then what steps they’ll take.”

Employment Canada said requirements for businesses to have all employees work from home is a provincial matter. So far, no province has made such an order, although Alberta has now made it mandatory for businesses to practice physical distancing, threatening fines for those who disobey.

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All of the provinces and territories have placed restrictions on gatherings that have led to the closure of businesses and public spaces closures, with exceptions for businesses and organizations that offer essential services.

Many provincial governments who responded to Global News said as long as workplaces, including bank call centres, can maintain physical distancing, they can continue to stay open and operate.

READ MORE: Coronavirus: Canadians should expect weeks or months of social distancing, Trudeau says

“If social distance can’t be maintained, the business must limit the number of customers or clients on its premises to no more than five people at a time,” a spokesperson for Nova Scotia’s COVID-19 response said in an email, citing that province’s social distancing guidelines.

Saskatchewan’s Ministry of Health said banks are considered an “allowable business service” in the province, along with health care, law enforcement, transportation and the media.

“We cannot speak directly to the relationship between banks and their call centre employees,” a spokesperson said.

A statement attributed to New Brunswick Labour Minister Leigh Watson said any employee concerned that their employer is violating the Employment Standards Act by forcing them to work in unsafe conditions can file a complaint with the province, or through WorkSafe.

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Yet British Columbia’s COVID-19 Joint Information Centre said all employers “should support their employees to work from home whenever it is possible,” and “ensure there are no more than 50 people working in the same confined space.”

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“Employers have a responsibility and an obligation to maintain a healthy and safe workplace for their workers,” a spokesperson said.

In March, the CEOs of all six banks signed an open letter, published in the National Post, along with roughly 100 other Canadians business leaders who urged employers to “immediately shift focus to the singular objective of slowing the pace of transmission of this coronavirus.”

“Enable your employees to practice social distancing. Facilitate work-from-home for all non-critical business functions,” the leaders stressed.

“Understand that your employees are looking to you for leadership and trusted information in turbulent times.”

— With files from Global’s Alexa MacLean and Graeme Benjamin