Supervisors at a GC Services call center apparently hoodwinked a city inspection team Thursday by sending call takers on break before inspectors made the rounds to see if the company was adhering to social distancing and other regulations imposed in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic.
According to one witness who spoke with El Paso Inc. extensively last week about the GC Services call center at 1570 Lionel on condition of anonymity, supervisors told employees in every other work station to take their break, room by room, in advance of the team’s inspection.
“So the inspectors saw nothing wrong because there was space between each of the workers,” she said. “A lot of people were getting mad because they could see the management telling people to go on break just to keep the inspectors from seeing them working together.”
What was strange, she said, is that none of the inspectors noticed the purses and personal effects left behind in the empty workstations.
El Paso Inc.’s inquiry about the inspection went to a GC Services supervisor on Friday, Rosanna Franklin, who said, “We’re not aware of anything that transpired that way.”
The company describes itself online as the largest privately held outsourcing provider of call center management and collection agency services in North America. It employs more than 1,000 people in El Paso.
The inspection team left the GC operation at 1570 Lionel Dr. without issuing a citation, as inspection teams have done more than 7,300 times in El Paso County since site checks began about three weeks ago.
In that time, they have issued two citations – but none to a call center, said El Paso Fire Marshal Lt. Robert Jones.
If the account of what happened at the GC call center Thursday proves true, Jones said, “That is unfortunate. They’re getting by by cheating the system, but they’re actually going to hurt their employees should this virus be contracted by one of them, being so close together.”
The GC Services employee who told El Paso Inc. what happened Thursday sent an update Friday, saying, “They separated us today, which is a surprise, but it doesn’t look like they have enough seats to separate us.”
Jones made no apologies for the small number of citations issued by the inspection teams, saying simply, “We have focused on call centers because we have so many complaints and concerns coming in.”
He didn’t have a count of those complaints, but a call taker on the city’s COVID-19 hotline said they have received many complaints about working conditions at call centers in El Paso, including GC Services’ Lionel Drive operation, one of GC’s four call centers on the Eastside.
New regulations adopted by the city, county and state allow only “essential businesses” to remain open during the COVID-19 crisis.
Jones explained that while call centers are not essential in their own right, they are allowed to remain open because they serve essential businesses, handling medical collections, information technology and financing for cars, homes and businesses.
New rules for businesses continuing to operate during the coronavirus threat require them to take good care of their employees by providing clean workplaces and a six-foot social distance buffer between workers, among other safeguards.
But six employees at GC Services call center on Lionel Drive who were interviewed by El Paso Inc. in the parking lot after getting off work Wednesday all said they were still working side-by-side and scared about getting sick with COVID-19.
“I’m the one that’s going to take it home because I’m the only one who’s out working right now,” said the first employee interviewed.
The big problem, she and the others said that day, is that nearly all the call takers sit two-feet apart or less while taking calls.
“I have a child at home, and I don’t even know who here is sick,” the first worker said. “They do have hand sanitizer and wipies.”
Her companion added, “But that’s about it. I haven’t been to work since last Wednesday because it is really scary. It’s a really serious thing.
“My parents are older, mid-50s, and God forbid I get it.”
She added, “We’re getting calls from people all over the world, and they’re saying ‘we can’t believe you guys are still open.’”
Another employee, who was relaxing with a workmate in her car after their shift, said, “In all honesty, they’re keeping us separated, yes, and trying their best. But we’re still switching desks.”
Asked how far apart they are, she said, “They’re pushing all the computers from one side (of the desk) to the other. So it’s about two feet between us.”
She’s also worried about getting sick, but said, “I’ve got bills to pay, so right now, I’m just happy that I’m still working.”
After those interviews, El Paso Inc. went to the GC office and asked to speak with someone about the workers’ complaints.
A woman came out a few minutes later and said. “I’m sorry. We currently don’t have anybody that can speak to you. We can take your contact number and have somebody reach out to you.”
El Paso Inc. provided contact information but has yet to hear from the company.
Minutes later in the GC parking lot, a manager approached and said, “We’d like you to leave right now and not come back.”
El Paso Inc. made repeated calls to GC’s corporate headquarters in Houston but was unable to reach anyone to answer questions.
The first GC employee El Paso Inc. interviewed, a woman in her 20s, said a big part of the problem at the call center is that managers don’t believe what’s been reported about the dangers COVID-19 poses.
“When all this started in El Paso, and we found out there were a few cases here, our main boss called us in and let us know that pretty much we would continue working as usual,” she said. “She said the media is blowing this COVID-19 thing out of proportion, and there wasn’t anything to worry about.”
The call center, she said, is getting 300 calls an hour now and is under pressure to keep pace with the calls coming from people who are finding themselves out of work.
“We take calls from people who are financing with Hyundai and Kia, and a lot of customers are calling because they can’t make their car payments,” she said. “So we’re offering payment extensions so they’re not falling behind.
“We had a meeting with the manager and she tells us all the time to take care of ourselves and make sure we are following the proper protocols.”
When a top executive came to town recently, she said, management tried hard to separate the workstations, pushing them apart as much as they could. It wasn’t a workable arrangement, and it didn’t last long.
“He walked the pods, and they made sure to separate us by six feet to show him we’re taking the necessary precautions,” she said. “But that’s not the case.
“We only did that for him that one day. The next day, there we were, sitting right next to each other again.”
Email El Paso Inc. reporter David Crowder at email@example.com or call (915) 534-4422, ext. 122 and (915) 630-6622.