At some Delaware firms, tons of should nonetheless report back to work

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The new facility consolidates Comcast’s Delaware operations from two buildings into a single space.

Delaware News Journal

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Hundreds of Comcast call center employees in Delaware are troubleshooting internet connectivity questions this week as a flood of people working from home increase demands on consumer networks. 

And, they are doing the work from Comcast’s shiny new office, near Newark.

Despite a roughly 800-employee workforce and calls from government to limit large gatherings amid the coronavirus pandemic, Comcast has been among a handful of employers in Delaware with hundreds of office workers who have continued to report to normal workstations.  

While some fearful employees tell the News Journal that their tasks could be done remotely, those businesses contend that such an arrangement takes time.

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Vehicles fill the parking lot at the Comcast call center near Newark Wednesday afternoon.  (Photo: Jerry Habraken, Delaware News Journal)

Anxiety about COVID-19 has risen this week. The number of positive cases in Delaware rose to 30 on Friday, with 23 from New Castle County, four from Kent County and three from Sussex County.  Among them, 17 are male and 13 are female. They range in age from 14 to 80. Three are hospitalized; one is critically ill. 

Eight days after the first positive case was announced, the hectic pace of reactions seemed to slow Thursday. The Wilmington City Council was to hold its first session without public attendance. Families grappled with not being able to see loved ones in nursing homes. As restaurants turned to take-out to survive, unemployment claims from those laid off by places ordered shut by the state broke department records.

Against that background, Comcast spokeswoman Jennifer Bilotta said in a statement the company has teams “working around the clock” to transition thousands of customer service representatives across the country to working from home. 

We “are in the process of transitioning work at the Newark Center as well,” she said. “Our employees who work in the Newark Center are vital to ensuring our customers and our communities continue to have access to the internet.”

While the Comcast statement also called employee safety a “top priority,” a staffer said the telecom giant had not taken enough precautions at the call center early on, particularly with respect to its older employees who experts have said are more vulnerable to the coronavirus.    

NEW DIGS: Comcast consolidates call center operations at renovated building near Newark

The News Journal received similar reports from wary Delaware office employees about Bank of America’s facilities near Newark, and Siemens’ health care diagnostics center.

On Tuesday, hundreds of cars sat parked in a Bank of America lot outside its facility next to Ogletown Stanton Road. Spokesman Bill Halldin confirmed that most of the bank’s Delaware workforce is required to report to its normal offices, as are employees within several bank divisions nationally.  

He declined to comment when asked why call center and other office employees in Delaware are not sent home with a laptop and a VPN security network to do their jobs remotely. 

Bank of America employees in Delaware are reporting to the company’s offices during the coronavirus epidemic. (Photo: Matt Rourke)

“We are practicing social distancing, adding additional cleaning measures, and refraining from in-person meetings and gatherings,” Halldin said.   

OPEN SPACE: Bank of America’s move leaves more Wilmington office space empty

An employee at Siemens claimed the German company has been slow to respond to worker concerns about the coronavirus, even while it canceled an executive visit to its Glasgow facility due to the pandemic.  

In an email, a company spokesperson said Delaware employees with the ability to work remotely can with a manager’s approval. 

“Given the nature of the work done at the Glasgow facility and the need to keep essential healthcare infrastructure operating efficiently across the U.S., there are some employees who have been deemed critical,” the statement read.

Siemens produces medical instruments at the Glasgow facility. 

Another producer of health care items, among an array of other products, DuPont on Monday instructed its “non-essential” employees to work from home, spokesman Dan Turner said.  

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The Bank of America Newark Campus parking lot in Ogletown, seen early Tuesday evening. (Photo: WILLIAM BRETZGER, DELAWARE NEWS JOURNAL)

The company’s Chestnut Run headquarters and its Experimental Station remain open to “essential personnel to conduct site and business critical operations,” he said, including some laboratory work. A similar policy is in place at Chemours, a DuPont spinoff.

The majority of J.P. Morgan Chase’s more than 10,000 Delaware employees are working remotely, according to a spokeswoman.  

Other Delaware companies with large office staffs, including CSC, Sofi and Barclays, did not respond to requests about their work-from-home policies. 

THE LATEST: Life in Delaware amid coronavirus

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The Comcast facility in the Christiana Corporate Center early Tuesday evening, with workers’ cars occupying the parking lot. (Photo: WILLIAM BRETZGER, DELAWARE NEWS JOURNAL)

There are no official Delaware Department of Labor statistics showing the current number of people in the state who have opted to work from home.

But increases in home internet use could be an indicator. The WhyFly company, which provides internet in Wilmington, has seen a 40% increase in its total residential traffic, with “record-setting days and evenings for each of the last four days,” CEO Mark Thompson said.

ARE YOU MORE AT RISK? See which Delaware workers face the greatest coronavirus risk

While experts agree that working from home will limit a rapid spread of the coronavirus, the policy has impacts on local businesses that rely on masses of office workers to make purchases of coffee and food.

Joann Sorbello co-owns a Cosi franchise within one of Barclays’ two Riverfront buildings. While she doesn’t know Barclays’ policy regarding work from home, she does know that her business has collapsed in recent days. 

Barclays building in Wilmington also houses a Cosi franchise that has been devastated by a loss in business because of the coronavirus. (Photo: Jenna Miller)

“Business is way down,” Sorbello said, “at least 90 percent down.”  

She said the franchise weathered a potential rough patch last year by expanding catering operations after Barclays announced it would move 500 of its 2,000 Delaware positions to New Jersey.

In the past week, nearly all catering orders have been canceled, she said. Now, Sorbello, like the owners of many small eateries, is hoping that home delivery could mitigate the disaster.  

“We’ve signed up for just about every delivery service that we could sign up for,” she said.   

Contact Karl Baker at kbaker@delawareonline.com or (302) 324-2329. Follow him on Twitter @kbaker6.

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