The Covid-19 pandemic sent millions of workers in the US from working in offices to working remotely. As unemployment benefits ended, vaccines rolled out, and reopenings expanded, employers and commercial real estate groups have been pushing to try to get workers back into offices.
But the pandemic further exposed the issues in returning to office, from long commutes to and from work, exorbitant childcare costs, ongoing concerns over exposure to Covid-19 variants and now Monkeypox, workers are pushing to keep working from home as an option as employers force a return to the office.
At AT&T, the world’s largest telecommunication company, workers represented by the Communications Workers of America agreed to a work from home extension until the end of March 2023, but workers say the company is forcing many workers to return to the office much sooner than that, while other departments had already been forced back to the office already by their managers.
James Bloch, an AT&T employee in Cleveland, Ohio, for 21 years, said the work from home option has been beneficial for workers’ mental health, protection from Covid-19, productivity, attendance and carbon footprint.
“These are extremely stressful times over the last few years and being at home has allowed us to have less distractions, giving us better one-on-one time with our customers and our clients,” said Bloch. “With AT&T technology, they’re a communication company. We have some of the best stuff out there. Let’s use it. We can do the same job from home anywhere that we could do if we were all sitting there together.”
Other workers agree.
Sara Fry, an AT&T service representative in Minneapolis, Minnesota, said her department was told they are being brought back to the office as early as 21 September 2022. Fry argued AT&T has not provided workers with adequate explanations and details as to why they are forcing workers to return to the office. She speculated the decision stems from exerting control over workers and undermining the union.
“All of our production is great. Our attendance numbers have improved since folks have been working from home and this news is just crushing. It’s heartbreaking,” she said. “I don’t think management realizes how deeply hurt and how deeply angry some employees will be about this”
AT&T workers have started a petition demanding the company makes working from home a permanent option for workers.
“We don’t understand if we’re still in a pandemic, we’re still considered essential workers and we’re still doing the appropriate job, then why are we coming back to the office?” said Chuck Elgert, communication technician at AT&T and executive vice president of CWA Local 6350 in St Louis, Missouri. “There’s no reason to risk anybody’s health and safety that’s not 100% necessary to run the operations of the business.”
He emphasized workers are also concerned because AT&T has an aging workforce, particularly in departments where many workers are over the age of 55, and that AT&T has workplace surveillance tools in place so that managers can constantly monitor the work that workers are doing from home and make changes if necessary.
Val Williams, an AT&T worker and union steward for the Communications Workers of America in Houston, Texas, was forced to return to work in the office in April 2022. She criticized the push to bring workers back into the office after she said workers had been praised for productivity while working from home.
When she returned to work, it was to a new building where not all departments had been brought back, and Williams argued Covid-19 infections have continued to be an issue in the workplace and Covid-19 sick leave is currently inadequate, with five days off.
Williams criticized the pushback to return to the office given AT&T is a communications company with the technology and resources to make working from home a seamless option.
“Our revenue has increased over the last two years while we were working from home. Our job descriptions state we are capable of working with little to minimum management and that’s what we’ve been doing,” she said.
She also argued it’s unfair how the push to return workers to the office has been enforced, with some departments being brought back while others are still working from home.
“We don’t feel like anybody’s health is greater than any others. Because everybody has their own health issues, or they may have family members that have health issues that they have to return home to,” she added.
Charli Haataja, another AT&T worker in Minneapolis, Minnesota, compared returning to the office as enacting a pay cut given the amount of money workers would need to spend on gas, on monthly parking fees, childcare, and the extra time it takes to commute.
“Working from home has been a game changer for employees that most of us have not seen in our lifetimes working in our work careers, to have gained back any kind of work life balance, or peace of mind in the workplace, to have your circumstances improve, rather than get worse,” Haataja said.
A spokesperson for AT&T did not provide data on how many workers at the company are still working from home, but claimed it was never the company’s intention to make working from home indefinite.
“The health and safety of our employees continues to be our priority,” said the spokesperson in an email. “As we have throughout the pandemic, we adhere to guidance from the medical community, including implementing safety protocols to help protect our employees’ wellbeing. And now that we are a largely vaccinated workforce, we believe it’s safe for employees to return to the workplace. We do our best work when we’re together.”