Overburdened by the COVID-19 crisis, call center workers take action (UPDATED)

CapTel is a nationwide company that provides text telephone captions for the hearing impaired. Workers in the Madison and Milwaukee call centers have been organizing with the IWW since 2012. The coronavirus crisis has led to a massive increase in workload. Here, a worker describes an action taken last week in protest of workload and in support of their ongoing demand for $15 an hour. (Image is from a picket last summer.)

UPDATE: Since we ran this story ran this morning, CapTel workers scored two more significant victories: an “appreciation bonus” of up to $300 for work performed earlier this month, and an additional $2/hour in “emergency pay” going forward.

It quickly became apparent something drastic had to be done. 

But, of course, as far as the boss was concerned, things could not have been rosier. Profits were rolling in from a staff working beyond capacity, with none of the customary gaps between calls to reset and regroup, like a Sisyphean purgatory. They were capitalizing on a pandemic. 

They feigned compassion by suspending the “points” that we would normally accrue for absences, essentially promising to not punish us if we became infected with COVID-19, then barricaded themselves in their offices. It really was the least they could do.

The workers, however, understood how to use this fractional concession for maximum impact. 

We held to our ongoing demand, the fight for $15 an hour.

So with no time to lose, we planned a multi-call center call-out. We figured if we recruited a few dozen participants, it would be big enough to make a bold statement. 

On Saturday, March 13th, we set the date and started texting, phone banking, and approaching our fellow captionists in person. We chose Wednesday, March 18th, the day after St. Patrick’s, to plump our numbers with those who would call out to recover from the previous evening’s celebration.

With the entire staff constantly captioning, everyone we asked was emotionally drained, fed up, and ready to make a difference.

Several dozen from Milwaukee and Madison joined together in solidarity and called out — almost everyone we asked, including some who sacrificed a perfect attendance bonus, with the biggest absence of workers during the peak period of noon to 3 pm. With only a few days’ planning, our action was an enormous success. 

We posted a warning and stern reminder of our demands on our committee Facebook page 24 hours prior, that without immediate action on CapTel’s part, a mass call-out was to be expected. 

I reported for my regular shift the following day, Thursday, March 19th, greeted by gossipy chatter about the sickout from the supervisors, who immediately clammed up when they turned around and saw me standing there. Even their spiteful cattiness warmed my heart, as I knew we had got our message across. 

As of yet, however, nothing had changed. 

Then late the next day, a memo came out. 

They recognized the increasing stress and gave us an additional fifteen minute break or “aux” per shift — time we are allowed to be off the phone, but still on the clock (i.e. paid). 

Mind you, this was not the victory we sought, but it was a victory nonetheless. And after so many years of the dismissive attitudes of the administration towards the workers, every acknowledgement, every nibble, is an impetus to further action, a re-energizing of belief in what we can do when we do it together.