How local call centers are coping with a rising number of COVID-19 cases

Social distance, deep cleaning and prayer
Posted at 5:00 AM, Mar 26, 2020
and last updated 2020-03-26 18:34:15-04

CINCINNATI — Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine says non-essential businesses should close.

Here’s why Mike LaRosa says that edict doesn’t apply to his pizza chain’s call center in Westwood.

“The governor has declared delivered foods or curbside pickup essential businesses,” said LaRosa, CEO of the family-owned company with 65 restaurants. “The operation of this call center is essential to processing orders at LaRosa’s.”

But that doesn’t mean the company will compromise on safety.

The “guest service center,” as LaRosa calls it, is equipped with 150 work stations. But it’s now operating at 50% capacity so operators can stay at least six feet from their co-workers. Plexiglas separates supervisors from staff. Door handles and work surfaces are sanitized six times daily. Cubicles are cleaned at the start and end of every shift.

CEO Mike LaRosa said the company's call center is essential to the family-owned restaurant chain's operation

“We text everybody every day and remind them to take their temperature at home and not to come to work if they have a fever above whatever the guidelines recommend,” LaRosa said. “No one has been sick here at the call center.”

Not every local call center can make that claim.

Call center cases rising

Citigroup Inc. sent its call center employees home Wednesday after four employees tested positive for COVID-19.

“As the health and safety of our colleagues are our top priority, Citi has accelerated plans to move our colleagues at the Florence site to ‘work from home,’” said Citi spokesman Drew Benson. “After learning of the first confirmed case on Saturday, March 21, the premises were disinfected and deep cleaned. The colleagues were last at the site on March 11, 12, 13 and 16, respectively. We expect virtually all colleagues to transition to work from home by (Wednesday) afternoon.”

U.S. Bank told its employees on March 18 that 11 workers were placed on 14-day quarantines after an employee in its Wooster Pike “contact center” tested positive for coronavirus. The bank wouldn't confirm the positive COVID-19 test but provided a statement on its handling of the virus.

U.S. Bank operates a call center near Lunken Airport

“Our front-line employees in call centers, branches and operations facilities continue to play a vital role in ensuring we can keep providing essential banking services to our customers,” U.S. Bank spokesman Greg Vadala wrote in an email to WCPO. “Across the entire operation, U.S. Bank is continuing to take steps to further protect the safety of employees and customers, in accordance with Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines. This includes implementing staff rotation and social distancing, increasing cleaning, temporarily adjusting hours of operation, decreasing lobby usage, encouraging drive through use and consolidating operations. We have been enabling employees to work from home where possible and are continuing to expand these capabilities for front-line employees."

Fifth Third Bank confirmed Saturday that an employee in its Madisonville Operations Center tested positive for coronavirus last week. The bank won’t say if that employee worked in the call center. Nevertheless, Fifth Third is following CDC guidelines to make its call centers safer, spokesman Ed Loyd told WCPO via email.

“We have relocated our call center employees into three different physical locations in the Cincinnati area, and two locations in Grand Rapids to be in accord with CDC guidelines, using spaces where other teams have departed to work remotely — and skipping desks between employees. This has even included some physical redesign to be socially spaced and that took several days to complete,” Loyd wrote. “We will continue to evaluate this and are proactively making additional modifications to care for our employees who aren’t able to work remotely due to the nature of their service to our customers.”

Fifth Third Bank operates a call center in Madisonville

Loyd said the number of Fifth Third employees working remotely has increased from 2,000 to 11,000, but “data privacy regulations” require call center and other employees to remain on site. On Saturday, the bank announced a “special payment” of $500 in April for those employees, followed by an identical payment in May.

Are call centers safe?

The recent spate of call center cases doesn’t necessarily mean call center employees are at higher risk, said Florence Fulk, associate professor of environmental and public health sciences at the University of Cincinnati College of Medicine.

“We are going to see more and more cases over time regardless where you are,” said Fulk, who teaches epidemiology at the University of Cincinnati. “There is never a place where you can get to zero risk when you have a pandemic going on. But what you can do is try to minimize your risk.”

By now, you’ve likely heard many of the guidelines for personal defense against COVID-19: Washing hands frequently for at least 20 seconds, keeping your hands away from your face and mouth, maintaining a safe social distance of six feet. Here’s one you may not know: If you’re using a hand sanitizer, make sure it has an alcohol content of at least 60%.
Fulk also provided three links with the best information for companies and employees to follow. The first is a CDC site for business guidance. The second is a CDC site for individuals. The third is a list of disinfectants from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

“There is a lot of uncertainty around the coronavirus,” Fulk said. “You feel like things are out of your control. So, my suggestion is to look for those things you can control.”

At LaRosa’s, that meant shutting down the call-center break room and taping X-marks in the lobby to remind visitors to stand six feet apart. And for Mike LaRosa, that means every day starts with a prayer.

“I literally get on my knees and humbly ask for the guidance of the Holy Spirit this day in influencing all the decisions our team makes in navigating the work in front of us,” LaRosa said. “I am leaning on God and my faith more than ever.”

It would be difficult to find a company that relies more heavily on its call center than LaRosa’s, a $167 million enterprise that gets more than half of its carry out and delivery orders from customers dialing that ubiquitous number, 347-1111. When the phone center opened in 1991 it tripled the size of LaRosa’s overall business and established the company as Cincinnati’s top pizza chain by market share, said Pete Buscani, executive vice president of marketing.

Even in the current crisis, the call center has helped offset a 25 percent revenue hit from the closure of LaRosa’s dining rooms.

“Baby boomers grew up with LaRosa’s and they’re still very loyal customers,” said Mike LaRosa. “But they are not engaged with smart phones and social media. They still love to call on the telephone.”

Connor Rice, 23, works the phones at LaRosa's call center in Westwood

Call center supervisor Connor Rice thinks the company has done a good job managing the crisis.

“Bathrooms, break rooms, you see people cleaning like every hour,” he said. “It’s a difficult situation for everyone involved but I think they’re taking the right steps.”

Outside the call center, LaRosa said he’s proud of the way his team has quickly improvised to modify its kitchen practices. Employees who once stood shoulder to shoulder on the pizza line now keep their social distance. Curbside pickup stations allow customers to avoid the carry-out counter. Management staff is working on a “relief program” for the roughly 1,400 employees who remain with the company, down about 100 from the start of the COVID-19 crisis.

“You’ve seen other companies doing that and we’re going to show our love to our team members,” LaRosa said. “Now that we have operations buttoned down pretty good, we’re going to focus on the next most important thing, which is providing relief to our team members.”

While the crisis has been difficult, LaRosa has also found it inspiring.

“I love having a collaboration with effective people, delegating to them and seeing their creativity shine,” he said. “Although it’s difficult and it’s been challenging and I haven’t been sleeping much, I thrive on this type of activity.”