TD Bank employees worry call centres are 'breeding ground' for COVID-19

Employees at TD Bank say they're worried cramped conditions, shared desks, equipment, washrooms and kitchens are turning their call centres into a potential 'breeding ground' for the coronavirus.

Staff report hundreds working only a metre apart while sharing desks, equipment, kitchens, washrooms

Employees say there are 400 plus staff members at this call centre in London, Ont. near York and Rectory who share desks, equipment, kitchens, eating areas and washrooms. (Colin Butler/CBC News)

Employees at TD Bank say hundreds of people are working less than a metre apart in some cases, while sharing the same desks, equipment, kitchens, eating areas and washrooms, making their workplace a potential "breeding ground" for the coronavirus. 

It comes as provincial authorities have banned gatherings larger than 50 people while shutting down schools, restaurants, stores, theatres, bars and other social gathering places in an effort to "flatten the curve" and stop the spread of a virus that's killed thousands of people and infected hundreds of thousands worldwide. 

Many people have been asked by the government to do their part by practicing self-isolation or social distancing, often by cloistering themselves in their homes and avoiding close contact with others, opting instead to communicate by phone or a recommended distance of two metres to avoid potential infection. 

Except TD employees, speaking on condition of anonymity to CBC News out of fear of being fired, say they don't have that luxury and in some cases, are forced to sit in cubicles less than a metre apart, while sharing communal kitchens, washrooms, desks and even telephone headsets with hundreds of others. 

'It's a breeding ground for this virus if you ask me'

TD Bank said since the pandemic began, it's instituted more aggressive cleaning regimens in all of its offices and says it's also trying to find more space for employees who work in close quarters. (Michael Wilson/CBC)

"It's business as usual," said one employee. "People are stressed. There's been people who've gone home because they have issues with anxiety. Morale is down. People want to be at home doing the self-quarantine but we can't."

TD Bank has two call centre offices in London, Ont., as well others in Markham, Montreal and Moncton, New Brunswick. 

At both offices, dozens of employees share desks, equipment and communal areas.

"There's the desk situation but then there's the kitchen situation. People are sitting in the lunchroom eating their meals or warming up food in the microwaves," the employee said. "We're all using the same restrooms."

"It's a breeding ground for this virus if you ask me."

'We're in very close contact with other individuals'

TD employees have been given hand sanitizer and disinfectant wipes to sterilize hands and equipment, but staff say they still work a metre apart, which is half the recommended distance of two metres in order to avoid infection with the coronavirus. (Nicholas Kamm/AFP via Getty Images)

Another employee said while TD has taken steps to provide a large supply of hand sanitizer and disinfectant wipes as well as educating staff on keeping a proper distance during the outbreak, people are unable to do it. 

"It's still very risky because we're in very close contact with other individuals and we're reusing the same equipment," the employee told CBC News. 

"You work at a call centre like this one where there are 400-plus human beings using the same equipment, common area, every day, obviously you have a huge risk of the virus spreading."

"You have a morning shift that will come through and a night shift will come through and you're really relying on that person's discretion to wipe off their workplace because if they don't, there's no sanitation," the employee said. 

"I'm a little bit worried about that, but at least we're getting paid."

'This is an enormously challenging situation'

With so much volatility on the markets caused by the pandemic TD Bank says it's grappling with increased call volumes and lower employee attendance because people are staying home when they're ill or to care for a vulnerable family member. (Lucas Jackson/Reuters)

TD Bank, like many companies who operate call centres in Canada, is now grappling with a delicate balancing act to ensure it continues to provide essential services, while at the same doing everything it can to guarantee its employees safety inside the cramped cube-farms of a modern call centre shared by hundreds of people. 

"Our colleagues, whether they're in our contact centres, our branches or our operations centres, to do their jobs, they aren't able to work from home," said Alicia Johnston, TD Bank's vice-president of corporate and public affairs, calling from her home. 

"This is an enormously challenging situation and it's the furthest thing from perfect. The tough thing is that we need to operate and now more than ever."

As part of the government's pledge to help Canadians suffering financially due to COVID-19, Finance Minister Bill Morneau asked the heads of Canada's big banks to allow people to defer mortgage payments for up to six months as people deal with the hardships of illness, isolation and lost income. 

Johnston said as a regulated industry, banks like TD must keep working at times of crisis in order to keep the economy moving and that's been made especially difficult by the pandemic, with staff on sick leave and call volumes up significantly as people worry about their investments as they get tossed around like toy boats in the tumultuous waters of the markets. 

Johnston said TD staff have risen to the occasion, despite the challenges. 

"They're making magic happen all over the place to try to help Canadians through this but they're also dealing from a personal perspective."

"There are significant pressures," she said. "This is a really big deal for us to try to do everything we can."

Still, all it takes is one sick person to potentially infect an entire office and Johnston said the bank has taken a number of steps in order to prevent that from happening. 

She said TD has added hand sanitizer stations and disinfectant wipes to all of its offices, implemented more rigorous cleaning and, in some cases, has found additional space to allow staff to be further apart. 

"If our people are not feeling well they need to stay home. First and foremost that's the biggest priority," Johnston said.