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Cable company field technician Dexter Marshall said he was wary of catching coronavirus last week when he walked into customers’ homes to handle their internet service requests.
“I didn’t feel safe, but I have to pay my bills,” said Marshall, 47, an employee of Altice USA, a telecommunications company that provides cable, phone and internet services to New Yorkers under the Optimum brand name.
He entered “about four to five” Brooklyn homes last Monday, when he felt a fever begin to rise.
After visiting three more homes the next day, he grew sicker. So, he left work early to see a doctor at a local urgent care who gave him a coronavirus swab test. Since then, he’s been home under quarantine.
On Monday, Marshall got his results: He tested positive for COVID-19.
“I was scared,” he told THE CITY. “You’re seeing people dying and getting sicker and sicker every day.”
‘I Don’t Feel Good’
Marshall and other Optimum technicians charged that as business has picked up with a surge of orders to help stuck-at-home households work, learn and socialize during the coronavirus pandemic, the company hasn’t done enough to protect the public or their techs.
Optimum workers say they visit as many as nine homes per day to connect boxes, resolve connectivity problems and more.
Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s weekend executive order put a statewide “pause” on all non-essential business as of Sunday, but exempted the telecommunication industry and others deemed necessary.
An Altice spokesperson said that the company found out Monday afternoon that “an Optimum technician in Brooklyn was diagnosed with COVID-19.”
“Upon learning of the situation, we immediately engaged with the NYC Department of Health, and out of an abundance of caution, we will be contacting residents serviced by this technician to make them aware,” spokesperson Lisa Anselmo said. “We wish our employee a speedy recovery.”
Marshall said Monday nobody from the company, except fellow technicians, has contacted him since he’s been sick.
“I don’t feel good,” he said, “because you’re working for the company and they’re not taking detection very seriously. They’re not.”
‘We Take This Seriously’
The company has, among other measures, given nitrile gloves to technicians and allowed them to take their work trucks home, so they don’t need to go to Altice centers where workers meet in the morning. Customers are called ahead of time to screen for signs of illness.
In addition, the company has provided its workers with hand sanitizer and disinfectant wipes.
But technicians said hand sanitizers were only available at the centers — not for bringing along in their trucks — and the disinfectant wipes provided expired last year.
“We need a lot of help, as far as guidelines on how to better approach taking care of the customer without necessarily putting those frontline employees at risk,” said one longtime technician.
Anselmo said that the company was “seeking guidance” from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the World Health Organization, health officials and government agencies.
“We take this seriously, which is why our top priority has been protecting the health and safety of our employees and customers while also providing the essential telecommunications services that are expected of us during this pandemic,” she said.
‘These Are Not Essential’
Workers interviewed by THE CITY said that they understood the importance of their work to the public, but want to feel more protected. They said the company could provide hazard pay, reduce the number of home visits and give all technicians hand sanitizer and protective gear, such as masks.
Optimum employees aren’t alone. Technicians for Spectrum, a telecom giant that services New Yorkers, are angry with what they call the lack of precautions taken by their employer during the pandemic, multiple outlets reported.
“Spectrum, as a company, is not taking care of its employees,” one technician from New York City told Buzzfeed News for a story published Monday. “We don’t have gloves, we don’t have masks, we don’t have hand sanitizer.” The company said it was working to address employees’ concerns.
One longtime Optimum technician told THE CITY that some of the house calls aren’t essential — like switching a person’s internet provider or increasing a customer’s internet speed.
“Our priorities now are to go and connect those who aren’t connected, whether it be for the students, whether it be people who haven’t been able to get any type of online connectivity,” said the technician, who requested anonymity so he could speak without fear of being fired.
Technicians interviewed said they feared getting infected and spreading the virus to loved ones.
“I do have a person in the home with me with serious respiratory issues as well as diabetes,” the veteran technician said.
“It’s just frustrating,” said another technician. “It’s the most helpless feeling that you can imagine.”
As for Marshall’s health, he said he was feeling a tad better from the past week, eating oranges and heeding his doctor’s guidance: staying home and taking ibuprofen. He offered others some advice of his own.
“Just be careful out there,” he said.
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