When New York State closed all non-essential work spaces in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, Chris Fitts, like millions of other workers, was forced to start working from home. Unlike the estimated 30 plus million people who lost their jobs over the last two months, his work seems tailor made for a socially distant world.
Fitts is a telemarketer. He sells subscriptions and raises funds for The Metropolitan Opera in New York City. The opera is shut down right now, but Fitts’ work isn’t, and he is enjoying his new routine.
“I wake up and commute to my desk, smooth as silk,” Fitts said.
As of May 2019 there were over 3 million customer service representatives and telemarketers in the United State, according to the Bureau of Labor and Statistics. Most of these positions require little formal training, making it an accessible office job for those with less education. It is also a popular part time position for artists, freelancers and semi-retired professionals-the very people disproportionately affected by this economic collapse.
Most recessions lead to a spike in part time employment, and sure enough the part time employment rate more than doubled in April.
Yet, during the same span the US economy shed nearly seven million part time jobs, indicating that the spike in part time employment had more to do with formerly full time workers having their hours cut. The leisure and hospitality sector-often a temporary part-time refuge for those laid off from professional work-has been decimated by nationwide lockdowns, seeing a record 39.3 percent unemployment rate.
Even if most lockdowns and social distancing guidelines are gone by mid-summer, it will be difficult for the service sector to quickly return to pre-pandemic employment, especially if fears of the virus keep customers away. Phone work, a job that can be done remotely and has a low barrier to entry, could help those already on the economic bubble make ends meet during a recession.
Even before the pandemic, domestic call center employment had grown steadily over the last decade. The mass offshoring of them has slowed in recent years, as companies bet that more expensive US workers will keep customers happier.
There are obstacles to phone work being a viable alternative position for laid off workers, though.
The transition to at home calling is not as easy as it might seem. Firms need to be able to securely transfer dialer and customer information software to an employee’s personal computer. This can be expensive and time consuming-for both employer and employee.
“I looked at my little apartment and I said ‘I am not tricked out for this at all,’” Fitts said. He said he had to buy a new computer, at his own expense.
Employees also need to get used to a workspace without tech support and coworkers to bounce things off of.
Gary Johnson, also a fundraiser at The Metropolitan Opera, needed over a week to get technical snafus fixed before his work station was up and running. He still misses the camaraderie and supportive atmosphere of the office.
“There are always times during the day when a question will come up and ordinarily I’d be able to turn to the person next to me and ask them a question and get their reaction, and so I miss being able to get information that way.”
Even if companies and workers are willing to accept the limitations of remote phone work, many might not see an economic incentive to start a new job just yet. The federal aid package that Congress passed in response to the virus added $600 a week to unemployment checks, on top of any state benefits — prompting some laid-off workers to wonder if a new job will even increase their bottom line.
Mike Wilson is working remotely for an agency that raises money for nonprofits. But, he’ll only work limited hours that will not disrupt his unemployment.
“Unemployment pays me a $600 bonus every week,” he said. Telemarketing “isn’t paying me 600 dollars.”
Low pay coupled with generous unemployment benefits could be a major obstacle to call center work being a viable path for displaced workers in the near future. As of May 2019 customer service representatives had an average annual wage of $37,320 and telemarketers only $29,770. For perspective the 600 dollar a week unemployment bonus alone comes out to over $30,000 if spread over 52 weeks.
Katie Fann, recently laid off from her job at a luxury restaurant, was a former employee at the same agency as Wilson, and she was offered to come back for remote work. But, she doesn’t see the point right now.
“It wouldn’t make any more money than I would on unemployment,” she said, adding that working from home alone would not be good for her mental health.
Perhaps the biggest concern is that all call centers, whether involved in sales or customer service, need to respond to a consumer demand. And with economic insecurity prevalent, demand is taking a beating.
Still, Johnson reports continued interest in his product despite the uncertainty. He said his sales are comparable to where they were before the pandemic.
“I find a great many people want to get on with life and get back to the things we all love,” he said.
And according to Fitts, the call center industry is already adapting to the COVID-19 marketplace.
“Last week someone forwarded to me a job application for new contact tracing call centers for New York City,” he said with a laugh.