As the coronavirus crisis deepens across the US, some of the nation's top telecommunications providers are taking extraordinary steps to keep Americans connected while at the same time keeping their employees safe.
For some, it's a situation that's direct and tangible. Verizon, for example, recently announced that it now counts 50 employees with COVID-19, up from ten a week ago. Verizon's headquarters are in New Jersey – currently under the governor's stay-at-home order – and near New York, the epicenter of the US outbreak.
"At this point we have just over 50 V Teamers [Verizon employees] around the world that have the virus, and we're working closely to make sure they are getting the care they need and they have contact with the benefits team and we have a way to help them get resources as they need it," Verizon's HR chief Christy Pambianchi told employees Monday. "We'll continue to share information with you on that and I would ask all of our fellow employees to have compassion and care for those of us in our V Team system, and any of our folks who contract the coronavirus."
Pambianchi added that Verizon's communications network is considered "critical infrastructure" and so the company's employees are exempt from Gov. Phil Murphy's order directing all New Jersey residents to stay at home until further notice. Already 100,000 of Verizon's roughly 135,000 employees are working from home, and only those tasked with the physical work of keeping the operator's network up and running are traveling.
"We have a technician, Kendrick Thompson from Virginia, who repaired service yesterday for a cancer patient that needed to stay connected with their doctors," Verizon's wireline network chief Kevin Service told employees Tuesday. "Just this morning we had a request from Mount Sinai Hospital in New York City asking if we would be available to do the work to upgrade a 10 Gig circuit to support their remote workers and, of course, the answer from the team is, of course, we will."
Separately, Verizon has announced a wide range of corporate initiatives to combat the virus directly and its wider effects, including portable wireless networking equipment for healthcare workers, a fundraiser for affected small businesses and unlimited Internet for some homebound school children.
AT&T, for its part, is working on many of the same initiatives – including monetary donations and networking operations for healthcare workers – and it too reportedly counts some employees who have the virus. On Wednesday, the company added that it will provide a 20% bonus to the hourly base pay of "frontline" union employees who are either working from home or at their regular job location. AT&T employed 246,000 people in January, and about 40% of those were represented by a union.
Such efforts come on top of decisions by the likes of AT&T, Verizon and others to shutter thousands of retail outlets around the country while continuing to pay affected workers, as well as their work to ensure their networks can handle extra coronavirus-related traffic.
Of course, AT&T and Verizon aren't the only telecommunications companies affected by – and reacting to – the spread of COVID-19. For example, the FCC announced that close to 600 US Internet service providers have signed the agency's "Keep Americans Connected Pledge" that includes commitments not to terminate service and to waive late fees, among other stipulations.
And operators around the country, and the world, have announced a wide range of efforts to both protect employees and counter the wider effects of the pandemic.
It's clearly a critical issue for everyone: Cable industry news outlet Cablefax reported Tuesday that a Comcast technician in New Jersey died of the virus.