Companies in the credit and collection industry should be aware that the decisions they are making about whether to stay open and which employees should or need to come into the office everyday may be subject to criticism in the court of public opinion. One collection agency that has an office in Tennessee is definitely learning that lesson.
A relatively new employee for GC Services decided to leave his job on March 23 and not return because of what he deemed to be unsafe working conditions at a call center operated by the company in Knoxville. He is one of a number of individuals from companies across Tennessee who have filed complaints with the Tennessee Occupational Safety and Health Administration during the past two weeks because they “feel their workplaces aren’t taking the coronavirus seriously or wonder why their company is open at all,” according to a published report. Another report from the weekend questioned the industry’s efforts to make its case why collection agencies should be deemed an essential business and be allowed to continue attempting to collect.
Tennessee is one of about 12 states that have yet to deploy a shelter-in-place order to try and limit the spread of COVID-19, but even if it did, GC Services said it is being told by its clients — companies in the financial services industry — that the agency is a “critical” business and that collections must continue, the company’s general counsel said in the report. GC Services did close a separate call center in Knoxville which collected on delinquent student loan debts.
The pressures being exerted on companies in the collection industry are coming from all sides — clients, employees, and regulators. This is a situation where there is not necessarily a right decision and a wrong decision, but one where owners and executives have to try and figure out what is the best decision. How many times have you seen the word “unprecedented” in the past two weeks when used to describe the situation we are all in? If anyone had a disaster recovery or business continuity plan for what is essentially a nationwide shutdown of the country because of a global pandemic and knew how each state was going to react and which states were going to issue shelter-in-place orders and which clients were going to tell you to continue collecting and which ones were going to tell you to stop making outbound calls and how to deal with home-bound employees who were dragooned into service as teachers, and where to find toilet paper, well, they’ll probably make a movie about you. Everyone is trying to make the best decisions they can. The information is changing so rapidly that nobody can keep up.
Nobody in this industry wants to see it shut down for the duration of this emergency. But the choices that companies are making will have ramifications, in the industry and outside of it. This is likely not the first report that will highlight the complaints of someone who felt they had to keep coming to work at a collection agency. Please keep the image of your company in mind as you make your decisions.
It speaks to something that Manny Newburger, a well-known and well-respected lawyer in the industry, distributed in an email earlier this week.
“Your analysis of whether to collect from the office is more than just ‘can I justify ignoring the stay-at-home orders?’ ” Newburger wrote. “It is a matter of workplace safety and of the risk of future litigation from your current employees. Issues of retaliation may also arise as your employees demand to comply with the stay-at-home orders and you choose to fire or not pay them for not going to work.”
Brad Batig, the general counsel at GC Services, outlined the steps the company was taking to protect employees, acknowledging that the company was “trying our best.”