According to documents obtained by Android Police, AT&T is seeking to have its stores classified as an "essential business" during the coronavirus pandemic, as many states like California, New York, and Texas continue to close all "nonessential businesses" during mandatory shelter and social distancing orders. But according to dozens of messages posted by AT&T retail employees on the company's internal message board, the atmosphere in stores is not one of pride in providing communities an essential service, but rather of fear, anxiety, and real concerns over exposure to the virus.

AT&T has closed 40% of its stores nationwide, but that means 60% of locations remain open. Representatives from closed stores are being shuffled into shifts at those remaining open, and customers in areas with closures then directed to them.

Messages from many of these employees revolve around fear for their safety and that of their families as regards customers carrying the virus into stores. As full disclosure, Android Police has not vetted the individual accuracy of statements made by these individual employees (as it would be essentially impossible), but taken in aggregate, there are clearly valid concerns being expressed.

One employee, who we'll call MO, writes:

"I, personally, go home every night and quarantine myself from my loved ones since I have been in close contact with the virus on multiple occasions... We are essentially being thrown to wolves while the upper management sends us reminders while they are at home to wash our hands and hum our favorite songs."

Another, we'll call NB, expresses concerns about the closure policy spreading the virus even more.

"So we are funneling more customers into fewer locations at the same time by reducing hours and then also shuffling reps around. This sounds like a great way to potentially expose MORE people should an infected person or carrier enter a retail store."

For those who do want to avoid infection, there are apparently a lot of unknowns surrounding the ability to take time off without being written up. IK writes:

"Are we able to stay home without getting pointed if we choose to? Some are saying yes some are saying no. Is this in writing anywhere?... Can we take unpaid time off or not? Asking for 225,000 friends, give or take."

Perhaps more alarming are reports of sick individuals, and those potentially exposed, in stores. MA says

"1 of the 16 customers today began coughing in the store and her nose started to bleed. She stated it was not due to COVID-19 however she deposited bacteria [sic] in the store before she exited by dropping a disinfectant wipe on the floor with blood on it."

Another report, from DO:

"Yesterday I came in contact with a customer who could not stop coughing, he got back from traveling in Washington... And I'm here at work again today. Truly don't know if I'm infected or if he was infected."

DM tells of a similar experience, saying:

"I just had a customer come in to do a SIM card change she was coughing and keeping her distance, when I asked for her payment she told me to stay away a little and disinfect when I'm done with her as she is currently experiencing body aches and a cough and was on her way to the hospital to get checked."

AT&T's logic for keeping stores open is that it considers itself an essential business, not just to the community, but to first responders like police, fire, and EMT workers. But the reality is that AT&T's business serves consumers far more than any of these critical groups, and that by keeping retail stores open, it is signaling to customers that it's open for business. AT&T has placed signage on the doors of its stores telling customers to stay away unless they really need critical assistance (like a broken device, service disruption, or major technical issue), but people seem to simply be ignoring the warning, according to poster SG:

"The sign on the door is too long and a not a single customer has stopped to read it. Not a single "emergency" for first responders or customers have walked through the door. It's mostly customers who think that the situation is being made worse by the media."

Here is that signage.

In another concerning twist, it seems that AT&T's in-home assistance teams are being asked to probe customers about their health status. One member of the AT&T IHX (In Home Experience) team, AD, reports concerns about the legality of this action:

"We are being told to ask customers questions about their health status. Customers aren't obligated to share their health status or health information with us or anybody that matter [sic]... We are not health practitioners, we are sales associated. We are having direct contact with people, when they can clear be sick with the virus. I had a Lyft driver bluntly tell me he [had] COVID 19."

While we can't comment on the legality of AT&T reps asking customers about their health status, the reality is that someone who is sick might just, you know, lie. It's also an understandably uncomfortable thing to have to ask someone—you're really getting into people's personal business.

These comments are just a handful among the dozens Android Police reviewed as part of this story. Many more express similar concerns about infection, pay for workers who are having hours cut, and the logic of AT&T's current closure policy. We reached out to AT&T for comment ahead of this story's publication, but they were unable to provide a statement by deadline.

AT&T issued the statement below to us. There is no indication that it plans to take any new action regarding its retail stories in light of the story above at this time.

Press Release

This week we announced we’re reducing our company owned retail stores nationwide. Locations include all AT&T Retail and Authorized Retail stores within indoor malls and stores in high traffic areas like airports, corporate campuses and schools. Closures will continue while we concentrate our resources on select stores to meet the immediate service needs of our customers, including first responders and healthcare providers.

At stores that remain open, we’re adjusting store hours to be from 11 a.m. to 7 p.m. local time and will provide customers with 1-1 attention. We’re closing all stores on Sundays. We are also encouraging customers to go online when possible and have included signage on doors to remind customers about CDC guidelines.

For retail employees, we have instructed them about social distancing and personal hygiene guidelines consist with CDC recommendation. We have also asked our staff to clean their hands and wipe down doors, devices, phones & surfaces after each customer interaction. Additionally, we have asked our employees to wipe down the entire store every 2 hours. We are providing additional cleaning supplies & will be cleaning the stores more frequently.

We are also offering paid time-off to any employee who needs it during these difficult times. This paid time-off will be provided to employees for any of the following reasons:

  • Experiencing COVID-19 symptoms and in self-quarantine
  • Tested positive for COVID-19 and in self-quarantine
  • Exposed to someone who has tested positive for COVID-19 and in self-quarantine
  • Recently returned from a high-risk country (Level 3 as defined by the CDC) or live with someone who has
  • Parents/legal guardians dealing with school or daycare closures
  • Employees who are considered at a higher risk for COVID-19

This is in addition to other benefits we provide such as vacation, sick time, etc.

Essential Business

The essential business designation comes from U.S. Department of Homeland Security. The DHS released guidance that noted our work as a critical communications provider as being essential.

Our customers and first responders find the service we provide in our retail locations invaluable, especially at moments like this. Because of the evolving circumstances and guidelines for social distancing, we are balancing the need to serve the public in our retail stores with the health and safety of our customers and our employees.