A written story submitted by Rose who works for a major insurer on the East Coast.
I’m in my mid-thirties and work in a call centre where I deal with home insurance queries for major brands on behalf of a large underwriter. I ended up moving to the east coast of Scotland by accident, running away with my partner from a good few years of treading water in Glasgow while we lived off my Employment Support Allowance for PTSD (and dealt with all the requisite DWP efforts to crush your spirit) and then, after we couldn’t take dealing with the deliberate hostility any more, living off the terrible earnings from various casual jobs in Glasgow, usually in call centres with awful conditions and huge turnover.
Not long after we moved my partner had started to work for the call centre I now work at too and they seemed to have made a deliberate choice to not do anything that others did to make you miserable. The wage was decent, no call time targets, no monitoring when you went to the toilet, no LEAN management and the conditions were actually good. There was an established union as well. A bit of money helped us stabilise, and I was lucky enough to have my partner and family support me while I spent a beautiful summer working and living in nature. I regained some confidence, things felt on the up and so I applied for a job at the same place as my partner so that we could live on our own again and figure out our next move. People had told me I would get it, but I felt when I walked in that I was wearing a sign on my head that said I was useless, so I was shocked when they offered me a job.
I turned out to be good at it. I had worked in call centers before which helped me. I liked that I actually had to think when I got a difficult call, I liked understanding the background of what I was doing, and I found that I was very good at speaking to people who were worried or upset. My Christmas holiday in 2020 marked just over a year of me being there – the longest I have held a job since I worked in pubs in uni. I wasn’t exactly proud of myself, plenty of people around me were doing far better and I generally despise the feeling of ‘hasn’t she done well in spite of…”, I just wanted to be doing well, full stop. Still, I knew it was a sign I was doing better than I had been and hoped the next year might see me making more progress. And then COVID appeared.
It wasn’t part of my job, but my colleagues and partner dealt with travel insurance. I had noticed news coverage of a new virus in China and it piqued my interest but it wasn’t really affecting things for us too much, though I did start thinking back to a book I’d read around 2010 (Gina Kolata, Flu) that discussed the 1918 flu pandemic and said we seemed overdue for another significant one. Relatively few people take holidays to China from the UK so you’d hear of the odd customer asking us how it would affect them but not that many, usually someone who travelled to see their family at new year and was worried they wouldn’t be able to go this year or a student who had gone home and was now afraid of getting stuck. Our call volumes behaved normally, other more routine ups and downs were our concern, a far off novel virus didn’t get much attention while storms battered our customers and our phone lines. As COVID-19 began to spread to other countries, the questions increased. What happens if I can’t go? What happens if I get quarantined? Should I go? Will you cover my treatment if I get ill? What if my holiday gets cancelled? What happens if I die abroad from COVID? Guidance was issued to answer all of these questions and call volumes steadily went up. With every news article and every unusually busy day for my partner on the phones I felt more nervous. Epidemiologists were starting to say this was serious and every day there seemed to be a new country with one case that quickly became a cluster, and then multiple clusters.
Work issued guidance about how to wash your hands thoroughly and posters showing the technique went up in every toilet area. We were all given a bottle of hand gel and a holder to attach to our clothes and use as we moved through the office. Anyone with symptoms was to isolate themselves but we all still sat next to each other, ate with each other, used the same toilets, used the gym, sat on transport together, and car-shared. I would usually have at least ten people within a few metres of me, often more. This all seems inexplicable to me now, like a different life. You could feel that the company was worried about what was happening, and we weren’t sure where it was going to end up. We were watching the virus roll towards us over the phone, keeping track of where people were making claims for, joking about it through gritted teeth. Travel workers were pulled into meetings and told to get ready, that things would really kick off when COVID got to popular holiday destinations and that this was really serious.
The day things really kicked off things started fairly normally. Travel lines were busy, but nothing that different from the previous weeks. I kept my eyes on the news between calls, watching to see where it would pop up next, both so I knew what was happening and so I could warn colleagues to expect a rise in calls if something big happened. In the middle of my shift a liveblog updated and announced that COVID-19 was in Tenerife. Within a minute of the news coming out my colleagues were staring down call queues of hundreds of people, then thousands, beyond anything we should ever have had to handle, all worried, all frightened, and getting angrier every minute they waited on the phone. People were drafted in to train rapidly to take the pressure off our colleagues somewhat. They took people’s anger and fear about what was happening, got a lot of abuse, and had very little time to recover between their calls. It often seems to me that people who phone up and engage in imperious, insulting behaviour don’t even consider that while they’re only having to make that one important call the person who answers might have spoken to dozens of different people already, often explaining the same things, doing the same work of soothing the customer, making the same apology for the wait time and explaining to them that they are one of thousands of people asking for help with the same issue, and then they go back to square one with the next call. To be able to act as if that person you’re speaking to is the first one that day, the most important person, and pretend that you’re not tired and frustrated, that you’re not frightened yourself – that’s a skill that very few people appreciate even though every customer expects it of you. I understood the fear and frustration of people who were having important plans cancelled, but found myself getting angry on behalf of my travel colleagues. People would speak to them as if the time they’d waited was their fault, they would tell us that we should be prepared for this and staff ourselves in such a way that we would always be prepared for a gigantic global crisis, and just did not seem to understand that if thousands and thousands of people are going to phone up just for reassurance at the same time as thousands of people are actually having to claim then there is going to be a queue. My partner was mentally exhausted after every shift and we found ourselves in the position of sometimes just not keeping up to date on the news because COVID was dominating his days to the point where he couldn’t listen to it any more.
Towards the end of March we were all sent home and I went from working in a loud and busy call centre with hundreds of colleagues in the building to sitting at an old writing bureau in my flat, tucked into a corner of our living room and working with a hard phone and computer equipment the company had sent out after I’d been at home for about a week with no way to work. My only colleague at home was my partner, doing his job in the spare room. We were defined as essential workers but we could do our job from home so we did. We hunkered down and waited to see what would come next. We weren’t allowed to go out except for essential shopping and exercise and so our customers and colleagues were sometimes the only people we spoke to that day, even if it was over the phone and teams. Now my job was affected too – not only were customers calling to let us know they now worked from home, we had a wave of customers who suddenly found themselves with no way to pay their premiums. We reviewed policies to reduce cover and minimise costs and deferred payments until furlough money eventually meant a customer could catch up on their bills, or redundancy or otherwise falling through the cracks of the support available meant they cancelled their cover entirely and took their chances. I spent time just talking to isolated shielding customers who found themselves without their usual support and facing huge uncertainty. Eventually, I started to receive calls where customers or their relatives had died of COVID-19. When you deal with home insurance you handle more death than you would think, and when someone dies we need to update their policy and make sure we’re protecting the interests of their estate and that everything’s sorted for their relatives. I’m fairly used to taking these calls, but they can still get to you occasionally. I nearly cried after helping a woman who had lost both parents to COVID within the same month and could not find insurance for the property to cover it until a sale, and I finally did cry after a call when a customer told me to remove cover away from home from his policy – it was only to cover them when they went away on holiday, and he wouldn’t go any more without his wife.
Nearly a year after I first wrote down what it was like to work during COVID-19 things are very much the same for me in terms of how I work and what I do, but things around me have moved on significantly. During lockdown my partner moved in to a professional apprenticeship and is now working towards a degree while being supported by our employer. As he has moved into the professional sphere of our company I have seen our worlds diverge a little – he now gets bank holidays off but I still work those because customer service is still open, he has set tasks to accomplish as he sees fit but I am available between set hours and am judged for the proportion of time I spend on each activity in my day. I have to put a code in to my phone system when I need to use the toilet, he doesn’t have to do that any longer. And yet despite my awareness of the differences between professionals and customer service staff I am also acutely aware that I am extremely lucky. I have found myself in the disconcerting position of actually coming out of things better than before in a lot of ways while other people have lost their jobs or seen their entire industry shut down. Capitalism and the financial infrastructure underpinning it cannot be allowed to stop, not even for a second, and so my job has been totally protected. My company has not furloughed a single employee. I have had a steady income, we haven’t missed a single rent payment, and my partner is in well-supported training for a professional career. My partner and I can both work from home permanently if we wish to – this affords us more flexibility when we decide where to live in the future. The calls we deal with at work are returning to normal after a huge flurry of activity this summer caused by stamp duty holidays and last minute relief from quarantine for double vaccinated people that caused a stampede for bookings (and so new travel insurance policies) at the end of the English school holidays. I still find it bizarre that a pandemic has improved things for us by allowing us to work from home and allowing me to avoid stressors, and I doubt I will ever not feel guilty about it either. As COVID went on and customer services were strained due to staff absence, companies looked to move more services online if possible – who knows if this will threaten the stability of my job in the future. For now, I am better off than I have been in years. I hope it lasts, and I hope the families of all my customers lost to this pandemic, and all the survivors of this pandemic, find peace and justice.