Interview with Gwynn

Gwynn is a Captioning Assistant at the Milwaukee CapTel call center who has contracted COVID-19. They have participated in multiple union actions and wanted the union to help spread their story to our coworkers.

CWU: Thank you for doing this interview with us. Can you tell us about the symptoms you’ve been experiencing? What has your experience with COVID-19 been like?

My symptoms started on March 24th with a cough, shortness of breath, and a low-grade fever. I called in sick twice, then talked to my doctor that Thursday and was told to quarantine for one week. If I was fever free for 3 days after that I could return to work. My fever did go away for a time, so I returned to work April 4th, but the cough and shortness of breath never relented. It was almost impossible to get through a work day, especially while wearing a mask to try to protect others. I called in at least once a week for the next two weeks because I wouldn’t be able to breathe. Then on April 20 I woke up and it was worse than ever and I also completely lost my sense of smell and taste. I called my primary care doctor again, and they told me to go to the ER to get tested. The doctor at the ER told me she was “almost positive” I had COVID-19, but because I didn’t need to be put on a ventilator right then, she was not going to test me. They gave me a package of free mucinex, tylenol and dramamine, and sent me home. When I talked to HR they agreed that I needed to stay home for at least another two weeks. My symptoms have continued to stay about the same. Cough, shortness of breath (even just trying to talk is difficult), fever that comes and goes, no taste or smell, and now my toes have turned red and swelled up. 

CWU: What do you think of the safety precautions at CapTel? Do you think you caught the virus there?

Things have been fast-changing and confusing, but also inadequate, in my opinion. No PPE has been provided. At first they just had us disinfecting work stations more thoroughly. Then they had people trying to leave empty cubes between each other, though that is quickly overridden if there aren’t enough cubes for everyone who’s working. They eliminated all meetings and interactions with supervisors, and the shift trackers. They had us bringing alcohol spray with us to do call take-overs. Then they eliminated call takeovers. And right around that time is when I was quarantined again. I’m unaware of what changes have happened since then.

CWU: Do you think the company has been doing enough to stop the spread of the virus?

Not at all. The most infuriating thing for me was that every time I talked to HR they said they had extra questions for me, but only if I had an actual positive test result. Since I haven’t been given a test, they’ve done nothing. I believe they’re avoiding contact tracing or preventative measures for people that I’ve been working with. They can get away with it because I haven’t tested positive. A doctor confirming it isn’t enough. They told me to stay home a third week, which is good, but everyone I worked with deserves to know.

CWU: We normally ask people if they have a CapTel horror story but in your case it’s pretty clear what yours is. Do you have any other negative experiences you’d like to talk about?

I think one of the worst things is the time I switched from first shift to second shift. There was a transitional week where I was in my new zone but still working in the mornings. I had a very heavy, hardcover book that I was reading between calls. I didn’t like how much effort and noise was involved in lifting it and opening it and then closing and putting it back down between calls. So I would stand it up on the desk. I was not actively reading it on calls.

But a supervisor I had never met before saw it and decided to write me up for it. She had to ask my name to put on the form. It cheated me out of a full raise in February. Even though I had been reading that book for weeks and my previous supervisor never had a problem with it.

CWU: Why do you believe CapTel workers need a union?

The higher-ups in this company are like capitalists everywhere. They make far more money from our labor than we ever will, and mistreat us. They toss us tiny consolation prizes like being allowed to wear whatever we want or free lunches once in a while as though it does anything to make our lives tangibly better. Only by banding together can we force them to give us a living wage and better working conditions.

I would like to add, though, that we also need to be pushing for our part-time workers to have access to their PTO. I’ve been accruing it since I started working, and currently have over 100 hours saved up, and am not allowed to access it. That’s criminal. Why even keep track of it if I can’t use it? Even if I recover and can return to work I’ll have to work another 3 months before I can use PTO to make sure that on the days when my disabilities keep me from getting out of bed, I’ll still be able to make rent.

Sickout update

Days after our sickout, an expression of collective discontent and a protest of our working conditions, CapTel admin have announced that we will be given 15 extra minutes of aux time per shift. For an 8-hour shift this means that ~91% adherence is needed to avoid discipline. CapTel Workers Union has had a stated demand for a 90%-adherence requirement in our five-point platform from day one.

Let’s keep pushing forward for $15/hour, our other demands, and workplace democracy. Let’s remember that this break from the normal austerity that governs our workdays can be ended by the whim of admin at any time. The boss’s promises are just words; a union contract is set in stone.

CapTel Workers Union calls sickout

Today, March 18, 2020, IWW members at CapTel engaged in a sickout at both the Madison and Milwaukee offices.

CapTel workers at Milwaukee are demanding a living wage – defined as $15 an hour – as part of their five-point platform which they have been advocating for since 2014, which includes: 90 percent adherence policy, better equipment and maintenance, transportation compensation of $10 per week, and a voice in how the company is run with union representatives given access to mediate conflicts.

Similarly, CapTel workers in Madison are demanding $15 an hour and a defined, compensated sick leave plan.

At the moment, CapTel workers in Madison are now able to call off sick without receiving any penalty, but are uncompensated. One worker stated that, “We’re afraid that we are essentially being forced to go into work during the coronavirus spread, when others aren’t. If we are quarantined and can’t go to work, we’ll be late on rent. We don’t want to be treated like we don’t matter.”

CapTel workers are classified as Telecommunications Service Priority Level 3, the same level given to that of state and local police and fire departments, but are paid at much lower rates than other emergency workers.

Call volumes throughout shifts have increased as a result of COVID-19, increasing process times for emergency responses. Without a pay increase, turnover rates could continue to rise, affecting both the workers and consumers. We call upon CapTel to meet these workers’ demands and support their workforce during these troubling economic times.

We staff a trauma floor

Trauma floor

The Verge recently published an article called “the Trauma Floor” about the hidden lives of Facebook’s content moderators, the folks who are responsible for reviewing the posts that Facebook users report to determine if they violate the site’s policies.

The article is an expose of the austere working conditions at Cognizant, a third-party company that Facebook contracts with, and the brutal toll that the job takes on the content moderators’ mental health and happiness. I was filled with horror while reading it by the oppressive and traumatic nature of the job until it dawned on me—Cognizant sounds exactly like CapTel.

Cognizant employees are forced to look at traumatic content all day long with no consideration for their mental well-being. Workers gradually become depressed or get roped into the weird conspiracy theories or far-right belief systems presented in the posts they endlessly review.

The article stressed how the time of the moderators is micromanaged, with the company allowing them only two fifteen-minute breaks and a half hour lunch during their shift and closely monitoring every minute of their time away from their cubicle. Cameras are everywhere to ensure constant supervision of employees and they are given monitors regularly during which a supervisor remotely watches their work.

People watch their coworkers go from being pleasant, well-adjusted people to conspiracy theorist crackpots and racist bigots who wander the halls and mutter to each other about the earth being flat and using racial slurs, their minds slowly warped over time by the sheer deluge of vile content that flashes across their screen every day of their career with Cognizant.

CapTel’s content is not nearly so consistently putrid, of course, but every captionist has memories of terrible calls that they carry with them. Obviously, I can’t list examples here but I remember calls that honestly shocked me when I heard them.

Our job is also very grinding in nature and even when not explicitly terrible the calls we caption have the tendency to make many of us focus on our own mortality. For someone who struggles with depression, even as relatively mild as my case is, this can easily lead to a preoccupation with death. I’ve found myself in some incredibly dark holes during my time at CapTel. Surrounded by three drab, undecorated cubicle walls and with nothing to distract me but my thoughts, the call content has often led me into a spiraling tailspin of seasonal depression.

The job that we do is one that pays poorly despite how taxing it can be. We caption calls that deal with death, poverty, heartache, and racism. We deserve a raise for the emotional labor that we do and for a myriad of other reasons.

We deserve to be paid more.

We staff a trauma floor.

This piece was written for volume 6 of the CapTel Disconnect. To read the full issue and past editions click here.

CapTel Workers Union distributes cookies on Valentine’s Day

Helen Keller placemat with $15 cookies

On Valentine’s Day some members of the union distributed cookies frosted to say $15.

One of the union members was approached by HR and told he could not do this because it was solicitation. He said “no, it’s organizing” and was left alone.

FOS Nate was seen ripping up one of the placemats we made. Our placemats featured a picture of Helen Keller, a famous labor rights activist and member of the IWW. There can be no better illustration of the disgusting greed and hypocrisy that CapTel embodies than a member of admin shredding a photo of the deaf and blind woman they namedrop constantly while trying to garner positive PR.

The fact that CapTel could be so threatened by Valentine’s Day sugar cookies simply shows how scared they are of the union. They are right to be scared. Their lies, repression, and propaganda cannot keep the workers down.

We are going to win and they know it.

Sorry To Bother You! A Worker’s Movie Review

Sorry To Bother You!

Boots Riley’s directorial debut Sorry To Bother You! was one of my favorite movies of 2018. The plot follows Cassius (“Cash” to his friends) Green as he works at a call center called RegalView, feeling torn between his loyalty to his work friends who are trying to unionize and the job security and chance for a promotion that comes with siding with the company.

It’s a movie that I believe will instantly resonate with anyone who has worked at CapTel. As Cash enters Regalview’s call floor on his first day on the job we see the all-too-familiar setup of drab gray cubicles, computer monitors, and headsets. The company has a team meeting where management prattles on and on about their employees being a team and a family. “Does that mean we’re getting a raise?” asks an employee, which management responds to with forced laughter.

One of the things that I love about Sorry To Bother You! is the way in which ordinary people are the heroes of the movie. When we watch the Hunger Games we all identify with Katniss and feel sure that we would stand up and fight back against an evil government like the Capitol. For most of us, our lives are closer to a Villager #7 than a Katniss.

Sorry To Bother You! forces you to consider what you would do because it is about a power struggle that we all take part in on a daily basis whether we know it or not. We all wake up and go to a job where we have no power despite being the ones who produce all profits for the company. We are not part of a team as we do not have a say in how the company is run or what our working conditions are. We are managed servants.

It doesn’t have to be that way. Despite the position we are in now of being bullied and dictated to we actually have the ability to flip the power dynamic. If none of us showed up to work one day the administration would be in a blind panic. They could get all of HR and the management team onto the phones and it would do nothing to stem the tide of lost profits and FCC fines that they would be facing. The company is ruined if we decide to act in a group and they don’t meet our demands. To quote the famous union organizer and IWW member Big Bill Haywood “all the workers have to do is fold their hands behind their backs and they have the capitalist class whipped.”

This is an incredible amount of power. It just has to be seized by us as a group. This is where we have to make a choice. We can stand up for ourselves and with our coworkers or we can aid the boss, either through our apathy or by being actively anti-union. You can decide you want to fight for your coworkers to have better benefits, for single mothers to be able to afford Christmas presents, for your cubicle neighbor to be able to get that cavity filled, for the person you see every day in the break room to have food security.

Or you can decide to let things stay as they are while Rob Engelke shops for another yacht and lives a life of absurd luxury and greed that he has built for himself by paying low wages and keeping thousands of other people in near-poverty.

It’s a battle between human dignity and the rich and powerful and it’s one that you play a role in. To get involved in the right side of the fight contact the CapTel Workers Union and encourage your friends at work to do so as well. Maybe you can even host a Sorry To Bother You! movie night for your friends and talk with them about the importance of taking a stance in this fight for workplace democracy.

At one point in STBY! Cash begins to wonder “am I doing anything meaningful with my life?” He’s stuck in a rut of spending nine hours a day watching a computer screen and that’s a feeling we can all relate to. We have all watched minutes and hours of our lives tick away at work, wishing the time would go by faster, wishing away parts of our limited time here on earth. Cash eventually finds meaning in the fight to make his workplace better for himself and his coworkers. We can find that meaning too.

This piece was written for volume 6 of the CapTel Disconnect. To read the full issue and past editions click here.

Interview with Sam

If you could change one thing about CapTel what would it be? Why?

Simply put, we, the workers should decide the conditions of our labor. This includes a livable pay, an amount of aux time that works for everyone, better-maintained workstations, among other things. We would enact policies based on worker happiness and comfort instead of squeezing out profits and instead of performing discipline and punishment.

Sam at the CapTel picket
Photo by Joe Brusky

What is your CapTel horror story?

I biked to work one day, fell off and scraped my knee on the way there because of a driver making a hasty left. I took the bus to work, showed up bleeding, and after punching in late, I was briefly given a band-aid and wipe as medical attention by a busy supervisor. I was still punished for being late on top of the injury, and I was expected to work as usual. It was at this point that I realized CapTel was not treating me as a human being.

Why do you believe CapTel needs a union?

CapTel needs a union because management is not addressing the needs of the workers. We are often so beaten down by the work that we don’t even have the energy to organize. We often grate against the systems in place, and leave feeling helpless to tackle this bureaucracy alone. Hundreds of people suffer from a small few who can only spare costs when it comes to their high-end lifestyle. If we can raise consciousness, we can harness our frustration instead of suppressing it and we can make a difference

Interview with Joe

Photo by Joe Brusky

CWU: If you could change one thing about CapTel with a magic wand what would it be?

If I could change one thing about CapTel it would be to give all of the workers a living wage and a voice on the job and to make sure to give the workers the power to make sure they are treated with dignity and respect.

CWU: What do you mean by a voice on the job?

A voice on the job, to me, means that the worker has somebody in their corner, that the worker’s interests are represented in the company, that the workers are united as a collective to make sure that what is best for them is implementedto make sure that people are treated as human beings with dignity rather than replaceable data points at the mercy of the company. I would like to bring people into a more equitable bargaining relationship, negotiating relationship, with the company.

CWU: Do you have a CapTel horror story?

I remember many times being unable to go to the bathroom, having to wait for ridiculous amounts of time to go to the bathroom, because I had to constantly worry about my every minute away from the computer being tracked. I remember hearing and dealing with so much racism and hatred on the phones and other disgusting forms of communication that we’re forced to listen to and tolerate and how little regard there was for the stress and suffering that a lot of workers have to go through.

CWU: Why do you believe CapTel needs a union?

I believe that CapTel needs a union because the workers at CapTel are very hardworking people who are doing a very important service for the community. They are helping folks with a disability communicate with others and they are acting essentially as an advocate for them. I believe that it is very important that these workers who play such an important social role are treated themselves with dignity and respect and are given the pay and conditions that they need and deserve to stay in the role. I believe we owe it to the users of CapTel to have their calls be captioned by professionals that are happy and represented by an organization and have security and dignity and a voice on the job rather than by people that are treated as disposable and have no incentive to maintain a high level of service. I think that the goal of the union is very much intertwined with the positive aspects of CapTel and its mission to help people.

Deeper than that, I believe that CapTel workers need a union because all workers deserve a union and it’s just fundamentally illegitimate and unfair to have people being treated as disposable cogs in a machine to be used up and thrown away. That’s how CapTel treats people and the union is needed to change that reality.

Interview with Debbie

This interview has been edited to remove information that could be used to identify other employees that were mentioned.

CWU: If you could change one thing about CapTel what would it be?

Definitely employee relations. They don’t take certain complaints seriously enough with people being creepy, and I don’t just mean CAs but also supervisors. One of my friends who I met through CapTel, apparently a supervisor was intimidating her and she talked to HR about it. Now he is an FOS. He was promoted. She has trauma from it.

HR does nothing about it. They don’t care. They care more about, “oh, he is a great employee.” It makes you feel like you don’t matter beyond being numbers. A friend told HR about a conflict she was having with another employee and they said “well, we aren’t here to make friends.” They did nothing to try to resolve it.

CWU: So the one thing you’d like to change would be how seriously the company takes harrassment?

Yes, absolutely.

CWU: Do you have a CapTel horror story?

I have been working there eight and a half years. Eight years in is when this started. I reported a guy to HR and they simply said that he wasn’t allowed to talk to me anymore. When HR switched over that note must have been lost or maybe they never even made a note because one day I go into a team meeting and we are in the same team meeting. He is sitting right across from me, staring at me, talking to me when he is not supposed to be. It made me so uncomfortable.

CWU: Why do you believe CapTel needs a union?

I believe that if we are together in numbers they won’t be able to ignore the things that are going on anymore. We will be able to share with each other the things that are happening and then we can come to CapTel and say this is happening with so many people, you need to take care of this.

I was afraid but I shouldn’t be afraid. I was thinking, “oh, I need CapTel,” but that’s what they want.

Interview with Jill

CapTel Workers Union’s own Jill explains why they are fighting for a union and a democratic workplace at CapTel.


CWU: If you could change one thing at CapTel with a magic wand, what would it be? Why?

There are a lot of things that I would change about CapTel, but if I had to pick just one, it would have to be the wages. Eleven dollars an hour isn’t a living wage, and it’s really cruel and demeaning to expect your workers to care about their jobs and to be exemplary employees when they’re not even making enough money to survive. 

CWU: Do you have a CapTel horror story?

The most horrible thing I’ve seen at CapTel is people coming into work really ill, because CapTel basically encourages people to come in when they’re sick. What I mean by that is they offer us very few sick days, and if you take too many sick days in a row, you need a doctor’s note in order to not get fired. Lots of employees at CapTel can’t afford to go to the doctor, so this, along with the need to go to work and make money, results in lots of people coming to work sick.

One day I was just walking through the call center, and I saw someone get sick at their desk while captioning. They muted their microphone to get sick in their trash can, and then resumed captioning, because they couldn’t get a call takeover in time to run to the bathroom. And that really disturbed me. I still think about just how awful that must have been for that person, to be at this job where if they left their computer to run to the bathroom when they were ill, they would have gotten fired for abandoning the call. And if they’re not given a call takeover in time, then getting sick in their trash can at their desk is the only option for them. That just really stood out to me, and I think says a lot about the type of workplace that CapTel is, as this sort of thing happens pretty regularly. 

CWU: Why do you believe CapTel needs a union?

I believe CapTel needs a union because the people [captioning assistants] who are on the front lines and actually doing all the work and bringing in all of the profits for the company need to be given representation. We need a union because we deserve living wages, better healthcare, more empathetic policies. [CapTel management] have made it clear that they’re not just going to give us $15 an hour out of the goodness of their hearts. It’s clear that the higher-ups at CapTel don’t want to treat us better without putting up a fight, and I believe we need a union because that’s the most effective way to positively change our workplace. A more democratic workplace would benefit every CA.