Covid-19: Key considerations for call centres

On 9 April 2020, the Minister of Health and Minister of Trade, Industry and Competition issued a directive under the Disaster Management Act Regulations (the Regulations) to clarify the extent and conditions upon which call centres may operate during the lockdown (the Directive).

Call centres which are necessary to provide health, safety, social support, government and financial services are considered to be an essential service in terms of the Regulations (these include those call centres that provide these services to international markets).

All relevant regulations and directives issued in terms of the Disaster Management Act, 2002 apply to call centres. These conditions include that:

  1. only necessary personnel which provide these essential services are entitled to leave their residences;

  2. the CEO (or a person designated by him for this purpose) must identify essential staff and provide such staff with a permit to perform essential services (in the format contained in the Regulations); and

  3. a copy of the Directive must be prominently displayed in call centres and a copy must be given to each employee.

Hygienic workplace conditions and the potential exposure of employees to COVID-19

All regulations and directions in respect of hygienic workplace conditions and the potential exposure of employees to COVID-19 must be followed. Practically, this means that every call centre should:

  1. conduct a risk assessment to identify, mitigate and eliminate potential exposure to COVID-19 transmission;
  2. maintain the social distance standard of at least 1,5sm between any two employees (within the call centre and their precincts);
  3. make arrangements to ensure that social distancing is maintained by employees whilst clocking-in and making use of canteen facilities;
  4. ensure that the number of persons in any room at any time is limited, taking into account social distancing, personal hygiene, disinfection and other safety measures;
  5. ensure that there is proper ventilation;
  6. provide dispensers of alcohol-based hand sanitiser and display these prominently for use by all persons within the call centre and its precinct, and ensure that each employee has access to his/her own dispenser;
  7. clean and disinfect all surfaces and equipment in the call centre and its precinct before the start of a new shift and at least every four hours;
  8. disable all access points with biometric contact (the employer may need to implement alternative "clocking in" mechanism such as swiping of access tags to ensure that the employer maintains its records in the event that processes such as disciplinary action is necessary);
  9. ensure that employees are not sharing any equipment, stationary, utensils or similar items;
  10. advise employees that they should report any COVID-19 symptoms that they might be experiencing during the course of a shift, where after they must immediately be sent for self-quarantine and provided with a surgical mask;
  11. where employees are suspected of having COVID-19, they must be immediately isolated from other employees and reported to the Department of Health;
  12. there should be no more than one third of the facilities normal workforce during the lockdown period; and
  13. implement any additional requirements for employees in terms of personal protective equipment as may be directed by the National Department of Health (including, but not limited to, face masks).

Every employee at a call centre should adhere to the regulations and directions issued in respect of hygienic workplace conditions and potential exposure to COVID-19. This includes that employees:

  1. must not share equipment, stationary, utensils or similar items;
  2. should monitor themselves for symptoms of COVID-19 and report their symptoms to a supervisor or occupational health practitioner before entering the call centre; and
  3. should, as far as possible, remain within the premises during work hours.

Health and Safety Officers

Designated and adequately trained health and safety officers must take each employee's temperature at the start of a shift and every four hours after the shift commences. A record of the temperatures of each employee should be kept.  

Where an employee's temperature is 37,5 degrees or higher, that employee should immediately be moved to an isolated observation room for a second measurement to be taken.  If the second measurement also exceeds 37,5 degrees, that employee must be returned home for quarantine, provided with a surgical mask and not permitted to enter or stay on the premises.

In addition, when employees enter the premises, the health and safety officers are required to check whether any employee has experienced any of the COVID-19 symptoms (coughing, chills, sore throat, shortness of breath, body pains, diarrhoea and/or fever) in the past 24 hours, and where they indicate that they have (or where they demonstrate these symptoms) the employee must not be granted entry to the premises.

It is important to note that in terms of section 7(1) of the Employment Equity Act 55 of 1998 (EEA) medical testing of an employee is prohibited, unlesslegislation permits or requires the testing. Accordingly, if an employee refuses to allow an adequately trained health and safety officer to take his/her temperature, the employer of a call centre may rely on section 7(1) of the EEA given that the Directive requires and/or permits such testing.  Similarly, the need to take regular temperatures (and comply with all other health and hygiene requirements) is likely to be considered as a reasonable instruction by the employer, issued by the employer in the interests of health and safety. It is therefore an offence in terms of the Occupational Health and Safety Act for an employee to fail to comply with these measures, once implemented.

Report to the Business Processing Enabling South Africa (BPESA)

On a weekly basis, the CEO (or a person designated by him for this purpose) must provide a written report to BPESA with the following information:

  1. staff numbers;
  2. staff wellness;
  3. service activity;
  4. compliance; and
  5. the measures taken to limit numbers, ensure personal hygiene and disinfection and enforce social distancing.

What, if due to a decline demand, not all call centre essential services employees are required?

Businesses which are essential services may be in a position that they cannot run effectively as a result of the effects of the COVID-19 on the economy which in turn directly impacts their business.  Businesses in this scenario may consider options such as reduced pay, unpaid leave, partial closure, down-sizing operations or permanent closure of their business subject, however, to applicable labour legislation requirements.

If an employer only requires a limited number of essential services employees, it must mindful not to discriminate against employees when determining which employees will be required to work.