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BCE Inc.'s Bell Canada is among those seeking new options to bring call centre jobs back home.

Melissa Tait/The Globe and Mail

Closures and absenteeism at offshore call centres have left some Canadian companies scrambling for ways to deal with a surge in call volumes amid a global pandemic. Some firms are retraining staff from other departments to help with the influx of calls, while others are offering added pay for workers staffing centres in this country.

Government-imposed quarantines have depleted the ranks of workers in the world’s call centre capital, the Philippines, where employees typically sit close together and share equipment such as headset microphones. Contact centres in other countries have also been affected, as employees fall sick or are forced to stay home.

That’s left Canadian companies looking for ways to bring call centre jobs back home, according to union representatives and consultants. Among those seeking new options are telecom providers Telus Corp. and BCE Inc.'s Bell Canada, which operate call centres in the Philippines and other countries in Asia and Central America.

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David Filwood, owner of call centre consultancy TeleSoft Systems, says companies with offshore contact centres typically have contingency plans to reroute calls to other jurisdictions in case of an incident, such as a typhoon knocking their Filipino operations offline. “Nobody was really thinking about what happens if all the centres go offline," said Mr. Filwood.

Unifor, a union that represents roughly 7,000 to 8,000 call centre employees, says Bell Canada has retrained roughly 1,000 installers who would normally be going into people’s home to instead handle calls. This comes after three of its overseas contact centres – in the Philippines, Tunisia and India – were completely shuttered. The closures come amid “very high” call volumes for Bell, says Chris Macdonald, assistant to the Unifor national president.

“Everyone’s using their internet," said Mr. Macdonald. "People want to upgrade. People want to reconnect their home phones because their cellphones keep dropping calls in the midst of conference calls.”

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Bell spokesperson Marc Choma said the company is bringing “all our resources to bear” amid the significant increase in call volumes, including redeploying retail workers to customer service roles.

Telus is also tapping its retail ranks to offset challenges with its overseas operations.

“A portion of our international call centres are impacted by stay at home restrictions; however the majority of our international agents are working from home,” Telus spokesperson Erin Dermer said in an e-mail.

The unprecedented, global nature of the COVID-19 pandemic has left many organizations seeking solutions on domestic soil, according to Frank Muzzi, leader of customer experience consultancy CX Solutions.

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“There is a lot of activity right now with large organizations that have outsourced to the Philippines trying to shop around for additional seats [at call centres] in Canada,” Mr. Muzzi said. Such capacity is hard to come by, Mr. Muzzi said.

Companies that operate call centres have been taking measures to keep workers safe, including spacing desks at least two metres apart, increasing sanitation and ordering additional equipment to enable agents to answer the phone lines from home.

“All of the employers are doing their level best to mitigate where possible and still a run a business,” said Donna Hokiro, acting president of United Steelworkers local 1944, which represents employees at Telus, Shaw Communications Inc., MAP Communications and Strategic Communications Inc. But, she added, “myself and my team are working to ensure that we keep their feet to the fire."

Eric Agius, chief customer officer at Rogers Communications Inc., said he expects that nearly all of the company’s agents, nearly all of whom work in Canada, will be working from home by the end of the month. In the meantime, Rogers will temporarily provide premium pay for those working at its sites, Mr. Agius said.

Banks, which are also seeing significant increases in call volumes as Canadians seek flexibility on loans amid the financial fallout stemming from the pandemic, are also taking precautions. In addition to spacing out workers, cleaning their offices more frequently and enabling as many employees as possible to work from home, some financial institutions – including the Bank of Montreal, the Royal Bank of Canada and the Canadian Imperial Bank of Commerce – are providing a daily $50 stipend to those working on-site.

CIBC has also added daily temperature checks at its offices, according to an internal memo obtained by the Globe.

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The safety measures come amid COVID-19 diagnoses at two of Canada’s big banks. RBC confirmed last month that two employees at its Mississauga office complex have been diagnosed with the virus, and a worker at CIBC’s 800 Bay St. office in Toronto has also tested positive.

“Enhanced cleaning has been completed at the location in addition to our ongoing cleaning measures,” CIBC spokesperson Trish Tervit said in an e-mail. “We have notified local public officials and are following their protocols.”

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