Automakers are letting hundreds of thousands of customers around the country defer loan and lease payments during the pandemic, offering a small bit of financial relief in a dramatically uncertain time. But customers who call Honda of North America to ask for one of these deferrals are likely talking to a representative who’s still working in one of the company’s regional offices, because it’s making many employees come into these offices despite local stay-at-home orders, The Verge has learned.
Honda’s financial services division has told employees across its regional offices that they are considered “essential” workers because the various state orders allow “financial institutions” to continue business as usual. Honda has also cited customer privacy concerns and access to its call center dialing technology when explaining why these employees can’t work from home, according to one of the employees. One employee who had to quarantine themselves was even let go.
Other automakers have told The Verge that their own financial services divisions are working from home with no issues.
Ford, for example, said all of the tech that its customer service center employees use (including call recording, monitoring, routing, and dialer technology) can be accessed from home, and so its financial services employees are no longer in the office. Nissan says its financial service employees are all working remotely using company-issued computers with “standard security protections” including two-factor authentication for “accessing corporate systems and telephony routing systems.”
Toyota has its financial services team working remotely, according to Vince Bray, the company’s national manager of corporate communications. “This is the first large-scale remote deployment of our customer service capabilities, and it’s gone quite well,” he said. General Motors and Volkswagen also told The Verge that all of their financial services employees are working from home.
An employee at Honda’s “Region 1” office in Cypress, California, who spoke with The Verge on the condition of anonymity out of fear of losing his job, said Honda has implemented some social distancing measures and increased cleaning over the last month. But he doesn’t feel the company has gone far enough, especially after one of the his coworkers was told to quarantine themselves by their physician for two weeks in March after apparently coming into contact with someone who had COVID-19.
Honda allowed the employee to stay at home, and told the five people who they worked closest with to self-isolate as well. But the quarantined worker was eventually let go after their physician recommended they stay home for an additional week, according to the financial services employee who spoke to The Verge.
The employee who spoke to The Verge says that he and others have felt especially pressured to keep coming into work during the shelter-in-place order because they are technically employed through a temp agency, with a loose promise of being hired on as full-time employees after about a year. And he says management has treated the two sets of workers differently, too, as a few full-time employees were recently allowed to start working from home while the temp agency workers — who make up the majority of the office — still have to come in.
Honda has taken some protective measures at this California office. The company has staggered employee schedules, set up new work stations in conference rooms, and handed out longer power cords so that workers can spread out, according to the employee and an internal email viewed by The Verge. Honda has also told workers not to share any food or drink, removed seats and utensils from the break room, and recommended that they “BYO F,K,S,C” (fork, knife spoon, cup), according to the email.
But about 50 of the 100 or so regular employees are still reporting to the office every day, even after an extensive round of company-wide furloughs, he says. They’ve each been given a letter signed by Honda North America senior vice president and general counsel Catherine McEvilly that they’re supposed to show to law enforcement in case they’re stopped on their way to or from work, according to a picture of the letter viewed by The Verge.
“Even with what they’ve done, I still don’t feel really comfortable being there. But I also need a job because I see what everybody else is going through,” the employee said. “I’m just like, okay, hopefully nothing happens.”
For the first few weeks, this employee said, the volume of calls coming in from customers who wanted to defer their loan or lease payments was so great that there was barely time to worry about the risk of being in the office. (Honda said in the email, which was sent in late March, that it had already granted over 67,000 of these extensions.) But the employee said that the call volume dropped dramatically after Honda made it possible for customers to request an extension online, which is something other automakers have done since mid-March.
An employee at Honda finance’s regional office in Massachusetts, who also spoke to The Verge on the condition of anonymity, said managers there had taken “extreme precaution to make sure [employees] feel comfortable coming in.” This employee said that only about 25 of the 100 or so regular workers were still coming in every day, and that they’re “really” spread out. But, she says it feels like they “definitely aren’t in a safe environment even with these precautions.”
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A spokesperson for Honda North America said the company’s “utmost concern is the safety of our associates,” but declined to answer specific questions.
“We continue to adhere to CDC guidelines for social distancing as well as safety measures the company already has in place. Our current average facility occupancy is at approximately 50 percent, with about half of our associates working remotely,” they said. “We are making every effort to offer more remote work opportunities. Additionally, we have prioritized remote work for associates with high risk health conditions and those who are over age 60. Cleaning and disinfection continues throughout each day at all Honda and Acura Financial Services facilities.”
When asked why Honda’s financial services workers need to be in the office when those at other automakers are already working remotely, the spokesperson said: “We think our statement speaks for itself and don’t have anything else to add.”