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When cable technicians make home visits these days, they make sure to wear masks. But all too often, the homeowners do not.

“Most customers I go to aren’t wearing masks anymore,” said a Comcast technician in Stockton, California, who asked not to be named for fear of losing his job.

The technician said he refuses to go inside and fix the TV or internet service if the client won’t wear a face covering. Some of his co-workers have gotten sick from the coronavirus and are under quarantine, he said, adding to his sense of caution. “It’s very concerning,” he said. “I have a family and a 14-month-old daughter at home to think of.”

The tension over masks is playing out across the retail landscape as businesses reopen and coronavirus cases soar. But nationwide, cable field workers are a particularly large and vulnerable group. While major retail and restaurant chains, like McDonald’s and Walmart, now require that consumers wear masks in stores, cable companies haven’t mandated that customers cover up inside their homes.

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends that household members wear masks during any in-home service visit. Some internet providers ask customers to wear face coverings but say it’s up to employees whether they feel safe to enter a home and should contact their supervisors if they don’t. Compliance has been spotty, making cable technicians uneasy.

Agitations have bubbled up on social media. Last month, a Twitter user suggested that she saw no reason to comply when a cable company asked her to wear a mask while a technician was visiting her home. “What would be the point?” the user tweeted. “I’ve been here breathing for years!” The user didn’t respond to a request for comment.

Fear of getting the coronavirus has created additional stress in what is already a challenging job. Cable technicians drive door to door, visiting dozens of homes each month, sometimes climbing through attics or crawl spaces to install or repair TV, phone and internet service. To the general public, they are perhaps best known for being late.

Recently, the job has become a public service of sorts. During the pandemic, with millions of Americans relying on internet connections to work from home and attend school remotely, cable technicians have been deemed “essential workers” alongside doctors and firefighters. For their employers, business is booming.

Last quarter, Comcast Corp. added 323,000 internet customers, the company’s best result during that period in 13 years. After schools shut down, Charter Communications Inc., which goes by the name Spectrum, hooked up 448,000 new families and teachers with a free two-month internet offer.

Cable companies say they have taken several measures to protect their front-line workers, such as giving them hand sanitizer, masks, gloves and boot covers. Companies have tried to address service problems remotely by phone or video chat and have encouraged customers to install equipment themselves to limit in-person visits.

A Charter spokesperson said that technicians should call a supervisor “if they are uncomfortable — for any reason — at a customer’s residence or business.” Comcast, the largest U.S. internet provider, said it asks customers to wear face coverings and to stay at least 10 feet away from technicians during in-home visits. An AT&T spokesman says technicians must wear masks during in-home visits and “we have equipped them to evaluate customer home visits before entering.”

Some customers have complained on Twitter about technicians not wearing masks. In March, a family in Charlotte, North Carolina, was exposed to the virus by a Charter technician who tested positive.

A Charter technician in North Carolina said he visits, on average, about 130 homes a month. About 80% of customers don’t wear masks, he said, and some technicians have gotten notes saying “customer has Covid but still needs service.”

“We now have masks and gloves, but if the customers don’t have to wear them it does no good,” he said.

A Comcast technician in the Denver area said he does not feel “overly safe” because more than half of his customers don’t wear masks. “My concern comes from the extreme lack of face coverings at the customers’ houses I need to enter,” the technician said.

In March, a Comcast technician in New Jersey died after being diagnosed with COVID-19. According to a Comcast spokesperson, he was likely exposed to the virus at a social gathering outside of work, and the company contacted customers whose homes he had recently entered.

The spokesperson said that a “relatively small number” of Comcast technicians nationwide have tested positive for the coronavirus.

In April, the New York Times reported that more than 230 Charter employees have tested positive for COVID-19 but didn’t break down how many were technicians. The attorney general of New York has opened an inquiry into the company’s handling of employees during the pandemic, the Times reported. The attorney general’s office declined to comment on the inquiry, which is ongoing.

At least seven AT&T technicians in the Atlanta area have tested positive for the coronavirus, according to Ed Barlow, president of the Local 3204 chapter of the Communications Workers of America. A couple have been hospitalized.

AT&T performs contact tracing when an employee tests positive, notifies coworkers who may have been exposed and provides up to 10 work days of paid quarantine time, a spokesperson said.

Barlow said that in some cases AT&T technicians have requested that customers wear masks and they have refused. Asking customers if they’ve been exposed to the virus isn’t enough, he added, because they might not give an honest answer. “They want their service fixed,” said Barlow. “And they know that if they say they tested positive, we’re not coming into their home.”

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