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Working through a pandemic

Major, local employers vary on their workplace workflows.
Published: Aug. 10, 2020 at 10:00 PM CDT
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MADISON, Wis. (WMTV) - Many of you have been working for months now. Offices had to make an immediate change to re-imagine their work spaces in response to Coronavirus.

We’re now six months into the pandemic, and it’s clear that there is no one size fits all when it comes to remote work policies and timelines for bringing workers back.

Dane Co. Executive Joe Parisi met with reporters Monday to urge local businesses to continue allowing their employees to work remotely whenever possible.

“Being tired of the pandemic is understandable but it doesn’t make the virus less dangerous,” Parisi said. “Disregarding safeguards puts more of us in danger. This virus is every bit as tenacious today as it’s ever been.”

Here’s how some of the areas largest businesses are dealing with it.

AMERICAN FAMILY INSURANCE

“I haven’t been in my office since March 17,” says Jim St. Vincent, Human Resources Senior Vice-President at American Family Insurance.

He says pre-pandemic about 80% of their employees worked on site. That number is now down to just 2%, or about 300 people.

“It’s been going extremely well. We’ve been able to keep up our productivity,” explains St. Vincent, “And then secondarily, we’re keeping our people safe. So that combination, we don’t see any urgency to change that.”

Instead, they’re trying to be innovative in the resources they offer employees, from virtual exercise classes to taking virtual breaks together to a pandemic pay policy that pays employees even if they can’t get all of their hours in.

“What do they need from us, what would be helpful?” says St. Vincent, “That starts with flexibility. So flexible hours, flexible days, flexible schedules.”

EXACT SCIENCES

At Exact Sciences two-thirds of their workforce was working on site pre-pandemic. That’s now down to 25%, or about 1,000 people.

“We’ve had to balance keeping the engagement and flexibility for people whose jobs allowed them that flexibility,” explains Sarah Condella, Senior Vice-President of Human Resources at Exact Sciences, “And also make sure we’re focused on the safety and well-being of our employees who are coming to work everyday and have continued to do so through these very uncertain times.”

She says Exact just built a new building in Madison’s Research Park.

“That was designed for bringing people together, gathering spaces, collaborating, and with the requirements around social distancing and keeping people safe, those spaces aren’t able to be used in that way today,” says Condella.

They’re also responding to new concerns from parents, now that many schools will start virtually next month.

“We are looking at a range of options,” explains Condella, “Everything from finding better ways to help our employees access resources for additional childcare, tutoring, eldercare. Things that would help them in balancing the fact that they may have a student home everyday, all day.”

EPIC SYSTEMS

At Epic in Verona, no one worked remotely before COVID-19. About one-third of the workforce has remained on campus. Other employees began returning to work today. The company has a phased plan to bring back about 10% of its workforce every two weeks. And just this past weekend, the company modified the plan to make it no longer mandatory to return to work, in response to a letter from Public Health Madison & Dane County.

“Epic has tried very hard to make sure that the reopening plan is consistent with federal, state and local guidelines and health orders,” says Dr. Nichole Quick, a physician at Epic who works on the company’s public health programs.

The sprawling 1,000 acre campus has 28 office buildings including a brand new one that opened last week. She says the company will be giving every employee an individual office. The company also improved the HVAC system and air turnover rates and reworked the cafeterias to a one-way traffic pattern.

“Unfortunately we have community level transmission of COVID here and elsewhere, and so that means your risk of transmission is not zero anywhere,” explains Dr. Quick, “We really want employees to feel empowered to do what they can to protect themselves.”

Epic’s plan, while no longer mandatory, is still to have everyone back by the end of September, with exceptions for parents and high risk employees, who will have flexible options until November.

“When we talk about bringing people back, we need everybody back, because every single person here is critical to our overall mission,” adds Sverre Roang, Chief Administrative Officer at Epic, “We have the patient at heart, and that is really felt here, so we feel a sense of duty in bringing everybody back.”

But not everyone agrees. The Madison Industrial Workers of the World released a statement last week claiming some of Epic’s 10,000 employees feel the company’s plan “will irreversibly harm many who live in Dane County.” But Roang says they have an open dialogue with employees and hope that continues.

“There’s a vocal minority that have concerns... we need to be responsive to any concerns,” explains Roang, “But we can’t be driven to make major changes at the company based on the concerns of a very select few either, so we have to balance this all out.”

UW HEALTH

When asked directly about whether it’s irresponsible for businesses to put a timetable into place right now, Dr. Jeffrey Pothof, Chief Quality Officer at UW Health, said, “I don’t think it’s irresponsible. One of the helpful things with deadlines or setting dates is that it helps frame up the work that you have ahead of you.”

As front-line workers, almost everyone worked on site pre-pandemic and 70% continue to do so, with no plans to bring back the other 30%.

“Once we see that there is this window of opportunity where we could actually reevaluate,” explains Dr. Pothof, “Whereas right now, everyone has to be basically at home if possible, just to support masking and social distancing.”

And he agrees that heading into a virtual start to school is the next big hurdle for staff. “It will impact our staff pretty significantly, and we’ll be working through that over the next several weeks to try to minimize that impact.”

Copyright 2020 WMTV. All rights reserved.

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