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How the coronavirus outbreak is changing the way we work

Employees across Buffalo Niagara are learning how to work in different ways because of the coronavirus crisis.

Many big employers are encouraging more workers to work from home.

Some are dividing their workforces into teams to add a layer of redundancy to their operations.

Others are changing work schedules so employees aren't all together at once.

With fear of coronavirus spreading faster than the virus itself, businesses are feeling more pressure to take action, particularly in response to the urging or even directives from state and local government leaders. So far, 20 cases of coronavirus have been confirmed in Erie County – including two involving employees of major companies, Tops Markets and M&T Bank Corp. And officials are increasingly encouraging "social distancing" to keep people apart in order to halt the spread.

How local companies are responding varies, and those responses are constantly changing as the situation evolves. Some local companies are drawing upon the contingency plans developed for major snowstorms.

Here's how work is changing at some local companies.

Independent Health, the region's No. 2 health insurer, implemented a companywide work-from-home policy as of Monday, and temporarily closed its five Medicare Information Centers. The new work policy will be in effect "until further notice," and will be reassessed daily, the company said.

“We made the decision on Friday to implement our work-from-home policy as part of our responsibility to the community to contain the spread of the virus and ‘flatten the curve,’ ” said Dr. Michael W. Cropp, Independent Health's president and CEO.

Cropp said the company upgraded its technology systems last year to handle such a move, and tested it both in phases and in full, when it had all employees work from home on the same day to make sure it would function.

The CDC urges people to wash hands often with soap and water for at least 20 seconds to avoid spreading the coronavirus and other viruses. (Getty Images)

The Medicare centers that have temporarily closed are located at 620 Dick Road in Depew, 250 Essjay in Williamsville, 746 Young St. in Tonawanda, 3225 Southwestern Blvd. in Orchard Park and 66 Chautauqua Ave. in Lakewood. However, the insurer's staff can still answer questions by phone at  250-4401 or 800-665-1502.

HealthNow New York, the parent of BlueCross BlueShield of Western New York, has taken steps to "greatly reduce" the number of employees onsite each day, said spokeswoman Amber Hartmann.

The company also eliminated non-essential business travel, encouraged the use of web conferences, reviewed its visitor policy, bolstered efforts to sanitize all "high-touch points in the building," and provided cleansers for employees to do the same within their own areas, Hartmann said. There's no more salad bar in the food service area, which has been modified to reduce contact, and a lot of the food is now pre-packaged, she added.

The health insurer also has an "incident command team" that meets multiple times daily and is also in contact with other Blues plans nationwide to compare notes and responses.

"This is all uncharted territory, but we are confident that our employees, focused on working remotely and in nontraditional ways, remain committed to our members and supporting the health care teams at the front line during this time of challenge," Hartmann said.

Univera Healthcare spokesman Peter Kates said the Amherst-based health insurer is “100% working from home,” aside from essential staff such as information technology and “some contractors.” Univera employs about 518 in Western New York, while parent Excellus in Rochester has 3,500 workers statewide.

“We’re fully functional,” he said. “About one-third of employees have always had the capability to work from home on a full-time or part-time basis, so this is just expanding on that capability.”

Fidelis Care, the Queens-based Catholic healthcare plan that was acquired by Centene Corp. of St. Louis, is promoting increased work-from-home options for employees, restricting non-essential business travel, stepping up cleaning procedures and providing "dedicated employee concierge teams" for technology and human resources, a spokeswoman said.

The Jacobs family, from left: co-CEO Jerry Jacobs Jr.; Charlie Jacobs, who is CEO of the company's Boston Holdings; Chairman Jeremy Jacobs; and co-CEO Lou Jacobs, in the Delaware North headquarters in Buffalo in 2018. (Derek Gee/News file photo)

HSBC Bank USA, the subsidiary of London's HSBC Holdings, said Monday that its employees nationwide will shift to a 50-50 work-from-home arrangement wherever feasible. That includes the 3,000 employees in Western New York, said spokesman Robert Sherman.

"The health and safety of our employees and customers is our first priority, and these preventive actions lower individual risk for employees, reduce density in our office and allow time for more frequent cleaning," he said.

Citigroup already allowed employees who want and can work remotely to do so. But the company has started dividing up where the 1,800 employees of its Getzville facility would be working, creating a "dual workforce" with two teams – A and B – that will alternate which week they work onsite versus remotely, a company spokeswoman said.

Employees can also make arrangements to work from home even during their assigned week onsite, she said. And officials are encouraging the use of "social distancing" within the office for those who come in to work, she added.

The bank also has a backup center in Rochester that employees were using. And it had already restricted international travel for employees and "strongly recommended against" even domestic travel within the United States, according to a company statement.

KeyCorp, the Cleveland-based parent of KeyBank, the No. 2 bank in the Buffalo market, is letting employees work from home "if and when possible," said spokesman Matthew Pitts. "For some of our employees, the critical nature of their roles in serving our clients means that working remotely is not an option for them," he said.

That includes branch workers. For those employees, Pitts said, the bank has instituted "enhanced cleaning protocols" and pre-packaged food options, while spacing the employees out in the workplace as much as possible "to ensure their health and safety."

National Fuel Gas Co. announced Monday that it will close its customer assistance centers in Buffalo, Cheektowaga and Jamestown as part of its response to coronavirus, but customer service representatives are still available by phone and drop-boxes will be available at each location for bill payments.

The company also is requiring employees who are ill to stay home, and providing "personal protection equipment" to all field crews, who may still need to enter homes. Additional precautions will be taken in those circumstances, including keeping a distance of at least 6 feet from anyone else.

National Fuel is also limiting travel for all workers, and instituting alternative work schedules, allowing employees with remote access to work from home.

"We are hopeful to have 50% of employees working from home by midweek," spokeswoman Karen Merkel said. "Department managers are determining appropriate schedules to limit exposure but continue to meet the needs of our business."

FedEx Corp. said it's "closely monitoring guidance" from public health authorities and "taking proper health precautions where warranted," said spokeswoman Meredith Miller. She noted that some employees do have the ability to work remotely, so each operating unit of the company will evaluate "how best to utilize that capability based on the needs of its workforce and business."

Few companies in Western New York are likely to feel more of an effect from the coronavirus outbreak than Delaware North, the privately held global tourism and hospitality giant.

The family-owned firm has annual sales of $3.7 billion, much of it driven by revenue from concession sales at sports stadiums, airports and national parks and from the operation of casinos and hotels. All are being battered by COVID-19 closings and cancellations. The company has 57,000 employees, the vast majority of whom work part time at the company's myriad sports, tourism and hospitality venues, including KeyBank Center.

It also has several hundred employees at its Buffalo headquarters at 250 Delaware Ave., where it also runs the Westin Buffalo Hotel. Delaware North officials did not respond to requests for comment on the impact of the pandemic on its business operations and its employees.

Meanwhile, employees of auto insurer Geico Corp. are circulating a petition online calling on the industry giant to either close its New York operations and reroute calls to other regional facilities or at least allow employees to work from home, citing "the severity of the coronavirus."

Geico employs more than 2,500 people at its Getzville facility in the CrossPoint Business Park – near Citigroup. It also has a major customer service center on Long Island.

"They are putting their employees at risk for being exposed to the virus or contracting the illness and they are not taking the proper measures to protect them from illness," the petition said. "Our health and safety is in serious jeopardy by remaining in a densely populated building with people coming from various locations."

The petition also noted that "other companies are going above and beyond to ensure their employees are safe ... and Geico should do the same."

"The health of their employees should be of an utmost priority," the petition said. "This irresponsibility could result in grave consequences for employees that devote hard work and time to Geico everyday."

The petition, started four days ago, had 1,600 signatures as of 2:45 p.m. Monday.

Geico representatives did not respond to requests for comment.

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