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Hand sanitizers, telecommuting, travel bans: How employers are protecting workers

Candice Williams
The Detroit News

Employers are taking precautions to protect their workforces as the first confirmed cases of coronavirus are reported in Michigan.

Rock Ventures and Quicken Loans are sending employees home with computers. Blue Cross Blue Shield of Michigan is temporarily closing some of its customer walk-in centers to minimize the employees exposed to the public. And Beaumont Health System is restricting hospital visitors to protect staff and patients.

Quicken Loans employee Kyle Navarre sorts through computer monitors as the company distributes computers and other office supplies to employees in front of the Chrysler Building on Fort Street.

The measures come after three coronavirus cases have been confirmed in the state.

Several teams began testing telecommuting from home this week at the Rock Family of Companies, which includes Rock Ventures and Quicken Loans. The companies have a large office presence in downtown Detroit.

Quicken Loans employees on Wednesday sorted through boxes of computer monitors on the sidewalk as they distributed equipment to employees in front of their Chrysler House offices on Fort Street. 

"This week, several teams from the Family of Companies will work from home to test their connectivity and preparedness – ensuring there is no lapse in client service, no matter where team members are working," said Aaron Walker, chief communications officer for Rock Ventures. 

Troy-based temp agency Kelly Services is restricting travel in areas hit hard by the virus. The company, which employs a staff of 7,700 in locations throughout the world, already has a flexible work arrangement program allowing employees to work anywhere outside of the office.

For clients who request temporary workers, Kelly Services said it is working to minimize business disruption through alternative communication methods such as videoconferencing.

“It’s definitely starting to impact us and the way that we conduct business and the way our clients conduct business,” said Debra Thorpe, senior vice president and general manager of U.S. operations for Kelly Services.

Their clients are driving some of that change. “Our clients want to have virtual meetings through Skype or some other type of technology rather than face-to-face," she said. "We have clients who are restricting visitors into their building and obviously asking the usual question of 'Have you been to any of the high-risk countries? Have you been around anyone who’s been impacted?'"

Blue Cross Blue Shield of Michigan will temporarily close 10 customer walk-in centers in order to minimize contact with workers. Centers in Detroit, Grand Rapids, Flint, Holland, Lansing, Marquette, Portage, Southfield and Traverse City will close Monday through March 31.

The nonprofit Detroit mutual health insurer also will require eligible employees not already participating in its remote-work program to work from home two or three days per week in order to lessen the potential spread of the virus.

“There are telephone customer service and claims processing functions that our members depend upon and that require our employees to report to our facilities," said Daniel Loepp, president and CEO of BCBSM. "These operations will continue, but we will significantly enhance our cleaning and sanitizing efforts around our employees’ workspaces."

Places where employees must be physically present on a job site to do their work, such as auto plants, present special challenges.

Production continued as normal Thursday after a Fiat Chrysler Automobiles employee at a transmission plant in Indiana tested positive for the coronavirus. The automaker placed into home quarantine his immediate co-workers and others in the facility.  The company said it deep-cleaned and disinfected the employee's work area and took additional sanitization measures across the facility.

Fiat Chrysler, Ford Motor Co. and General Motors Co. have all restricted domestic and international travel.

GM is using virtual technology for in-person meetings of 30 people or more. The automaker has been replenishing disinfectant wipes, hand sanitizers and cleaners for cleaning staff at its facilities. Ford has taken similar measures.

Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan said the city has formed a medical response team headed by its health department and staffed by EMTs. They will address the concerns of employees who think that they may have been exposed to the virus and will promptly seek medical attention for employees at work with a fever or a cough.

“There are companies that can say to their employees, 'Stay home and work from home,'” Duggan said. “City government can’t do that. City hall serves people. We’re police officers and firefighters, EMS workers, bus drivers and people who are running the permit office, the tax office, animal control officers."

Some hospitals are restricting visitors to protect other patients as well as staff. 

Beaumont Health said Thursday that all routine visitation is restricted at its eight hospitals until the coronavirus is no longer a threat. Exceptions will be made in end-of-life and extreme circumstances.

Beaumont Spokesman Bob Ortlieb said employees receive a daily “COVID-19 Update” via email that includes reminders on good hand-hygiene practices. Thursday's update included travel restrictions effective immediately.

Whatever measures an organization implements, it's vital that organizations let their employees know what's going on, said David E. Johnson, CEO of Georgia-based Strategic Vision PR Group, which specializes in crisis communications. 

“These are uncertain times,” he said. “The employees are concerned. Are they going to catch the virus? Is this going to affect their families? Will the business still be open? Are they going to have a paycheck? Businesses need to communicate with employees.”

Breana Noble and Kalea Hall contributed.

Twitter @CWilliams_DN