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Economy

Kansas City Area’s Largest Companies Say They're In No Rush To Bring Workers Back

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Chris Prewitt
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KCUR 89.3
The parking lot at the new Burns & McDonnell campus on Ward Parkway is mostly empty these days.

From 30,000 federal workers to T-Mobile to thousands who work at two engineering firms, managers are waiting until workspaces are modified and sanitized to bring workers back to their offices.

John Johnson, vice president of safety, health and security at Black & Veatch, says the global engineering firm will not start bringing back its 3,000 workers in the Kansas City area until June.

“Business is functioning the way it needs to with work from home,” Johnson says. “We are taking a slow and methodical approach to this to protect our people as well as avoid clustering or outbreaks.”

When workers begin to return to Black & Veatch offices in Kansas City, Missouri, and Johnson County, Kansas, thousands of square feet of office space will be abiding by phase-in orders.

Reopening will start with no more than 25% of the employees (in Kansas City, Mayor Quinton Lucas’ 10-10-10 rule will apply).

Employees and guests will take a quick health screening and temperature check to enter the buildings. Both will be required to wear masks as they enter. Extra cleaning and sanitation measures will be added, and marked social distancing guidelines for halls, stairwells and elevators will allow no more than two passengers at a time.

“We’re following the guidance from the CDC, maybe a bit more restrictive,” Johnson says.

As businesses across Johnson, Wyandotte and Jackson counties began reopening this week, some of the area's largest employers are taking their time with a range of policies and timelines for bringing workers back. They want to be sure their warehouse-like physical spaces are equipped to keep thousands of workers safe.

In a week when the Kansas City area has been pegged as a possible new hot spot for COVID-19, company leaders also say they’re monitoring the infection rates and taking them into consideration as they decide when to ask workers to return.

Cerner

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Tim Griffith
Most of Cerner's employees across the metro have been working from home.

At Cerner, the area’s largest private employer with 14,000 employees, officials are expecting to see some permanent changes.

Dr. Eva Karp is chief Clinical and Patient Safety Officer for Cerner. She’ll be one of the first to return to the office when she goes back on Monday.

“Time has flown by,” she chuckles, “but it feels like it’s been 20 years.”

“We do see it as a transition to a new norm, that we will never be what we were prior to COVID-19."

Office space will be reconfigured to accommodate social distancing requirements. The company will spread employees out, eliminating as much as 50% of the office space.

Employees who already travel a lot — sales associates and consultants — will be asked to continue working virtually. Those who need the resources of the office will return to work in phases, beginning June 1. Nine percent of the workforce will be returning globally, Karp says (depending on regional pandemic data), with the rest phasing in gradually through the fall.

“We’ve historically been an office company,” Karp says. "This virtual work is new for our culture.”

Common spaces will be closed, at least for the foreseeable future. Stairwells will be one-way only. Masks will be strongly encouraged when employees are away from their desks, but not required.

Karp recognizes the company will need to make some adaptations, such as how to make sure everyone feels part of a conversation when half of them may be calling in remotely while others are together around a conference table.

“People are extroverts or introverts." she says. “For extroverts, they may want to be more around people. So our opportunity is how do we keep physically distancing, staying socially connected to our associates."

Burns & McDonnell

Kansas City’s other behemoth engineering firm, Burns & McDonnell, is also looking at an early June return. Renita Mollman, chief administrative officer for the Kansas City office, says the return of their 3,000 workers will occur 700 or 800 at a time.

“We'll do it slowly and in phases,” she says. “We don't want to just turn on the switch and have a hundred percent of our people back in the office on day one.”

Workers at high risk for attracting the virus, and those with challenging home situations or young children, will be allowed to return in a later group. Mollman says the company will work with others on a case-by-case basis if they have concerns about reentering the office environment.

Like other large employers, Mollman says Burns & Mac will be constantly sanitizing high-touch points, door handles and bathroom faucets, with disinfecting strips. She says the sheer volume of product necessary to secure a safe workspace is one of the biggest challenges.

“Just re-integrating into a new environment is a new normal,” she says. "There is no playbook for this. We, as a country, have not had a situation like this in a long time.”

Federal Government

The federal government is the largest employer in the Kansas City area, with more than 30,000 employees bringing in some $3 billion to the local economy.

President Trump gave governors the choice to start reopening offices on April 16.

The Greater Kansas City Federal Executive Board, which oversees Region 7 federal workers in the Kansas City area, declined to comment on back-to-work plans in the Kansas City area regional offices.

A spokesperson for the Environmental Protection Agency in Washington sent the following email statement:

"Since the beginning of this crisis EPA and the rest of the federal government have continued operations with most employees working remotely. EPA has reacted swiftly and aggressively in order to protect our employees, and their health and wellbeing remain our top priority. In developing EPA’s return to the workplace strategy, we are not only carefully considering the guidance in the President’s Opening Up America Again plan and OMB’s subsequent guidance, but also engaging EPA’s internal scientists. EPA continues to develop its policy for returning to the workplace, and will roll it out at the appropriate time, and consistent with OMB and White House guidelines."

T-Mobile

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File photo by Julie Denesha

The company declined to do an interview but sent the following statement through a T-Mobile spokesman:

"We have asked employees across the company who are able to work from home to do so for now — as we continue to stay close to federal and state guidelines and actively engage with experts and government officials to determine next steps. We will communicate with employees as we have any changes to our current approach."

Kansas City’s largest employers are facing challenges greater than those faced by some small towns, how to keep thousands of workers safe while in close proximity to one another.

"A burning platform"

Public health officials emphasize there is a lot we don’t know about COVID-19. We do know, however, there are many asymptomatic carriers and not enough testing.

Dr. Eva Karp from Cerner says the virus has given large businesses an opportunity to re-evaluate how they work. It’s referred to in management consulting terms as “a burning platform.”

“I think it's an opportunity to re-imagine a world that we may not have ever re-imagined without a 'burning platform,'" she says. “Well, COVID-19 gave us a burning platform. Let's evaluate what we're doing and go after that opportunity while you have people's attention.”

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