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Epic Systems walks back plans requiring thousands of employees to return to work this week

Judith Faulkner, CEO of healthcare IT giant Epic Systems.

Source: Epic Systems

Epic Systems shared a letter with employees this weekend informing them that they’re no longer required to return to the Verona, Wisconsin campus on Monday.

That marks a shift in its prior plans to bring the bulk of its workers back to the office during the coronavirus pandemic, which drew criticism from employees about the lack of concern for their health and wellbeing. 

Epic sells electronic medical software to hospitals. About 4,000 of its 9,000 employees have worked at its campus voluntarily during the pandemic, the company has said.

Employees were previously told to return to work this month unless they had problems arranging child care or had a health condition that put them at risk of severe complications from Covid-19. Those employees were earlier told they could work remotely until Nov. 2. 

Epic received a letter from local public health officials on August 6 raising questions about its return to work plan. It told Public Health Services Madison & Dane County (PHMDC) that it will modify its policy so that staff won’t be required to return to the office.

“Throughout our planning process, we’ve been in frequent communication with PHMDC to ensure our plans are in compliance with their orders,” a spokesperson told CNBC. “We responded to the letter on August 8th asking for clarity on their regulations and approval of our plan moving forward. While our intention is to return staff to campus, we are adjusting the timeframe as we work with public health officials to gain their agreement on our plan.”

Epic didn’t share its timeline for when it expects staff to return. It stressed that it still hopes to bring back as many employees as possible. The original plan was to bring most employees back by mid-September. 

“We hope that you can provide us with additional guidance on your regulations,” Epic’s chief administrative officer Sverre Roang wrote in a letter to local public health officials, which was shared with CNBC. 

The company also said in the letter that it had hired Dr. Nicky Quick, a former public health official, as an internal expert. It’s working with former Acting Health Commissioner of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration Dr. Stephen Ostroff and is consulting with Cleveland Clinic on its return to work policies. 

Letter to employees

The missive shared with its employees on Saturday evening from senior vice president Sumit Rana, also viewed by CNBC, said the company’s leaders “recognized that you (staff) might feel apprehension when returning to work for a variety of reasons.” 

“For those of you returning to campus, you have the choice to return gradually,” the letter continues. “We expect that you will maintain your normal workload and be available to your team and customers and needed.”

One anonymous employee, who declined to be identified because they were not authorized to do speak on the company’s behalf, told CNBC that workers felt intimidated by the requirement that they needed to report their decision to remain at home to human resources (Epic said the decision was made to get a better sense of headcount). 

The employee also shared that colleagues were concerned that they would still be required to return to work in the near future. In the letter, Epic said it would be providing “two weeks notice” before asking employees to return to campus. 

The employee also said that they felt Epic had a “lack of trust” regarding its employees’ ability to work from home effectively. 

These sentiments don’t appear to be isolated to a few workers. Results of an internal employee survey obtained by CBS News found that hundreds of staffers voiced objections to the plan. 

Epic has stressed that its primary reason for bringing staff back is to retain its culture. It has said it’s adapting its campus to ensure social distancing. Employees are required to wear masks indoors unless they’re alone in an office and the door is closed. It’s also taking steps to improve ventilation and to provide takeout at its cafeteria.

Cerner to continue remote work through end of 2020

Cerner, Epic’s largest competitor in the electronic medical records space, said it will continue with remote work through the end of 2020. Cerner is based in Kansas City, Missouri. 

The midwest, where both Cerner and Epic are based, could be a potential Covid-19 hotspot. Wisconsin has reported more than 64,000 cases and over 1,000 deaths. Dane County, where Epic is based, has reported more than 4,500 cases.  

“As a health care technology company, we’re committed to not only doing our part, but leading by example to reduce the potential exposure and transmission of COVD-19 in our communities,” said a Cerner spokesperson.

The spokesperson said Cerner has successfully transitioned to remote work. 

“We’ve determined, at this time, it is safest for our workforce to stay remote until the end of the year,” the Cerner spokesperson said. “We continue to monitor the situation and re-evaluate our plans for a possible re-entry based on the latest available data.”

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