Georgia jobs pushed toward home as employers respond to coronavirus

Thousands of Atlantans return to work today but won’t be leaving home.

Concerns about coronavirus transmission have convinced large companies and governments to keep their employees home, and those that began drilling and preparing for work-at-home operations are moving quickly to immediate deployment. But a hefty chunk of metro Atlanta workers may not be able to make such moves.

Coke, Gas South and Cox Enterprises are a few of the companies already on home-work, along with every major metro school system, large portions of the state government bureaucracy and non-essential workers at the city of Atlanta.

For some businesses, the switch has required rapid upgrades in teleworking equipment such as buying more laptop computers and redirecting traffic on their networks.

But even companies used to teleworking face hiccups. It’s one thing for some employees to work remotely. It is far more complex to have everyone in an organization do so all at once.

“I think it will be bumpy,” said Prithwiraj Choudhury, professor in technology and operations management at the Harvard Business School. “This is the world’s largest remote work experiment.”

Coronavirus concerns have employers across Georgia rushing to prepare for the possibility of operating with essentially no employees inside their offices or other facilities for weeks or more.

It became starkly real last week when Fulton County public schools temporary closed after a teacher who had been at two middle schools had the new coronavirus.

The closures not only impacted teachers and students; it had working parents of those kids scurrying. Among other coronavirus events that could keep employees away from work: self-quarantines of those who are ill or exposed to those with COVID-19, restrictions on travel that could impede commutes and the biggest — the pressure on employers to avoid having workers gathered together.

There's been an uptick in employees seeking information on teleworking options, according to both the Society for Human Resource Management and the Atlanta Regional Commission's Georgia Commute Options program. That latter updated its website recently, adding sign ups to receive quick start guides to teleworking.

A Georgia Chamber of Commerce survey found teleworking was the most common component in companies’ plans to respond to COVID-19. While there have been mass cancellations of professional sports seasons, conventions and public gatherings, Georgia Chamber president Chris Clark said he wants businesses to find ways to protect people and still remain open.

On Friday, Atlanta-based Coca-Cola Company asked most of the 6,500 employees at its worldwide headquarters to work remotely through mid-April after a dry run last week.

“We did identify some areas of stress to our IT systems, which we worked out by mid-day” of the initial drill, a Coke spokeswoman wrote in an email to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. “We believe we are well positioned for maintaining our business continuity should we need to work remotely.”

Cox Enterprises, the Sandy Springs-based company that owns the AJC and other businesses, held its own three-day drill last week for most of its nearly 6,000 employees in metro Atlanta and has since asked employees to stay remote where possible.

And Atlanta-based Chick-fil-A, ranked as the third largest restaurant chain in the nation by revenue, announced a two-day closing of its headquarters, with more 2,000 taking part in a drill to work remotely. The chain's more than 2,500 restaurants were slated to remain open.

Thousands of Georgians will be teleworking to limit the spread of coronavirus. BRANT SANDERLIN / AJC

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Telework no option for many

Thanks to robust advances in recent years, including faster online connections, plenty of U.S. workers and companies already have the technology and networks they need for teleworking with little additional investments, said Barry O’Brien of Partner Consulting, a telecommunications consultant based in Connecticut.

But exceptions remain.

For starters, much of Georgia’s workforce has been tied tightly to specific locations. About 450,000 Georgians work in food services or accommodations. Almost as many are in manufacturing. Half a million are in retail trade, 200,000 work construction and more than 600,000 are in education or health care.

In metro Atlanta, nearly a million workers — a third of the local employment base — are in fields that could be difficult to do from home, such as food preparation, construction, health care support, maintenance, personal care services and protection services, according to an ARC analysis of data from JobsEQ.

The annual average wages for those job categories as a whole are 35% below the region’s average for all occupations. That suggests some of the area’s lowest paid workers may be among those most at risk if the coronavirus outbreak forces the shuttering of many workplaces.

Some employers have offered paid leave for employees infected with COVID-19, but it remains unclear if most uninfected workers who are temporarily sidelined because of the outbreak will continue to be paid.

Some manufacturers and retailers are contemplating other steps to keep workers in place. One option is regular temperature scans of employees entering the workplace, though those who take fever-reducing medicines may not be flagged.

Shaw Industries, a global flooring manufacturer based in Dalton, said it has encouraged leaders to provide remote work opportunities “when feasible” and will continue to identify remote work options to minimize exposure.

Connectivity challenges

A quick switch to telecommuting often requires a broadband online connection. That’s a problem in some rural stretches of Georgia. And even in metro Atlanta, not everyone already has signed up for broadband in their homes.

The vast majority of Gas South’s more than 200 staffers already have what they need to telework, according to Kevin Greiner, the president of the Cobb County-based natural gas marketer. Most people on the company’s customer care team regularly work from home one day a week, he said.

But in the last two weeks, with coronavirus worries growing, the company spent about $60,000 to buy dozens of new laptops to outfit every employee. Workers also have been equipped with headsets and extra monitors to communicate with customers from home.

“The coronavirus changes everything,” Greiner said. “We need to accelerate those plans and be ready for the unknown today.”

Still, five Gas South employees don’t have a home broadband connection, Greiner said. The company will pay all its workers an extra $25 stipend every two weeks to help them get or boost home service while they are being asked to work from home, he said.

While most employees like the flexibility of working from home and avoiding traffic, Greiner said it is also important to come in the office for camaraderie, training, some project work and coaching. “You do lose a little something if no one sees each other.”

“An entirely work-from-home strategy is a stretch for most organizations, and we are no exception,” he said. During a recent drill when nearly every Gas South employee worked remotely for a day, some staffers experienced networks that were slower than normal and customers waited on hold longer.

Small business owner Greg Syfan is purchasing 20 laptops so more employees can work remotely at his family’s trucking and logistics company in Gainesville. But that won’t be enough if COVID-19 strikes hard and he needs to send all his more than 200 people home to work.

He’s scrambling to determine who has personal computers and broadband connections at home to keep the 24/7 operation running. A gap is unthinkable for Syfan Logistics, he said. “Customers we deal with, we would be out of business.”

He plans to post a sign at the company’s entrance: If you’re sick, don’t come in. And he requires visitors to sign a form disclosing if they have had cold or flu-like symptoms in the last two weeks or been at risk of exposure to the new coronavirus.

Atlanta Specialized Care offers counseling services to children and adults, including many with autism.

Typically, sessions are done face to face in the practice’s offices in Dunwoody and Alpharetta, unless there’s an urgent reason — illness or childcare issues — to do it by phone, clinical director Tatiana Matthews said. “We have done it, but it’s not the best practice. You get so much more from sitting down with someone.”

However, the spread of COVID-19 has changed the calculus, and families are being offered online options, she said.

A computer link that permits therapist and client to see each other is better than no session at all, Matthews said.

Federal law requires confidentiality and secure technology. Setting that up is costing $200 a month per therapist, she said. “For a small practice that is substantial. But we’ll do that as long as it’s required and as long as we’re still in business.”