“You probably saw my sign outside my door, it’s there to remind people that I’m immune compromised, because I had a heart transplant last summer,” Erv Walter, a vice president at the Wisconsin-based healthcare giant Epic Systems says in a video the company made to explain to its nearly 10,000 employees that they’re coming back to the office next month. “My transplant team … gave me the green light to come back as long as I followed some essential precautions. Stay away from sick people. Stay away from people not wearing masks. I wear my own mask whenever I’m around other people, and I wash my hands a lot … I assume others are doing the same.”
The video also makes use of airhorns and echo effects, seemingly to make the prospect of returning to the office during an international pandemic more fun.
The company, which maintains electronic medical records and provides other software systems for doctors and hospitals, announced to its employees last week that they would be required to come back to their Verona, Wisconsin campus by September 21. That announcement, the use of an immunocompromised employee to demonstrate the campus is “safe” in a hype video, and Epic executives’ statements to the media have infuriated employees, who say they’re organizing and that many may refuse to return to campus.
The situation shows that, though some states are allowing non-essential employees to return to offices, many people don’t feel it’s safe to go back, and many companies are pressuring their employees to do so.
Epic has told employees that their presence at the office is a matter of life and death for those affected by COVID-19, and that they will save lives by having in-person meetings at the company’s “Intergalactic Headquarters,” a campus that has themed buildings with names like “Andromeda,” “Barn,” and a treehouse office called “Endor” (“No Girlz Allowed,” a sign outside the building stated in a 2015 tour video). The company has also claimed that in-person meetings is integral to its company “culture.”
“Saving lives is our highest priority. Over two-thirds of the country have medical records in Epic and our software has helped save many thousands of lives,” Epic said in a statement to Motherboard. “Over the past several months, our experience has been that results are much better and faster when staff are able to collaborate on new and creative ideas during in-person brainstorming sessions compared to over the phone or video conference. This in-person collaboration, with masks and safe physical distancing, is essential to saving more lives. People with health conditions that put them at higher risk for COVID-19 will be able to participate in meetings virtually.”
Employees at the company, however, say that they’ve had no problem working from home, and that many of them do not feel it’s safe to return to the office.
“Epic spent a ton of money to own their own land and build expensive buildings designed to look like Disneyland, so they think they're losing so much by not having us be there,” a current Epic employee told Motherboard. “Google announced that they are not having employees return to the office until 2021 at the earliest. I should not have to be pointing to another tech company that is being more safe. We are the fucking healthcare company; they should be looking at us.”
Motherboard granted anonymity to current employees because they were not authorized to speak to the media. Employees at Epic have begun organizing through SMART Local 565 of the International Association of Sheet Metal, Air, Rail and Transportation Workers; through that organization, workers said the company is putting them and the state of Wisconsin at risk.
“Claiming that a culture of chance encounters in the hallways is more important than the untold deaths that will occur both indirectly by spread through the broader community and directly from forcing workers into close quarters when they don’t need to be,” the employees said. “This is an issue that will end up affecting the entire Dane County community, not just Epic workers, as COVID-19 cannot be bounded by the Epic campus walls.”
Besides moving to potentially form a union, employees have begun bombarding internal communication systems and Jodel, a hyperlocal social network, with memes about their company.
“Epic: We can’t have a gym or childcare on campus because we want to support local businesses and the greater community,” one reads. “Also Epic: Eat COVID and die Dane county. WE’RE HEROES HELPING HEROES OVER HERE.”
Workers have also organized internal surveys and begun sending emails to an inbox run by the company’s “COVID-19 Response Team.” A group email stated that “we feel Epic is acting cavalierly and putting its short-term business goals ahead of employee, community, and national health. Our attempts to express our concerns or ask clarifying questions through approved channels have been dismissed or ignored.”
So far, the company has stood by its plan. Earlier this week, it sent an executive onto CBS This Morning to defend the move back to the office.
Lauren Kaori Gurley contributed reporting.