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Virus' impact on local business: While retail could take a hit, others turn to telecommuting

As some area companies send employees home to work in the face of the growing coronavirus pandemic, that’s not an option for Charlottesville’s oldest independent bookstore.

New Dominion Bookshop owner Julia Kudravetz said she increasingly has been thinking about the staff at businesses like hers as the number of cases of coronavirus in Virginia climbs.

As of Saturday evening, there have been 41 confirmed cases of the virus, including one death, in Virginia. There are no known cases in Charlottesville and Albemarle County.

“People who have hourly staff, you know, they’re very vulnerable — people who can’t work from home, who need to be there in order to either … sell food or sell books,” she said. “Even though people who have contract jobs, or white-collar jobs are able to work from home, the majority of my staff is not able to work from home, and that’s something that’s really weighing on me.”

Many local companies are asking employees, when they are able to, to work from home, or are making other changes when that’s not possible.

Public health officials have said the best way to slow the spread of the virus is through social distancing — limiting physical contact between people. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s recommendations for an infectious disease outbreak response plan, employers should consider whether they can establish policies and practices — such as telecommuting and staggering shifts — to decrease physical contact among employees.

Kudravetz said the Virginia Festival of the Book, which was scheduled to start Wednesday but was canceled due to the virus, traditionally has been one of the most important times of the year for New Dominion. The shop now has thousands of dollars’ worth of books that were purchased to sell during the festival that will need to be returned.

“We will get credit for them, but we won’t be able to sell them unless people come in and buy them without the authors [present],” Kudravetz said. “That is a disappointment, and also I was counting on that income to pay my employees and to be a part of our March income … I worry about being able to keep my hourly employees safe and be able to pay them because they can’t work from home for the most part.”

New Dominion is staying open for the foreseeable future, but with reduced hours, and all major surfaces will be cleaned several times a day. Kudravetz said if customers call or email the store, staff members will deliver or mail books. She’s also encouraging those who cannot make it in but want to support the small business to buy gift cards for future use.

“We are here, and we hope that books will be a light during dark times,” she said.

The number of workers in Virginia who telecommute regularly has increased 43% since 2010, according to Hamilton Lombard, a researcher at the University of Virginia’s Weldon Cooper Center for Public Service.

“It is interesting that the trend had been developing the last couple years and then you have an event like this, sometimes forces … innovation faster than it was going to happen otherwise,” he said.

In 2018, approximately 8.2% of workers in the Charlottesville metro area typically worked from home.

“One interesting thing with Charlottesville is just its proximity to the D.C. area, and then the federal government really pushing telework earlier than a lot of other people did, so I think you have a fairly large presence of people who are government workers in the area, but they’re employed in D.C.,” Lombard said.

WillowTree, which has 265 employees in Charlottesville, is asking its entire staff to work from home for the foreseeable future starting Monday.

Christy Phillips, chief talent officer at the mobile applications development company, said the expectation is that only employees without a good remote work option will come into the office.

“Then we’re asking that if people are in the office, that they are spreading out and keeping distance and no one is congregating in the office,” she said. “… It’s not prohibited to come in, but you really should only be coming in if you do not have a good remote work option.”

Phillips said the company started making a plan the last week of February, and addressing network connectivity issues to allow teams with certain clients to be able to work from home, and communicating that leadership was monitoring the situation and answering questions about things such as travel. Training was done for the whole company, with additional training done with team leaders.

“We’re looking at the well-being of everyone because working remotely, especially when you’re used to seeing these people every day and working together, can suddenly feel very isolating,” Phillips said. “We are looking at kind of fun things that we can do to stay connected to each other, whether that’s setting up video calls to just have a cup of coffee with someone for 10 minutes and talk or eat lunch together, and do things like that.”

Gregg Carrier, director of people and culture at ChartIQ, said the Charlottesville company already offers unlimited paid time off and allows telecommuting at any time. As the coronavirus started to spread globally, the company reemphasized those policies.

“As we’ve watched it expand, it just became more and more clear to … where, at this point, our policy is, don’t come into work unless you feel it’s absolutely necessary to do your job,” he said.

The financial charting and data visualization software company, which has about 60 employees in Charlottesville, is continuing to monitor the situation and might end up completely closing the office to employees.

“For us, it’s balancing … the impact on our team’s safety and health, but this question has systemic impact,” he said. “… Can we flatten the curve of transmission of the disease and help our community and help our society more by staying at home, but balancing that against the obvious impact to our local community of, we will not be downtown and buying lunch every day if we make that move. Those are not businesses that can pivot into a remote work environment … There are a lot of aspects of this that we weigh when we think about something like this.”

Crutchfield Corp., an online and retail electronics sell with stores in Albemarle County and Harrisonburg, has many employees working from home already and has been evaluating whether to close the stores.

“We’re trying to balance two different things out and we’re trying to make sure that people can make a living, and we’re being responsible in that regard and being good and we want to be good community members, to make sure people are safe,” the company’s chief human resources officer, Chris Lilley, said.

“We also want to make sure that we’re contributing and not depleting in any way our community response, because that social distancing piece, it’s really important to us at this point.”

All call center employees that can work from home are currently doing so, he said, and those who can’t are spread out in the building to create social distancing. In the company’s distribution center, breaks are being staggered, employees are being spread out and more cleaning is being done.

“We’ve put into place guidelines for folks that have done personal travel and are self-quarantining folks at home for a two-week period, if in fact, they’ve had travel on a plane or anywhere with more than 100 people,” Lilley said. “We’re taking some pretty significant steps to not only reduce the social interactions that people are having, but to make sure that we’re being responsible stewards of the community, as well.”

Charlottesville-based WorldStrides, which books school and other group trips, is currently making plans for employees, and is postponing all of its travel programs over the next month.

“We’re a global company, so we’re working office by office to make decisions about who can work from home to continue to support our customers during a pretty extraordinary time,” said Beth Campbell, vice president of content and communication.

At this point, there are no plans to lay off employees, she said.

“We’re working out of the office primarily,” Campbell said. “We are working on plans to give many of our team members the flexibility to work from home.”

CFA Institute, which has 432 employees in Charlottesville, is doing a work-from-home test for all of its U.S. workers Tuesday.

“We’ll have basically our whole workforce working from home to evaluate our ability to conduct business in a virtual setting in the U.S., and we’ll think further about, first of all, how the virus news evolves, and about the results of that test as we make decisions going forward,” said Mike Murphy, CFA Institute’s director of inclusion and community.

He said the company is flexible about employee working arrangements and is encouraging people to take home their electronic devices and equipment each day.

In a statement, a State Farm representative said the company is telling employees who can work from home to do so. Not every employee currently has the ability to work from home, and may continue to work in one of the facilities, but the company is moving quickly to make it possible for most staffers to work from home.

“We are prioritizing tools for employees who are customer-facing,” Anna Bryant, a State Farm public affairs specialist, said in a statement. “If an employee or a family member are at higher risk or a member of a special population as defined by the Centers for Disease Control, they can visit with their leadership about options, including paid administrative leave.”

The United Way of Greater Charlottesville and the Charlottesville Area Community Foundation also are having employees work from home for at least the next two weeks.


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