Corridor employers seem to be aiming at a moving target in the COVID-19 virus, which already has forced businesses to adjust, adapt and acclimate in new and sometimes unfamiliar ways, business leaders say. Responses continue to evolve, as the virus mutates into new variants. No one seems to know what to expect if the virus […]
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Corridor employers seem to be aiming at a moving target in the COVID-19 virus, which already has forced businesses to adjust, adapt and acclimate in new and sometimes unfamiliar ways, business leaders say. Responses continue to evolve, as the virus mutates into new variants. No one seems to know what to expect if the virus Delta and Lambda variants take hold, said Ron Corbett, business retention and expansion strategist with the Cedar Rapids Metro Economic Alliance. “I have been asking around and I would say ‘confusion and mixed messages’ would be the underlining theme,” Mr. Corbett said. Some employers are requiring workers to wear masks, while others were “allowing employee or customer choice,” Mr. Corbett observed. He also sensed that the “option” may disappear at some point. “I can say the direction that companies are going is to reimplement mask wearing,” he said. Employers big and small note that they are monitoring closely the latest pandemic developments and responding accordingly. “We continue to follow the advice of local health officials and the CDC (U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention), and each site is handled differently based on the level of outbreak in the area,” said Megan Strader, media relations specialist with Collins Aerospace, which employs about 9,000 workers in Cedar Rapids and Iowa City. Collins Aerospace has worked to stay ahead of the virus since the initial outbreak early in 2020, Ms. Strader said. “We aggressively instituted numerous precautionary health and safety measures for our workforce,” she said, listing travel restrictions, quarantines, social distancing, remote and flexible work schedules and “continuous and comprehensive deep cleaning and disinfecting” of its manufacturing facilities and offices. “Many of these precautions remain in place, and we continue to follow the advice of local health officials and the CDC as we begin the process of bringing some of our remote workforce back to the office,” Ms. Strader said. Some mask mandates remain In response to rising COVID-19 transmission rates, Collins’ parent company, Raytheon Technologies, is following the CDC’s latest guidance and will require all employees in “substantial- or high-transmission areas” to wear a face-covering while working onsite in all U.S. facilities, Ms. Strader said. “Employees who have not voluntarily disclosed being fully vaccinated will still be required to wear a face covering,” she said. Quaker Oats, which operates a plant in Cedar Rapids, says it, too, is looking to the experts for guidance. “The health and safety of Quaker employees is a top priority,” the company said in an email note. “We continue to follow guidance from the CDC and are monitoring updates closely. We will continue to comply with all state and local mandates, as well.” Pearson, an education technology company that employs more than 800 people in Cedar Rapids and Iowa City, has had a mask mandate from the outset of the pandemic, said Scott Overland, director of media relations. “Pearson acted swiftly at the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic to protect the health and safety of our employees and customers,” he said. While Pearson’s Cedar Rapids facility was declared “essential” due to its support of school assessment programs, the company implemented a 25% maximum capacity and rotated weekly in-person schedules, Mr. Overland said. “Our Iowa City office was closed, but essential employees could go in with approval,” he said. Through it all, Pearson has maintained its workforce, Mr. Overland noted. “We did not have any furloughs or COVID-related job cuts, and all employees have received their full salary throughout the pandemic,” he said. Pearson reopened all Iowa offices in July, 2021, but it has set a company-wide flexible work policy, allowing employees to continue to work from home if they wish and as their roles allow, Mr. Overland explained. What happens next likely depends on what the authorities recommend, he noted. “We will continue to heed federal, state and local guidance related to masks and capacity limits, making adjustments as necessary,” he said. Pearson is not mandating inoculations against the virus, Mr. Overland added. “While we encourage employees to get vaccinated, we are not requiring vaccinations at this time,” he said. Work has continued through the pandemic at Whirlpool Corp., which operates a plant in Amana. “Our Amana operations employees did not stop working to provide much-needed appliances to help people cook, clean and take care of their families during the pandemic,” the company said through an emailed statement. “We’re actively hiring at the plant and offer competitive pay, multiple work incentives including competitive benefits, educational reimbursement, and opportunities for advancement.” The pandemic also has required some flexibility at DES Employment Group, which provides staffing services, said Julie Redmond, director of operations. “Most of our employers continued with limited, on-site employees; however, some did make changes to allow their employees to work remotely,” she said. “When given requirements from the CDC for an official mask mandate, all the companies we partner with were 100% in compliance and agreeance with the expectations and guidelines.” A few DES clients requested COVID-19 orientation paperwork to be added to onboarding for new employees, Ms. Redmond noted. “They have continued light remote work, but many have returned to the facility for on-site work,” she said. No return to ‘normal’ Throughout the pandemic, there has never been a time when DES saw its clients return to “normal” operations, Ms. Redmond said. “Some clients were removing their mask mandates; however, they kept the division between individuals for separation to maintain a socially distanced work area,” she observed. “A couple of our clients have created stations that provide masks and hand sanitizer – they ask the employee to change their masks at least four times per shift and sanitize every time they leave or enter their specific work area.” Now, with reports of a possible outbreak of a Delta variant of the virus, Ms. Redmond has again seen employers tightening restrictions. “Most of our clients are now bringing mask mandates back into their buildings per the CDC recommendation,” she said. Ms. Redmond, whose company works with 26 employers in Cedar Rapids, predicted a return of mask requirements, regardless of inoculation status, with some clients bringing back COVID screening. “I believe that most of our clients have learned that it is better to be precautious rather than have an entire workforce out of work due to COVID,” she said. “I spoke with one individual, the owner of the company, and she would rather have less people on staff who are willing to follow protocol and remain safe than more people who end up sick. She realizes that this variant is more deadly than COVID itself because if someone is vaccinated, they may not feel/display symptoms at all and pass it to and from other people unknowingly.” Currently, protocols vary by location, Ms. Redmond said, noting that some DES clients allow employees to remove their mask once they get to their stations because they are separated from other individuals; others — mainly manufacturing/warehouse — require workers to mask up throughout their shifts unless they are eating. “One company has made it so only two employees can be at a designated break area to allow for social distancing,” she said. As of early August, none of DES’ clients had mandated COVID vaccine, Ms. Redmond said. For some local companies, such as The Pointe School of Dance in Cedar Rapids, COVID-19 restrictions forced a bit of improvisation, but the routine continued. For a time, The Pointe School had to shift its lessons to an online format early in the pandemic, said director Vanessa Terrell. But the lessons continued, she said. “Our dance classes didn’t miss a beat,” she said. “We used our scheduled spring break to convert our dance studio to completely virtual, so our students could stay connected, engaged, and active at home.” Zoom becomes an ally The school has returned to in-person classes, but Zoom now is an indispensable ally, Ms. Terrell enthused. “We worked around the clock over spring break to convert our in-person dance classes to virtual, by investing in technology and equipment, troubleshooting sound and connection issues over Zoom and practicing a new skill — teaching to a camera and observing students on a screen in their homes,” she said. The Pointe School shifted to all-virtual classes “very quickly” and finished the school year with virtual classes, Ms. Terrell said. “We made sure every teacher on our staff had a laptop, Bluetooth microphone/earpiece, and a Wi-Fi connection strong enough to support dance classes from their home,” she said. “We had our first virtual classes on March 17 and stayed virtual through the end of May.” The school went “completely virtual” for just over two months, then phased in reopening with its one-family-at-a-time recitals, a limited summer class and camp session with masking, social distancing, and additional hygiene and cleaning processes in place, and then continued operating with modifications for the full 2021-2022 school year, Ms. Terrell said. “Things feel close to normal right now and for most of this summer. We still have small class sizes and some modifications to how we teach, but things feel much closer to normal today than they did even a few months ago,” she said. Some changes will remain, Ms. Terrell said. “I think our hand sanitizer stations at each entrance will stay — it’s just a good habit to keep up great hand hygiene,” she said. “We also have a lot of tools with technology that we may utilize more in the future. We’re thrilled to be back in person and don’t have a lot of clients wishing we’d do more on Zoom, but we’ve learned how to use technology to teach dance classes to students anywhere from anywhere, and that skill set may be something that benefits us in the future.” The school is ready for any nasty turn the Delta, Lambda — or any other — variants take, Ms. Terrell said. “The most consistent thing through this pandemic has been change, and knowing that whatever plans we make need to be flexible,” she said. “Right now, we have utilized a range of safety protocols — and based on the development of this wave and the Delta variant, we are ready to employ any combination of those protocols as needed based on the situation.” Classes are smaller now, but there is some semblance of normality at the school — for the moment. “We don’t have firm plans to reinstate any safety protocols, but we’re keeping an eye on the situation in our community and are ready to make changes if and when necessary,” Ms. Terrell said.