A “critical part” of pharmaceutical company AbbVie‘s success is “face-to-face” interaction, CEO Richard Gonzalez explained in an Aug. 27 email outlining its process for bringing thousands of U.S.-based employees back to work.
Gonzalez said “cross-functional collaboration” was a cornerstone of AbbVie’s high performance, adding that employees needed to “preserve and nurture our culture so we can continue to accelerate, to climb higher and to help the next generation of patients.”
All of that, he said, “means returning to our workplace,” according to the email viewed by CNBC. The company expects employees — even those who say they’ve been able to work from home just fine — to report to the office to foster creativity and innovation under its phased-in return-to-work plan, according to interviews with three current employees, anonymous complaints in public forums and internal company documents.
But not all employees feel the same. It’s a problem that’s starting to play out at AbbVie and other workplaces throughout America. Some AbbVie workers say they worry that the company is putting profits ahead of safety and the health of its U.S. employees and their families at risk. At the same time, they say they feel pressure to come in. Based in Lake Bluff, Illinois, the company is one of the largest drugmakers in the world with 47,000 global employees. More than 12,000 employees work at AbbVie in the U.S. across four states, according to its website.
AbbVie isn’t alone. Epic Systems, an electronic medical records provider in the Midwest, also asked its employees to return to work in the fall — also to preserve its culture. That prompted employee backlash and questions from the local health department. Epic recently agreed to walk back its return-to-work plans.
AbbVie closed its doors during what it’s calling phase one of the outbreak at its U.S. locations on March 17 — days after President Donald Trump declared the pandemic a national emergency. The company brought essential lab workers, manufacturing employees and some senior leaders back on a limited basis during the second phase, which started in early June and alternated days when specific teams would be on-site, according to an internal presentation reviewed by CNBC.
Phase three workers, which includes R&D, sales and marketing employees, were asked to start returning on July 13 when the company resumed daily office schedules for all on-site workers. Three employees told CNBC that many decided not to come back.
The phase three employees have now been told to return to the office Monday, according to an Aug. 31 letter sent to staff from U.S. President Jeff Stewart and other company leaders that was reviewed by CNBC.
“We expect a return to pre-COVID, regular on-site schedules and work weeks,” the email states. The fourth phase would bring the remaining employees back to the office — a decision the company hasn’t made yet.
Stewart said AbbVie had “supportive childcare and e-learning resources” for those with children at home. The company also implemented safety protocols, including partitions, hand sanitizer stations, signage, increased ventilation and webcams for video-based conversations in conference rooms, it told employees.
AbbVie declined to comment to CNBC on its return-to-work plans, or provide any further information on its processes to keep employees safe. The company also did not respond to questions about whether there’s any flexibility in its policies, particularly for those who have underlying medical conditions that make them more susceptible to the virus or who live with other vulnerable people.
Other drugmakers have announced flexible work-from-home policies. Novartis, for instance, has said its workers can return on-site voluntarily without any pressure to do so. Tylenol maker Johnson & Johnson is bringing employees back in “waves as it is safe to do so,” spokeswoman Lisa Cannellos told CNBC. The company declined to say when its return-to-work program would begin. Cannellos said it’s currently offering “flexible work arrangements for those who need it based on dependent care or underlying health conditions.”
AbbVie last year agreed to buy Botox-maker Allergan for $63 billion as it moved more deeply into medical aesthetics. The company had been under pressure to diversify its portfolio of medicines beyond Humira, one of the bestselling drugs in the world, as it faced new competition from rivals. The company just announced a global deal with China’s I-Mab to develop and commercialize a new cancer treatment.
The Chicago area, where AbbVie is based, has seen new coronavirus cases fall over the last week. But the area’s so-called positivity rate remains stubbornly over 5%, according to the City of Chicago, and the outbreak across the state is bad enough to keep Illinois residents on the restricted travel lists of New York and New Jersey. More than 256,000 people have tested positive in the state so far, and more than 8,400 people have died. The virus is starting to surge across the Midwest, health officials have reported, creating hot spots in various states.
The persistence of the outbreak has spooked employees at AbbVie and elsewhere from taking public transportation, which is unavoidable for many who rely on it or the often-crammed company shuttle to get to work, the employees said.
“Many employees are commuters who don’t feel comfortable about taking the metro,” said one worker, who asked to remain anonymous because they weren’t authorized to speak to the press. “We feel that there could be consequences if we don’t go in.”
AbbVie plans to canvass employees to see what they think. It’s launching a formal employee survey on Sept. 22 about its workplace and culture during Covid-19, according to an internal email viewed by CNBC that was sent to staff earlier this month. The company said it would release the results in November — well after many U.S. employees are expected to be at their desks, according to the email.
The three employees CNBC spoke with said the survey seemed like too little too late, given that the results won’t be shared for several months after their planned return to the office.
To continue working from home, employees say they need manager approval, but some say they fear repercussions if they make that request.
“I don’t think I’d be fired immediately if I didn’t come in,” said a second employee, who asked not to be named because they also weren’t authorized to speak to the press. “But I do worry that I’d be known as a dissenter.”
Another employee who requested anonymity for the same reasons said, “A lot of us are aligned in thinking this is inappropriate.”
While executives and some managers have offices, many rank-and-file employees say they sit in an open office with cubicles, which studies show are prone to spreading infections of all kinds, including the coronavirus. AbbVie told employees it’s constructed plastic partitions to try to reduce any outbreaks, according to an email.
Attorneys say AbbVie and other employers are within their rights to require staff to work in the office, unless they have a condition that would place them in a higher-risk group and is documented — ideally confidentially with human resources. Those who need accommodations because of children at home might qualify for the Families First Coronavirus Response Act, which requires employers to “provide employees with paid sick leave or expanded family or medical leave for specified reasons related to COVID-19,” but that only applies to companies with fewer than 500 employees. AbbVie is not among them.
The fear of catching Covid alone could in some circumstances be considered a medical condition, said Troy Valdez, a lawyer specializing in labor and employment law at Coblentz Patch Duffy & Bass.
“But that is between the employee and their doctor,” he said in an interview. “If an employee has a doctor who’ll say this fear is a condition with limitations associated with that, and the requested accommodation is to work from home, they (the company) may have to accommodate.”
Trump pushes universities to keep students on campus despite rising coronavirus cases, asks Big Ten football to return
U.S. President Donald Trump speaks to reporters during a news conference in the Brady Press Briefing Room at the White House in Washington, September 10, 2020.
Kevin Lamarque | Reuters
President Donald Trump on Thursday encouraged universities and colleges that reopened their campuses this fall to continue holding classes in person despite rising coronavirus cases, claiming colleges pose a lower risk to students than sending them back home.
“It’s much safer for students to live on campus,” Trump said during a press briefing at the White House. “Rather than the alternative, the alternative is no good … going home, spreading the virus to high-risk Americans.” He said students want to be in school and their parents want them there as well.
Trump said his administration has reviewed data from more than 20 colleges, and “not a single student” who tested positive for the virus has been hospitalized. He presented a slide at the briefing titled “colleges and universities are extremely low-risk environments” that listed numerous universities with thousands of reported Covid-19 cases but no reported hospitalizations.
“That’s a lot of people, that’s a lot of students, and not one has been hospitalized,” Trump said.
There have been reports of college students hospitalized from Covid-19 complications, however the number remains low compared to cases. San Diego County Public Health officials announced on Wednesday that a San Diego State University student had been hospitalized due to Covid-19, according to NBC 7 in San Diego.
In Kansas, Democratic Gov. Laura Kelly said in late August that one of the state’s college students had also been hospitalized with complications from Covid-19, according to reports from 41 KSHB in Kansas City, an NBC-affiliate. Kelly said the student was believed to have a multisystem inflammatory syndrome, or MIS-C, a rare condition seen among some people who have tested positive for Covid-19.
A spokesperson for the White House wasn’t immediately available for comment regarding Trump’s statements.
The president also said he’s “pushing” for Big Ten football to return after it postponed its season in August after a string of Covid-19 cases and fear of a second wave in the fall. Schools in the conference are mostly located in the Midwest, where some states have seen a recent spike in cases.
“It would be a great thing for our country and the players and coaches want to do it really badly,” Trump said at the White House. “They have some of the best players, college players in our country and they want to get into the NFL and they want to make money in the NFL. And they’re not going to be able to do that too easy if you don’t get to see them play.”
Trump has previously pushed for colleges and universities to reopen amid a string of outbreaks at institutions across the U.S. On August 19, Trump said that “there’s nothing like being with a teacher as opposed to being on a computer board” and said that the decision to close universities could “cost lives,” saying that young people could spread the coroanvirus to older Americans.
The coronavirus is far more deadly for older people and those with underlying conditions. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said in June that hospitalization rate for people who test positive for the coronavirus in their 20s is under 4%.
However, many infectious disease experts and university officials have still shown concern because the virus could spread to neighboring communities and infect people who are at greater risk.
New York Governor Andrew Cuomo wears a protective face mask as he arrives to speak during a daily briefing following the outbreak of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) in Manhattan in New York City, New York, U.S., July 13, 2020.
Mike Segar | Reuters
New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo announced Thursday that New York City malls will be allowed to reopen with safety precautions, but indoor dining is still on hold as local officials struggle to enforce the state’s orders to curb the coronavirus.
Malls in New York City that have proper high-quality air filtration systems to prevent the coronavirus’ spread will be allowed to reopen beginning Sept. 9 at 50% occupancy, Cuomo said. Casinos across the state can begin operating that same day at 25% occupancy, he said during a press call.
However, as colder temperatures approach the Big Apple, the Democratic governor has yet to OK indoor dining. Unlike other parts of the state, New York City’s restaurants have been staying afloat over the summer through take-out and outdoor dining, but they can’t serve patrons inside.
The decision has been criticized by local officials and business owners, including City Council Speaker Corey Johnson who said Wednesday that it’s time to allow indoor dining in the city as the summer comes to a close and restaurant owners prepare for the colder months.
Johnson noted that New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy announced his state can begin indoor dining on Friday at 25% capacity.
“I want to open the restaurants in New York City. I don’t know how we’re going to do the compliance and, by the way, I am open to any suggestions,” Cuomo said on the call.
Cuomo has recently allowed other businesses to return, including gyms and museums, and is gearing up to reopen schools for in-person instruction, which will require additional state resources to monitor and protect against Covid-19 outbreaks, he said. Those reopenings pose “a complication” for reopening indoor dining in the city, he said.
“I understand the tension on the issue,” Cuomo said, adding that the state has the legal authority to reopen the restaurants, not the city. “We have major problems in New York City with the compliance on the bars. I have besieged New York City to do a better job on compliance and enforcement.”
Cuomo called on the New York Police Department and the New York State Restaurant Association, which has called for indoor dining in the city, to create a plan or a “task force” that would effectively allow restaurants to reopen while enforcing the governor’s rules.
New York requires all restaurants open for indoor dining to operate at reduced capacity, limit table sizes, enforce face coverings except while seated and limit staff meetings, among other guidelines.
This is a developing story. Please check back later for updates.
United Airlines president Scott Kirby speaking in Chicago, Illinois, June 5, 2019.
Kamil Krzaczynski | Reuters
Watch United Airlines CEO Scott Kirby walk through the company’s O’Hare Airport hub and two things jump out.
First, there are so few customers in the terminal that Kirby calls it “surreal” to see one of the world’s busiest airports so quiet.
Second, there is a steady stream of United employees asking Kirby about the state of the business.
“How are we looking?” one United ramp worker asked him.
“We’ve got a tough year ahead until there’s a vaccine,” Kirby answered. “The good news is, I can see the light at the end of the tunnel.”
This is the world of Kirby a little over one hundred days into his tenure as CEO. Despite aggressive cost cuts, United is still burning through an estimated $40 million every single day. The airline has parked about 40% of its fleet and could cut up to 36,000 jobs starting Oct. 1. As bleak as the outlook is for United and the airline industry as a whole, Kirby believes demand will come roaring back once there’s a vaccine for Covid-19.
“There’ll be huge pent-up demand for leisure travel, for business travel, for people to get back out on the road,” Kirby told NBC News during an interview discussing the company’s decision to permanently waive ticket change fees.
Almost six months after the Coronavirus caused airline passenger levels to plunge 95% in the U.S., the industry has not seen a sharp rebound in business. The Transportation Safety Administration says passenger levels are still down 70% compared with the same time a year ago, mainly because leisure travel remains weak. Another factor is the depressed state of corporate travel, with businesses slashing budgets and opting to have employees make video calls instead of getting on a flight. Kirby doubts that switch is permanent.
“Zoom can be a substitute when you can’t be there, but it is not the same as being there in person. I think that it won’t happen overnight, but within a year or two, I do think business travel will come back,” he said.
It’s also unclear how long it will take to actually get a vaccine for Covid-19 approved and administered to the more than 330 million Americans. U.S. officials have said they think a coronavirus vaccine will be cleared, at least on an emergency basis, for public distribution by the end of this year or early next. Manufacturing enough of it and distributing it across the U.S. will take months, they’ve said.
Dr. Robert Redfield, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, said last week that vaccine doses will likely be in short supply once a candidate is cleared for public distribution in the U.S.
“At first, there will likely be a limited supply of one or more of the Covid-19 vaccines, because limited doses will be available,” Redfield said Friday on a conference call with reporters.
That will ultimately determine how long it will take for passenger traffic to return to pre-pandemic levels. Kirby and his team at United are not planning to see 2019 passenger levels until 2024. Until then, United will become a smaller airline with far fewer employees and far more debt.
“In order to survive this crisis, we’re taking on an awful lot of debt and we’re going to have to pay that back,” Kirby said.
After spending time talking with ramp workers, including one employee who’s been with the airline since 1969, Kirby ended the brief meeting one a cautiously optimistic note. “I can see the light at the end of the tunnel. It’s still a long tunnel unfortunately, but I feel increasingly confident.” He said.
The Met’s $3 billion endowment couldn’t save it from layoffs as iconic museum struggles with pandemic
The Metropolitan Museum of Art reopens its doors to the public on Saturday after the coronavirus pandemic forced it to close for an unprecedented 5 months.
The iconic New York City museum, which celebrates its 150th anniversary this year, is projecting $150 million in lost revenue from the pandemic through next June and had to cut its staff by 20% through a combinations of layoffs, furloughs and early retirement packages. Like many museums throughout the world, the Met is facing an uncertain road ahead.
“It’s an exceptionally difficult time for the cultural landscape,” spokesman Ken Weine said in an interview. “We are very eager to reopen. But we will be reopening in a very different environment.”
Across the country, cultural institutions of all sizes have experienced serious financial challenges during the pandemic. According to a June survey from the American Alliance of Museums, 16% of museums believed they faced a significant risk of permanent closure without additional financial relief.
Even the Met — with a $3.3 billion endowment and a 150-year history of generous donors — has struggled amid the financial shock.
Before the pandemic, the museum was on its way to balancing its budget, according to CFO Jamie Kelleher.
“But of course, Covid hit and the world changed,” she said.
The Met closed on March 13 after New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio declared a state of emergency and shuttered most cultural institutions. That left the museum, which has an annual budget of around $300 million, without any of its usual revenue from admissions, retail sales and restaurants. Its more than 2 million square feet of gallery space, usually filled with both tourists and local New Yorkers, sat empty.
The museum cut spending on programming and new acquisitions and also trimmed executive pay. It also has received about $4 million via the CARES Act Employee Retention Credit.
“Those measures were taken with an eye toward doing everything we could to preserve jobs,” Weine said.
The Met ultimately decided to reduce its headcount by more than 400 positions — some 20% of its staff. These cuts were made through a combination of volunteer retirement programs, furloughs and layoffs.
When the coronavirus crisis first hit, the museum launched an emergency relief fund, which redirects some endowment earnings as well as support from trustees and other donors. To date, the museum’s trustees have raised $30 million for this effort.
“So that fund is going to be able to address half, if not more than half, of the lost revenue that we expect over this period,” Kelleher said.
Memberships, which usually makes up about 10% of total revenue for the Met, aren’t expected to drop significantly. Members are “very eager to return,” Weine says, and were able to go Thursday and Friday before it reopened to the general public.
Most corporate support comes through exhibition sponsorships, Kelleher says. Despite changed exhibition dates, most sponsors have remained flexible and haven’t pulled any significant deals, she said.
Bank of America is the lead corporate sponsor of “Making The Met, 1870-2020” — the signature exhibition celebrating the Met’s 150th anniversary. The exhibition features more than 250 works of art and explores the museum’s history and development.
“What is unique about the American system of funding culture, and philanthropic funding in general, is it’s philanthropy that funds many of the things that our society treasures and relies on the most,” Weine said.
New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo announced Aug. 14 that museums, in addition to aquariums and other cultural centers, in New York City would be able to reopen August 24. The state requires operating at 25% capacity, with timed entry. Masks and temperature checks will also be required.
“The challenges will continue, even after we reopen,” Weine said.
The Met has seen record numbers of visitors in recent years. In Fiscal Year 2019, 28% of the Met’s more than 7 million visitors were international tourists. Now, the Met will be reopening to a limited and almost entirely local audience.
“What has been striking in these months is how uncertain the terrain is and how every day, it can and has moved in a different direction, from the public health reality to the pace of the economic recovery,” Weine said.
In this environment, preparing for the future can be a challenging task. The Met is continuing to model several different scenarios for the months and years ahead.
Kelleher says that what seemed to be pessimistic outlooks 6 months ago have actually turned out to be optimistic.
“We need to be prepared to be able to weather a storm that is a lot longer than we ever thought,” she said.