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Can credit unions protect 'essential' staff from the coronavirus?

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Logix Federal Credit Union in Burbank, Calif., had a variety of disaster plans in place before the COVID-19 outbreak, but the global pandemic forced the $6.3 billion-asset institution to come up with new policies and procedures — especially after a trio of front-line staffers from two separate branches received positive diagnoses for the virus.

Along with sending those employees home for a paid two-week quarantine, the credit union shuttered both branches and sent all employees from those facilities home for two weeks, fully paid. Those staffers were told not to work but to focus on their health while at home, and the empty branches were also given an extra-thorough cleaning by a different company that usually cleans its branches.

“We’re running into a situation none of us have ever run into before,” said John Roemer, chief strategy and communications officer at Logix. “When we make decisions to send people home and pay them not to work, we debated that, but a lot of it comes back to the corporate values we try to live by, and that makes it easier because you have a paradigm and a structure by which to make these decisions, and you can get things done pretty quickly.”

Credit unions across the country have taken steps to limit branch access and reduce exposure for staff and members, but front-line employees at several, including Logix, have been diagnosed with the virus. The U.S. labor force comprises nearly 164 million people, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, and the Department of Homeland Security has classified 16 different types of employment sectors as “essential employees.” Research from the Brookings Institution estimates 49 million to 62 million American workers could fall within that category.

With much of the country engaged in social distancing, “essential employees” in a variety of professions, including banking, must continue to interact with the public, meaning they could be more likely to be diagnosed with COVID-19.

Logix has also taken steps to notify members in the affected branches’ market areas about the infection. Management has reached out individually to members who visited those facilities in the 14 days leading up to the diagnosis and tracked down those who completed a transaction, met with staff or signed a log book. The institution also has made public statements to reach others who may not have received notification in other ways.

“We’re doing this out of an abundance of caution,” said Roemer.

With California in the midst of an extended lockdown, Logix has also made changes at its branches that have stayed open, reducing operating hours, regulating the number of members inside and how closely they are positioned, and removing stations with complimentary coffee and cookies.

“Once this started to gain momentum in early February we created a COVID task force made up of senior management, plus different areas of management from other parts of the company,” said Roemer. “We have a call every day for two hours except Sunday, and we talk about the current state in a number of different areas — the company, what our response might be, what we should do — and then we go forward that way. It’s business continuity planning on the fly, but it’s with a lot of focus and attention.”

Navy Federal, the world’s largest credit union, has also had to juggle these issues.

Despite shifting 75% of its workforce of more than 13,000 employees to remote work, at least two front-line staffers at Navy Federal have received positive diagnoses of COVID-19. For those employees still on-site, measures have been put in place to practice social distancing, and enhanced cleaning of work spaces is also being done. Social distancing measures are being encouraged outside the office.

“In the rare occasion that we have an employee who’s tested positive, we make sure those they’ve may have come in contact with at work are notified and are able to take the appropriate steps to work from home and monitor their health. We also work to fully clean and disinfect their work areas,” Navy Federal President and CEO Mary McDuffie said in an emailed statement.

Credit unions have a responsibility to warn workers if an employee becomes sick with the coronavirus, said Gregory Hearing, a shareholder in the labor management employment practice at GrayRobinson. Management should send out a notice about the diagnosis with as many details as possible so others would know whether they may have been exposed. Employees don’t have a right to privacy regarding this information since the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act, or HIPAA, doesn’t apply to anyone who isn’t a medical provider.

But it is still best not to use the person’s name in any correspondence, Hearing added.

“You have a duty to provide a safe workplace to all of your employees,” Hearing said. “It’s a public health emergency and that overtakes any privacy concerns.”

Protecting essential workers

Despite the steps many employers are taking to protect workers, some worker-rights groups have raised concerns about the additional risks those employees face just because they are “essential.”

“We don’t think it’s necessarily useful to distinguish high-risk or low-risk, because at this point in time, everybody who is working, if they’re an essential worker, is thereby at risk,” said Marcy Goldstein-Gelb, co-executive director of the National Council for Occupational Safety and Health. “So if you’re going to have people working, every workplace should be require to have a comprehensive infectious diseases prevention program where workers [and] management identify any possible points of exposure, determine areas and tasks where workers might be exposed to viruses, think about worst-case scenarios [and] controls that focus first on reducing that interface.”

Making staff part of those processes, she added, can help employers ensure staff are more willing to come forward when there are safety concerns, without fear of retaliation.

There are also things management can do to protect staff beyond limiting branch access for members and embracing social distancing at the office.

“Start off with things that remove the hazard and isolate people first, before you get down to things like masks and gloves, because things that remove the hazard and make it better for everyone are more effective than ‘Here’s a mask,’ ” said Jessica A.R. Williams, Ph.D., an assistant professor of public health at the University of Kansas Medical Center. “Most employers can try to increase the ventilation rate or increase the amount of outdoor air that comes into the building." Additionally, she said, along with physical barriers to protect staff from germs, employers should continue to put forward administrative controls, reducing the number of people per shift and keeping groups of workers together so that any infections don’t spread beyond that group.

In the meantime, two employees from Logix who received positive diagnoses are expected to make a full recovery and a third — diagnosed after the others — is progressing well, said Roemer. Both branches those employees worked at were expected to reopen this week. But that doesn’t change the credit union’s strategy; preventive measures will continue and management is monitoring governmental guidance for any additional measures that may need to be implemented.

With nerves at peak levels over the outbreak, Logix is taking the approach of being as open and honest as possible with employees and members alike, Roemer said.

“Part of what’s so scary about this pandemic is the unknown … and all of this just heightens the anxiety," he said . "If you’re communicating frequently and are as transparent as you can be, it helps reduce some of that. And that will get us through this. We are going to get through this and we’ll get through it together.”

Jackie Stewart contributed to this article.

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