At the Epicenter of Coronavirus Deaths, Washington Companies and Schools Prepare

Dana Wilkie By Dana Wilkie March 4, 2020

​At Lynden International, an air and ocean freight company about 22 miles south of the epicenter of recent coronavirus deaths in Washington state, managers are getting "more and more questions" about the company's plans for accommodating sick workers and preventing them from getting sick in the first place. 

"With all these deaths occurring over the weekend … it kind of brought this to the forefront of our attention," said Kristie Duggan, an HR manager for Lynden. The company employs about 70 warehouse and office workers and is located near the Seattle-Tacoma International Airport (SeaTac). Some of the workers live in Kirkland, where five coronavirus deaths have been reported. "It's really on our doorstep now, and we have to think about it. We're asking each manager to look at each person and the jobs they do and to think outside the box."

Virus Deaths All in Same Washington Region

The number of coronavirus deaths in the U.S. rose to nine on Tuesday, health officials said. All of the deaths occurred in Washington state, five in one nursing home in Kirkland, which is near Seattle, and four others in the same or nearby counties. Gov. Jay Inslee and King County Executive Dow Constantine have declared states of emergency.

About 50 people work in the Lynden offices near Kirkland, Duggan said, and most are expected to be in the office daily. So, a robust telework program is not something the company had prepared.  

"We have to determine who can work from home," said Duggan, who is also the college relations director for the South King County chapter of the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM). "Do we have the IT infrastructure to make it work? Do they have computers they can be remote with? Some of our jobs … you need to be around a printer, and a home printer won't do. What would those people do?"

As for the 30-some workers at the Lynden warehouses, Duggan said, that's a whole different challenge.

"Some of us can't really work from home. It's hard to move stuff in a warehouse when you're not there. But we are planning our response and determining who can realistically work from home, if necessary."

Two positive factors: First, the company provides gloves the workers can use when handling airplane cargo coming from nearby SeaTac. Second, these employees "don't have a lot of public interaction, so our warehouse people have less to worry about."

See the MapThe virus "has been a hot topic among our employees' minds over the last few days," said Anne Bosse, SHRM-CP, a senior HR generalist for PayScale who works in Seattle, about 16 miles from Kirkland. As a result, the company has hung signs reminding workers to wash their hands, provided hand sanitizer on each floor, asked housekeeping to increase cleaning on work surfaces, and reminded employees that they have paid time off, have access to virtual health care, may be able to telecommute, and should only conduct business travel when absolutely necessary.

On Tuesday, Duggan's team was hard at work writing an e-mail with links to guidance from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and other information about the virus and providing hand sanitizer for each workspace. Luckily, Lynden had a lot of hand sanitizer stashed away, but Duggan confessed that the company could have a problem securing more in the future. Out of curiosity, she visited a Safeway store Monday night and discovered that the supermarket was entirely out of disinfectant wipes, a situation many other stores across the nation have reported.

Lynden also has to think about workers with school-age children. The North Shore School District, whose 33 schools with 23,000 students are near Kirkland, closed all schools Tuesday morning, and while that didn't affect any Lynden employees, "we have to figure out what to do if ours close," Duggan said.

One teacher at a closed North Shore school said that some children are alarmed and asking questions and that about one-third of parents kept their kids home from school the day before the district even announced a closure.

"People are worried, families are worried, so they're keeping their little ones home," said the teacher, who asked that her name not be used because the district asked staff not to speak with the media. "We had daylong [training] on how to conduct online learning. It's a whole new ballgame. No one's ever done this before."

Major Employers in Area

Microsoft has a large work campus near the Kirkland area. Lianna McCurdy, a spokeswoman for Microsoft, noted that the company has:

  • Created a global health response team prepared to protect employees based on its evaluation of risk communicated by global health authorities, such as the World Health Organization and the CDC.
  • Advised that employees avoid all nonessential travel to the CDC's identified regions with active COVID-19
  • Provided employees with guidance about working from home should the coronavirus spread require it. 

"The health and safety of our employees is our top priority at Microsoft," another of the company's spokespeople said. "We are providing real-time guidance to employees in all affected regions. We will continue to monitor the situation and take action as necessary to help protect employees."

What About Public Transportation?

Pamela Gibbons is president of SHRM's South King County chapter, about a half-hour drive from the epicenter. Her chapter is in an area that encompasses many manufacturing, warehousing and trucking companies.

"I've been in contact with some of our SHRM members and some things that they are discussing in their companies [where] there's a heavy manufacturing population is that … most of the jobs don't lend themselves to telecommuting," she noted. "How, if anything, will their attendance policies be affected by things like school closures?"

Another consideration, she said, is public transit. Seattle is perhaps a 15-minute drive from Kirkland, and many Kirkland residents who work in Seattle use public transportation to get there.

"People who take public transit have a heightened level of potential exposure," she said. "Now you're not just talking about work, but their ability to get to work."

Her chapter members plan to attend the Washington State Employment Law and Human Resources Conference next week, which will be held at a hotel near Kirkland. The conference organizer, she said, sent an e-mail to attendees Monday night saying one of the keynote speakers would be replaced by a panel of experts to talk about company responses to the coronavirus. 



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