Large employers in R.I., including state, remain cautious about returning workers to offices

PROVIDENCE Many of Rhode Island’s largest employers say they are waiting to return their office-based staff to the workplace, with several saying they don’t expect to start repopulating their offices until later this year.

In emailed responses and interviews, many businesses say they expect to continue some form of work-from-home even after the vaccines are fully distributed.

The question of whether to require a vaccine for returning employees is another issue that many employers are working through. One of the state’s largest companies, Citizens Financial Group Inc. said it will not require employees to be vaccinated against COVID-19, but will provide educational resources and encourage employees to make “the best decisions for themselves and their families.”

Another large employer, Brown University, is not sure yet whether a vaccination will be required for students or employees. “But it’s a key question under consideration as we plan for the next … academic year,” said spokesman Brian Clark.

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On the question of when and whether to repopulate offices, many of which in Providence and in office parks remain empty, companies said they are following state public health guidelines and watching the pandemic closely.

The largest employer in Rhode Island – the state government – has adopted a stance on office positions that it’s better to work remotely when possible.

The state has about 13,600 employees in various positions, including at the state universities. As of March 9, about 3,000 of them were working remotely, according to the R.I. Department of Administration.

“As we continue Rhode Island’s reopening, the governor and the department of health will evaluate this area based on the state’s public health data and the progress of our vaccination efforts,” said Andrea Palagi, a spokeswoman for Gov. Daniel J. McKee.

Private employers seem to be dividing along two lines, according to commercial real estate experts.

Those that are based in Rhode Island, or which have fewer than 50 people, tend to be planning to bring back people to offices more quickly than corporations which may have operations in multiple states.

Professional offices, such as attorneys, accountants and engineers, where many people have their own private offices, also have been more willing to bring people back inside to shared workspaces.

Joseph R. Paolino, who owns several buildings in downtown Providence, including the skyscraper at 100 Westminster, estimated that his signature building has about 10% of the employees back at their desks.

He said he’s asked McKee if he, or potentially other big employers, could hire a nurse and offer site-based vaccinations, as a way to increase vaccinations and boost confidence.

“If you have all of your workers going into a building, you can give them the vaccine,” Paolino said. He said he’d be willing to hire a nurse to do that. “Give me the vaccine,” he said.

Anthony Marcello, director of business development for Foundry Associates, said many of the larger tenants at the Foundry are out of their buildings, including United Natural Foods Inc., one of the largest tenants at the ALCO building.

“It’s still pretty quiet,” he said, of the office scene. “Maybe one-third to half of [offices] have stayed somewhat active, at one-third to half-capacity.”

The state now allows employers in offices to bring back up to 50% of their staffs.

As of Thursday, the state had administered first doses of the vaccine to 310,000 people. More than 187,000 people were fully vaccinated, according to the R.I. Department of Health.

As weeks pass, the bulk of the vaccinations have turned from people older than age 65 to the prime working ages. The week of March 15, 85% of vaccine recipients were age 65 or younger.

Many companies, in responses to the Providence Business News, said despite the increased vaccinations across the state, they’re taking a slow approach to repopulating offices.

International Game Technology PLC, which has about 1,000 employees in a building in downtown Providence, said the “vast majority” of its employees will continue to work from home. The company has not announced a timeline for employees now working remotely to return to any of its offices, a spokesman said.

Care New England Health System, which along with Lifespan Corp. had early access to vaccines, has not made a plan yet to bring its office-based staff back to their workplaces, according to Robin Neale, vice president of quality, clinical effectiveness and infection prevention and care.

“It will be gradual, and like other industries, and [we] may find that some roles can be done remotely, or [through an] office/home combination.”

CVS Health Corp., based in Woonsocket, which has 8,600 full-time employees, plans to allow its Rhode Island-based office employees to continue at home through at least June, and then will continue to evaluate its approach to bring them back safely, according to a corporate spokesman.

Fidelity Investments Inc., which has 3,300 people in its Smithfield offices, has also not yet started a process to bring them into the offices, said Kim Reingold, a company spokesperson. Fidelity envisions possibly a hybrid model of work going forward, where people will continue to work-from-home at least a portion of the week.

The company does feel that time on-site is essential for a strong culture, she said. “The connections we build in our offices are a competitive advantage,” she said.

Once the state has widespread immunity, and pandemic conditions improve, the company intended to start “creating this future work experience for groups that will really benefit from time on site together, like teams where an office setting can help make the work experience less stressful and more productive.”

Some large employers, however, when asked about their plans said they are already making steps to start reopening their offices.

Brown University, which employs about 4,300 people in Providence, already has about 1,000 working on campus, said a spokesman. Some of these people are in positions including public safety or in facilities.

But for employees working remotely, the university hopes that when the vaccinations become more widely available, and when the transmission rate remains low, that it can bring them back to work on-site, potentially by mid-August.

Citizens, which has nearly 5,000 employees, is taking steps to bring back its workforce starting in June. It will ask employees to initially work one day a week at its Johnston campus, or in Providence if based there. Over time, the company anticipates that more of its workforce will phase into working from the office.

The process will be guided by safety and health guidelines. But the company believes that “face-to-face interaction” helps drive greater collaboration, a spokesman said.

Mary MacDonald is a staff writer for the PBN. Contact her at macdonald@pbn.com.