Epic Systems

A metal wizard stands in the center of the King’s Cross campus courtyard last summer.

Verona-based health software company Epic will not require its 10,000 employees to return to campus by mid-September after Public Health Madison and Dane County officials questioned the timeframe.

The company had originally planned to have employees come back to the 1,000-acre campus in phases starting Monday, Aug. 10, but have since reversed course. In an email to employees, Epic leadership said that they would not be required to come back if their personal circumstances or concerns would prevent them from doing so, according to an Aug. 9 story published by WKOW 27.

Epic public relations employee Ashley Gibson defended the company’s initial plan in a Tuesday, Aug. 4 email to the Press, stating that employees are able to better work together when physically present on campus.

“Over the past several months, our experience has been that results are much better and faster when staff are able to collaborate on new and creative ideas doing in-person brainstorming sessions compared to over the phone or video conference,” she wrote.

But after receiving an Aug. 6 letter from PHMDC inquiring about the first plan, Sverre Roang, Epic’s chief administrative officer, told the Press in a Sunday, Aug. 9, email statement that the company was planning to work collaboratively with PHMDC on a new plan.

“We are adjusting the timeframe as we work with public health officials to gain their agreement on our plan,” the statement read.

Roang wrote the intention is still to eventually return Epic’s 10,000 employees to campus and clarified what exact health precautions Epic is taking to help employees curb the spread of COVID-19. The email didn’t provide a timeline. Roang also wrote a letter replying to PHMDC Aug. 8, saying that the company would like additional guidance on its returning plans, it reads.

Several Dane County Board supervisors also called on PHMDC to “add transparency to Epic’s reopening plan” in a Friday, Aug. 7, Facebook post, including Verona’s representative Mike Bare.

Addressing concerns

Inquiries from PHMDC officials and county board members into Epic’s first plan came as employees have decried the company’s reopening plan to various news outlets, some facing retaliation and demotions for speaking out, a June Cap Times story states.

The letter from county supervisors asked PHMDC how Epic’s plans will help Dane County flatten the curve, what has changed in Epic’s situation since its employees began remote work that they are no longer able to facilitate that arrangement and how involved PHMDC has been in helping the company develop its reopening plan.

“While Epic is exempt from some aspects of EO #8 under Section 6, they are still required to facilitate remote work to the greatest extent possible under Section 4.f,” the letter from county supervisors reads. “Many employees are uneasy about returning to the office and have reached out to members of the board and have likely shared their concerns with PHMDC as well.”

Roang’s email states individual offices will be available for people who would like them, masks are required and the 1,000-acre campus supports physical distancing protocols for employees who feel ready to return.

The email also states staff will receive daily health screens for COVID-19 symptoms, have access to more public transportation options, be able to sit in reduced capacity conference rooms and work inside a well-ventilated and sanitized work area.

Roang wrote Epic has “recently engaged a return to work expert organization,” including the Cleveland Clinic, a former Food and Drug Administration commissioner, a federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention disease leader, an epidemiologist, and a former public health official from Orange County.

Alleged retaliation

Even as Epic has changed its reopening plan, employees who criticized the initial version have faced company retaliation.

An Aug. 4 Wisconsin Public Radio story states “high-level management has rebuffed concerns about high-risk employee’s health, as well as the possibility of the company’s policy contributing to more community spread of the virus.”

And an Aug. 5 Cap Times story states reporters spoke with 26 employees half of whom said they “have knowledge” of managers being demoted for expressing concerns about reopening.

The retaliation, “several employees said, is part of an ongoing effort to control and monitor staff dissent and responses to management decisions, including removing critical posts from an internal company web page and failing to provide date or details about what is driving decisions,” the Cap Times story states.

One employee the Aug. 4 WPR identifies as “John” who has a high-risk condition, had told the news outlet he “feels like he is being forced to decide on taking his medication and losing his job.” The medication suppresses his immune system.

“I could easily end up on a ventilator,” John told WPR. “My body is incapable of fighting off tougher infections.”

Email Emilie Heidemann at emilie.heidemann@wcinet.com or follow her on Twitter at @HeidemannEmilie.