The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

UnitedHealth Group tells employees to go to work unless they are in a high-risk group, have covid-19 symptoms or meet other exceptions

The UnitedHealth Group's campus in Minnesota. (Jim Mone/AP)

As a growing number of companies have adopted broad work-from-home policies amid the novel coronavirus outbreak, UnitedHealth Group is telling employees to go to work unless they are part of a high-risk group, experiencing any symptoms, or face certain other obstacles.

The guidelines, shared in emails Sunday to its 325,000 employees and managers, differs somewhat from broad-based policies other large employers have issued that have asked or strongly encouraged employees to work from home if their role allows them to do so.

In a list of talking points shared in an email by the health-care giant’s corporate communications group to its “people managers,” UnitedHealth said its employees, who include 100,000 clinicians, are “expected to come to their assigned work location unless they have self-identified as being at higher risk for serious covid-19 illness or are experiencing symptoms of respiratory infection, such as cough, fever or runny nose.”

There are also carve-outs for workers who are unable to find alternate child care or who face local community-based issues, such as closures of public transportation related to covid-19.

UnitedHealth Group spokesman Matt Stearns said in an email Monday that nearly half of the company’s U.S. workforce is already in a virtual or work-from-home environment. The majority of those who aren’t “either provide care or directly assist in the provision of care,” he said.

“The health and safety of our employees is paramount to us, and that is why we have taken steps to ensure people who are at high risk and have child care or transportation disruptions can work from home," he wrote in an emailed statement on Monday. “At the same time, the members, patients and customers we serve depend on the people of UnitedHealth Group to be fully engaged during this public health crisis, and we are committed to meeting their needs each and every day.”

In the email to employees, UnitedHealth’s chief human resources officer, Patricia Lewis, wrote that “while other less essential industries have implemented broad work-from-home policies, we are a health-care company, and our business needs to operate as smoothly as possible during this health crisis to serve others.”

In a separate memo to employees, the company’s CEO, Dave Wichmann, said “as you continue to hear about the actions of other companies, please keep in mind that we are not like the other businesses in your community. … Our health-care services are essential. We cannot walk away. We cannot close our doors. People are depending on us. They need us … each and every one of us … fully engaged and doing our very best work.”

Other companies in related industries have reported broad policies. CVS Health shared a company statement with The Washington Post that says, “We are giving our employees the option to work from home if their role enables them to do so.” The statement says that “managers of office-based colleagues unable to work from home will remain in the office to support their teams”; the company said employees in “stores, mail service pharmacies, call centers and distribution centers” are most likely to need to remain at their locations.

In an emailed response to a question about its work-from-home policy, Cigna said, “Employees who can perform their work from home are strongly encouraged to do so. The majority of our U.S. employees are telework capable.” Humana also said in an email that it has been “strongly encouraging employees who are able to work from home to do so.”

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said that its guidance Sunday recommending against in-person events with 50 people or more for the next eight weeks “does not apply to the day-to-day operation of organizations such as schools, institutes of higher learning or businesses.” In other guidance, it has said that encouraging “staff to telework (when feasible), particularly individuals at increased risk of severe illness,” is a “minimal to moderate” activity for workplaces to mitigate covid-19 transmission.

In Lewis’s email to employees, she also said anyone with symptoms should work from home and will not be required to take paid time off. The company is also eliminating “all visitors in our hospitals, clinics, clinical support facilities and claim and call centers through April 30,” as well as limiting them in office settings. It announced other social distancing measures that include avoiding large gatherings, avoiding nonessential travel and “no handshakes or hugs.”

UnitedHealth employees who have “self-identified” that they are at higher risk, including employees older than 60, people who have severe chronic medical conditions or who have HIV, are pregnant or have compromised immunity, do not have to disclose their condition, the emails said, and may work from home.

The company also said it was offering alternate child-care options, either through the Bright Horizons network or reimbursing employees up to $100 a day for 15 work days; those who still cannot find child care can also work from home.