Despite emergence of vaccines, some local companies to continue working from home for time

Deb Deter

Despite the emergence of COVID-19 vaccines, multiple Dubuque employers acknowledge that a return to typical working conditions is not imminent.

Nearly nine months have passed since health officials reported the first case of COVID-19 in Dubuque County. The threat of the virus compelled businesses throughout the tri-state area to send their employees home and led to a mandated closure of restaurants and retail stores.

But while many shopping and dining destinations have reopened, many offices still remain largely vacant as 2020 inches closer toward a conclusion.

These workplaces could remain uncharacteristically quiet for months in 2021, according to company leaders.

At Dubuque Bank & Trust and parent company Heartland Financial USA locations, those working remotely — the back-office, non-customer-facing workers — have been informed that they will continue to work at home through the first quarter of next year.

Deb Deters, executive vice president and chief human resource officer for Heartland, said the date on which they will return to the office remains in flux.

“For those currently working remotely, we’re hoping get them back to offices on April 1,” she said. “But that is something we will have to reassess as that date gets closer.”

For many businesses, plans to return to the office depend on how quickly vaccines are distributed nationwide.

Public distribution of the shot across the country is initially limited to frontline health workers and people in nursing homes and long-term-care facilities. Every American who wants a COVID-19 vaccine should be able to get it by the end of June, U.S. Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar has said.

Deters noted that the American Bankers Association is lobbying to make sure bank tellers are positioned to get access to the vaccine sooner rather than later, given their status as essential workers.

For now, though, workers continue to operate under the new normal.

“Our workers have done remarkably well adjusting to it,” Deters said. “Like any company, we are just dealing with it the best we can.”

Time will tell

Other major employers remain in a holding pattern when it comes to returning to the office.

Prudential Retirement employs more than 400 workers at 500 Main St. in Dubuque, according to the latest estimate issued by Greater Dubuque Development Corp.

Prudential’s vice president of global communications, Josh Stoffregen-Foye, told the Telegraph Herald in September that the company has a return-to-work committee that is regularly assessing the possibility of bringing workers back to the office. However, he noted at the time that nothing was imminent.

Three months later, news of a vaccine hasn’t moved the meter in any significant way.

“I don’t think anything has changed since early September,” he said Tuesday.

He added that the process is ongoing.

“We are constantly evaluating, but we are not ready to bring anyone back yet,” he said.

The prolonged nature of the workers’ absences was not something that most employers projected.

“As it started, no one knew exactly what to expect,” Deters said. “This pandemic is sort of uncharted water. It has definitely gone on longer than I think most people anticipated.”

Rolling with the changes

For some workers, the lengthy absence from a physical workplace can take a mental or emotional toll.

“There are ebbs and flows from the emotional side of it,” Deters said. “I think it was easier during the summer because people could get out of the house. Now that we’re going indoors and cases are spiking, people are getting a little antsy again.”

But Deters noted that others have enjoyed working from home. She said some have even expressed interest in working remotely one or more days per week after the pandemic has subsided.

Despite these changes, employers still understand that there is value in the traditional workplace.

DuTrac Community Credit Union officials have prioritized getting workers back into the office as long as it is safe to do so.

Jason Norton, senior vice president of marketing and business development at DuTrac, said only “a handful of folks” are continuing to work from home, while the rest have returned to the workplace.

Norton emphasized that accommodations have been made for workers who are at greater risk during the pandemic.

“Those individuals with underlying health situations, or those who are living with someone that has an underlying health situation, they are continuing to work remotely,” he said.

DuTrac also temporarily closed some facilities due to the threat of the virus.

Lobbies at Peru Road and Holliday Drive locations are closed, while a facility within the Dubuque Walmart also has been temporarily suspended.

Even so, Norton said the credit union still has provided members with plenty of opportunities to have in-person interactions with an employee.

“Banking is a relationship-based business,” he said. “If you don’t have folks interacting with members, it is very difficult to do what we do.”