Some employees at Epic, the Verona-based medical record manufacturer, have continued working at the company’s campus during the pandemic. Most employees have been working from home.
But not for much longer, after Epic CEO and founder Judy Faulkner announced the company will bring back employees in stages, beginning next Monday. The phased reopening plan will continue until September 21st, when the company plans to have most of its approximately 10,000 employees back on campus.
That move has employees questioning why they are being called back to campus in the middle of a pandemic.
WORT spoke with five current Epic employees yesterday and today. All requested that we don’t use their names, out of fear of retaliation at the company. Some declined to let us use their voices, while others only agreed to having their voices altered.
In an email to employees announcing the reopening plan, Epic CEO and Founder Judy Faulkner wrote that “It’s hard to retain our culture when working from home.”
Under Epic’s Principle Number 8, employees are told to “Dissent when you disagree, but once decided, support.”
One employee, who we’ll call Alex, has worked for about a year and a half in Epic’s Quality Assurance department. They say Principle Number 8 is being used to defend the company’s decision to return to in-person operations next week.
In an email to WORT, an Epic spokesperson defended the decision, writing that in-person collaboration is better and faster than phone and video conferencing.
Another Epic employee, who we’ll call Barry, also works in the Quality Assurance department. Barry says the company has been functioning just fine during the pandemic.
“Over the past several months we have all been working from home, or most of us. Out of the 10,000 employees at Epic, about 3000 have been working at the campus,” they say. “And over that time, we have essentially proven we are pretty good at this. We have been effective at doing our jobs, we have continued to produce high quality software and we have continued to effectively support the customers that rely on us.”
Barry says that the company had one of its physicians give a lecture to employees that defined their personal health as a matter of risk, and it’s up to each employee to decide the level of risk they’re willing to take on.
“We had an internal physician, someone who is a practicing physician and works at Epic, stand up at our last staff meeting and tell us that risk was about making choices and we can make choices about the level of risk we want to assume. But, in this case, management has told us there is a minimum level of risk that we must assume. And we don’t have a choice about that.”
Another Epic employee WORT spoke with, who has worked in Technical Services for over two years, says they understand why Epic wants to bring people back. They say the company hires the bulk of its new employees, including many recent college graduates, in the summer — and it can be hard to train those new recruits from a distance.
In an internal email sent to Epic’s staff and obtained by WORT, Faulkner, along with other members of the company’s leadership, told employees that they would be allowed to work off-site until November 2nd if they had a higher than average risk of contracting COVID-19. But employees need to be approved for working at home through Epic’s personnel services.
The November 2nd extension also applies to parents who need to work from home to take care of their children. With the Madison Metropolitan School District’s announcement last month that it plans to start off the fall semester online, many parents will need to provide childcare for home-bound students.
Originally, the company told parents they would be unable to continue working from home, says Alex. Then, Alex says, they amended that policy and said parents could choose a part-time work schedule that allowed them to work for 50-75% of their standard work week. That comes with the stipulation that parents would only receive 50-75 % of their pay.
Those who want to continue working from home past the November 2nd, or who feel uncomfortable returning to campus, are offered an indefinite leave of absence set to end whenever the pandemic is over. But, Faulkner says Epic may have to hire new employees to do the work of those taking a leave of absence.
In the email, Faulkner also praised the company’s employees, saying that they were “Heroes helping heroes” and that their work was essential to the success of medical providers across the country. An Epic spokesperson also wrote WORT that “in-person collaboration, with masks and safe physical distancing, is essential to saving more lives.”
An anonymous employee we’ll call Carter, who has worked in implementation services for a little over a year, says the hero rhetoric is just a way for the company’s leadership to cover up their own mismanagement.
“The hero narratives that Judy keeps pushing…the idea that we’re all ‘heroes helping heroes’ is steeped in an American tradition where we understand that heroes die for their causes,” they say. “I think that’s an important part of this hero’s narrative that we push at Epic…but that ignores that its deliberate decisions made on the part of our leadership that will lead to death if we go back to campus.”
Carter says the email, and other recent statements from the company’s leadership, are the latest in a string of reactive policies towards COVID-19. They say that the company closed down its Verona campus in March only after the organizations they worked with began closing down their in-person operations.
“We’ve been behind the times since the beginning. Epic had no interest in even pulling us from travel. There was nothing from Epic saying, ‘Oh, there’s this concern and we should bring people home.’ Epic has definitely not been very proactive.”
Other big tech companies have allowed their workers to stay home during the pandemic. Google and Facebook told employees to work from home until 2021, reports the Washington Post. Twitter employees can continue working from home altogether — during and after the pandemic.
Yesterday, the Madison Industrial Workers of the World issued a press release along with some anonymous Epic employees, accusing the company of violating public health orders.
Under Dane County Emergency Order Number Eight, all Dane County businesses should, to the greatest extent possible, limit in-person operations. But, in her email, Faulkner says that Epic is an essential business because of its health software, and has been coordinating with the Public Health Department on their reopening.
Public Health Madison and Dane County did not return requests to confirm the coordination.
Faulkner also wrote that the company has brought in Dr. Stephen Ostroff, who has served as the acting Health Commissioner of the FDA, Director of the Bureau of Epidemiology for the Pennsylvania Department of Health and in various senior positions at the Centers for Disease Control and prevention, to consult on the company’s reopening plans and processes.
Mia Robidoux, a member of the Industrial Workers of the World and a former Epic employee, says a culture of silence and censorship is pervasive throughout the company. Robidoux was a trainer at Epic for two and a half years, before she was terminated last August.
She says that the work level demanded of her, and other employees, was unreasonable.
“It was absolutely evident there that if you didn’t agree with everything Epic was putting forward, your only route to express that disagreement was through one-on-one conversations with your higher-ups,” Robidoux says. You were not supposed to make a fuss about anything you thought was potentially dangerous if Epic has decided that’s not potentially dangerous. There’s a heavy culture of censorship at Epic.”
Some employees said those in upper management who speak out against the company’s leadership face demotion, as the Cap Times extensively reports.
This isn’t the company’s first labor dispute. In the wake of a 2018 Supreme Court decision that sided with Epic, employees now sign away their rights to file class-action lawsuits against the company and can only pursue individual arbitration.
The company’s eighth principle, which commands employees to dissent but follow orders once decided, was used as justification for shutting down a potential virtual employee walk out in June to support the Black Lives Matter movement, says Barry.
In an email sent to some Epic employees on June 5th, President Carl Dvorak wrote that the company supported racial justice and opposed police violence. He also argued that “Many law enforcement officers are good people who put their lives on the line daily to help others.”
Dvorak also wrote to “Keep in mind that we are a good company.”
EDITOR’S NOTE: As mentioned above, current employees WORT spoke with for this story were granted anonymity. Typically, this is a protection only granted to those who fear repercussion to their wellbeing or, in this case, livelihood. This was also granted due to the fact that the Epic employee handbook has a specific passage on defamation that could result in repercussions for those who spoke with us for this story. The policy, in its entirety, says:
“As an Epic employee, you’ll learn information about the company — the good and the bad. We try to share with you our problems and challenges as well as our successes. With this privilege comes the responsibility to use the information appropriately and wisely. Share only what you’re sure is shareable. Publicly defaming the company harms the company, our staff, and our customers. Please be aware that a violation could result in discipline up to and including the termination of your employment.”