A large Wisconsin medical records software company had told its thousands of workers they would have to return to the office beginning this week, over many of their objections. But now, after a "CBS This Morning" report and pressure from local public health officials, the company, Epic Systems, is temporarily pushing back its plans.
Epic planned to start bringing over 9,000 employees back to its campus in phases beginning Monday, but Dane County's top official, Executive Joe Parisi, says that's a mistake.
"We're all making sacrifices during this pandemic, and while we would all like to be together and be able to meet in person, we can't do that for a while," he told consumer investigative correspondent Anna Werner. "And Epic is going to have to adhere by the same rules as everyone else."
After a "CBS This Morning" story on the concerns from Epic employees ran last week, the regional public health department said the same. On Friday, it sent Epic a letter, citing "complaints" it's received about the plan and noting it had previously warned Epic the plan might violate the department's COVID-19 emergency order. That order told employers to "limit staff ... in offices" and "facilitate remote work."
The department went on to say that Epic had claimed that "it was facilitating remote work by requiring staff to work in the office, but allowing them to work alone in their office."
Of that, department officials wrote, "Epic's interpretation is incorrect. Remote work does not include working in the office."
"Working remotely means working remotely, usually from home. It doesn't mean coming into the office and working from an office," Parisi said.
Asked if Epic's argument even passed the common sense test, Parisi said, "It's something on which we have a disagreement with Epic."
In an email to employees over the weekend, obtained by CBS News, Epic said it was "modifying our return-to-work policy" and employees who were told to return as of Monday "are no longer required to do so."
But the company still insists it will bring its employees back, and is asking public health officials to further review and approve its plan, saying, "Our intention is to ... be a model for others for how to return to work safely."
Epic CEO Judy Faulkner explained the company's reason to employees in an email earlier in July, saying, "we are losing, big time, the culture that made the company successful."
But in a recording leaked to CBS News of an online meeting on July 22 with hundreds of Epic managers, Vice President of Technical Services Brett Rehm explained it somewhat differently.
"We want to share transparently the plans that are in place," he said. "Because we're not going to infinitely allow people to choose their own adventure on this stuff. That's always been true for people that say, I want to work remotely, I want to do other things. There are business considerations here, and as managers it's important you guys keep some of those things in mind."
"Everybody needs to figure this out, but I don't think Epic is an evil bad guy here," Rehm continued.
Some of the company's own health care clients disagree with Epic's plan. In comments shared with CBS News from an internal Epic system, one described Epic as "falling short of their responsibilities when it comes to their own employees."
Another said, "I hope Epic leadership will ... admit it was wrong and reverse course."
Some employees say they couldn't agree more. "It's not worth taking that risk when we can do our jobs well from home," one said.
Epic continues to say the company believes it is complying with regulations and employee safety is a priority. They have also hired a doctor and are consulting with experts. And they've told employees who do choose to return this week that they can do that gradually on more flexible schedules.