USAA announced to its 35,000-member workforce Friday it is extending the work-from-home policy due to a rising number of cases of COVID-19 in some parts of the country where the financial services firm has offices.

CEO Wayne Peacock told employees they will not be called into the office before Dec. 31, adding that he is confident USAA can run indefinitely without the need to return workers to the buildings.

Like many employers, USAA equipped most of its employees with the ability to work from home starting in mid-March, which began with 10 percent of the workforce and quickly expanding as the pandemic spread across the U.S.

Now three months later, when some workers had anticipated returning to their offices, coronavirus infections have increased sharply, putting some companies’ plans on hold. When San Antonio’s major employers will transition employees back into the office, where they often work side-by-side in cubicles and meet with one another in stuffy conference rooms, is mostly unknown.

In mid-May, USAA invited up to 1,000 volunteers to return as part of a “pilot” phased-in approach to opening its worksites, including its nearly mile-long headquarters in San Antonio where most of its 15,000 local employees once worked. With the extension announced Friday, those workers will be permitted to choose between remaining in the office or working from home.

USAA also extended a benefits program specific to the coronavirus pandemic that includes three weeks of paid emergency leave if an employee is unable to work at home due to pandemic-related event closures or illness.

In March, USAA reported one positive case among its workforce, an employee who was not experiencing symptoms while in the office. As of Friday, the company had no cases of community transmission within its facilities, a spokesman said.

For about two months, the hundreds of employees assigned to the sprawling Valero campus on the far North Side instead worked from home after City and County leaders issued stay-home orders to prevent the spread of coronavirus.

But today, most are back at their desks as part of a phased-in repopulation of the offices that begin in mid-May.

“Where it was appropriate and as business necessitated, those were the drivers,” said Lillian Riojas, Valero spokeswoman, explaining which members of its workforce were asked to return about the time Gov. Greg Abbott began implementing a plan to reopen the state.

Valero CEO Joe Gorder is a member of the Great American Economic Revival Industry Groups made up of leaders appointed April 14 by the White House to “chart the path forward toward a future of unparalleled American prosperity.”

Valero CEO Joe Gorder Credit: Bonnie Arbittier / San Antonio Report

As a manufacturer and seller of transportation fuels with plants around the world, Valero is considered part of the nation’s critical infrastructure. Thus the company’s manufacturing operations have never stopped during the pandemic crisis, Riojas said.

Valero headquarters, with 1 million square feet of office space spread across several buildings, is home to about 1,800 workers in such roles as accounting and human resources.

Upon returning to the campus, employees were required to undergo training related to preventing the contagion, and the company put in place a number of safety protocols, including signage, hand sanitation stations, and encouragement to wear face coverings and practice social distancing. The company fitness center is closed, and the dining facilities have been reconfigured for social distancing.

But, since June 7, at least nine Valero employees have tested positive for coronavirus, according to notices sent to all employees that indicate which parts of the building the infected employees worked. On Thursday, the company sent a letter to employees who have children in the summer child care program stating that, because two workers in Valero’s family center have tested positive for the virus, the center would be closed until further notice for deep cleaning.

Thus far, the company’s contact tracing efforts have found infected employees did not contract the virus while on the campus, Riojas said, noting that, when an employee tests positive, the company follows all recommendations from the Centers for Disease Control and state and local health guidelines.

“There’s a deep cleaning and sterilization of that area,” she said. “There’s a really regimented internal and external contact tracing and quarantine protocol that may occur.” Riojas said a City code compliance officer inspected the company’s efforts on July 22 and gave it “outstanding” marks.

But Valero employees who spoke to the Rivard Report on the condition of anonymity for fear of reprisal described an atmosphere that was putting people at risk.

For instance, employees were told to watch an 8-minute training video upon returning to the office June 1. It emphasized not allowing others into your cubicle, but an employee said “you can walk around campus at any given time and see tons of people in other people’s cubes, just hanging out, no masks, just chatting.”

In the company cafeteria, employees are at times “elbow to elbow” in the food lines and not wearing masks there, nor in the restrooms. While mask-wearing has increased slightly in the last week, they said, the majority do not wear them, and signs at each entrance state only that workers should wear a face covering “if you desire.”

“The prevailing sentiment right now, especially with this spreading, is that [we] are concerned, we don’t feel safe,” an employee said. “Because a lot of people at work aren’t taking this seriously … and you definitely can’t control what they do when they leave the office.”

On Friday, the company notified employees that starting Monday they would be required to wear masks in high-traffic areas of the campus, such as the cafeteria, break rooms, and elevators, Riojas said, “just to ensure that we continue to stay safe and stay healthy.” Employees with concerns are encouraged to talk to their manager, Riojas said, adding that Valero provided masks to employees and plans to hand out more.

At Valero spinoff Nustar Energy, a petroleum and pipeline company based in San Antonio, employees have not returned to headquarters offices yet with the exception of a few of the 500 employees who staff the company’s pipeline control centers.

In addition to those workers splitting shifts between the company’s two control centers, one on the far North Side and the other on the South Side, to minimize the number of employees in the center at any one time, Nustar also made ventilation and air handling improvements at its headquarters and eliminated high-touch items such as coffee pots and water coolers.

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“At this time, we have not yet set a date to return to the office, but we are prepared to ensure everyone’s safety when we ultimately do return,” said spokesman Chris Cho via email. “When we do begin our reentry, we will continue to allow those employees who are categorized as ‘high risk’ by the CDC to continue working remotely. Employees with children who do not have child care options due to COVID closures can work out a schedule with their supervisor to continue working remotely.”

Frost Bank, which has its headquarters in the new Frost Tower downtown, as well as an operations center on the Northwest Side, and financial and banking centers throughout the state, also has most of its 4,500-member total workforce staying put at home for now. There is no plan yet to transition them back into the workplace, said spokesman Bill Day. The bank’s lobbies remain closed, though “motor banking” is open.

“Right now, when we’re reaching a record number of cases here in Texas, it probably isn’t the best time, so we have not set a date,” Day said. “It’s going to depend on what conditions are before we do something like that. Because we have done a good job and maintained a high level of customer service even without the lobbies being open, there’s no real rush to change that.”

Day could not say if any Frost employees have contracted the virus but said the bank’s policy requires that if that happened while an employee was in the facility, the work area would be “shut down for a deep cleaning before anybody else could work there.”

A regional spokesman for Chase Bank, which has 4,600 of its global workforce based in San Antonio, said the company has not determined when its Texas employees, 70 percent to 80 percent of whom are currently working from home, will return to the office. Jamie Dimon, CEO of JPMorgan Chase, also is on the president’s task force for reopening the economy.

“While an exact date remains undetermined, when we begin to bring employees back, we do not expect to transition everyone simultaneously,” spokesman Greg Hassell stated. “Employees will return in a phased approach over time.”

Shari Biediger

Shari Biediger

Shari Biediger is the business beat reporter at the San Antonio Report.