USAA is headquartered in San Antonio and employs 34,000 workers worldwide.
USAA had some of its 34,000 employees worldwide work from home earlier this week as a test of its remote access systems. Credit: Scott Ball / San Antonio Report

Microsoft and Amazon told employees to work from home. Conventions and events have been canceled and postponed. Universities are webcasting lectures.

The coronavirus pandemic has employers in San Antonio, where there have not been any confirmed cases among the general population, dusting off plans for both business continuity and pandemic response, and preparing to tell workers they should work from home.

USAA, one of San Antonio’s largest private-sector employers, told 10 percent of its 30,000-member nationwide workforce to work from home Monday so the company could test what that number of remote workers might mean for its systems if a quarantine becomes necessary.

On March 16, USAA plans to keep at least 25 percent of non-member-contact employees, in all of its offices, working from home.

Rackspace also has similar plans, and a spokesperson said the managed-cloud services company is testing work-from-home days.

A website is keeping a running list of U.S. tech employers joining the stay-at-home club. On Wednesday, it had reached 128 companies with some form of remote-work policy.

Though there have been no confirmed COVID-19 cases within the general population in San Antonio, the virus is circulating, with 21 confirmed cases in Texas, prompting business leaders to join public officials in planning for the worst.

In San Antonio, companies such as USAA and Frost Bank, as well as the City of San Antonio, are gearing up for the possibility of a widespread outbreak.

In accordance with “social distancing” guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), they are setting in motion plans to allow their employees to work remotely rather than go to the office where the risk of infection may be higher.

A USAA spokesman said the company is monitoring the situation and is prepared to expand its work-from-home programs.

“The health and safety of our employees and our ability to serve members remain top priorities,” said a spokesman. “We are proactively assessing our ability to continue serving members should a large number of our employees be required to work from home.”

The test of its remote access systems went well, he said on Tuesday.

Frost Bank also is prepared for a work-from-home scenario. “Our systems not only allow most of our bankers to work from remote locations, they also allow our customers to do business online,” said a Frost Bank spokesman.

A Valero spokeswoman said the company has reliable remote work systems already in place that can be scaled up if necessary. 

Some employers have also instituted policies requiring certain employees to stay home, such as those who aren’t feeling well or who may have traveled recently to regions with high infection rates.

San Antonio-based H-E-B, the largest private employer in the state, recently announced it was canceling all of its employees’ business-related air travel.

Like H-E-B, Frost Bank has asked its employees not to travel outside the state for business. Frost Bank employees who have already done so should consider working from home for two weeks.

H-E-B employees have been instructed to stay home if they are not feeling well. Frost advised its employees to take sick leave if they are feeling unwell. A Valero representative said the company has generous paid leave benefits if an employee is unable to work.

Joint Base San Antonio, another of the city’s large employers, scheduled a “force health protection” town hall via Facebook Live on Wednesday.

Nationwide, about 68 percent of private-sector workers have paid sick leave, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. The pandemic has resulted in a number of major employers announcing they will offer paid sick leave for employees who are quarantined.

In San Antonio, an estimated 300,000 workers do not have the benefit despite efforts to enact a paid sick leave ordinance last year.

Labor laws permit employers to ask their employees about travel or disease exposure. It’s not legal, however, to mandate medical tests unless there is an established job-related necessity, according to a labor attorney writing in the National Law Review.

In addition, Family Medical and Leave Act (FMLA) guidelines permit an employee to take up to 12 weeks of FMLA leave for COVID-19, considered a “serious health condition” under the rules, or to care for an ailing family member.

While employers can take such steps to protect employees and prevent the spread of the virus, that might not be enough, says a report by human resources consultant John Beattie for the Society of Human Resource Management.

Employers should review their infectious-disease management plans, Beattie states, and those that don’t have a plan – in fact, most do not – now is the time to create one. 

A pandemic plan should cover not only travel restrictions, stranded travelers, mandatory medical check-ups, mandatory reporting of exposure, and employee quarantines, but also what to do in the case of a facility shutdown.

Working from home is not an option for many workers, however.

Last week, the AFL-CIO petitioned Secretary of Labor Eugene Scalia to establish emergency rules to protect at-risk workers, especially the more than 19 million people who work in transportation, health care, and as first responders.

The current government recommendations to protect workers fall short, the petition stated, and the Occupational Safety and Hazard Administration (OSHA) has not yet issued detailed recommendations.

Shari Biediger has been covering business and development for the San Antonio Report since 2017. A graduate of St. Mary’s University, she has worked in the corporate and nonprofit worlds in San Antonio...