A United employee who has contracted COVID-19 reached out to me. We spoke. He shared some disturbing information which United, not surprisingly, has pushed back on. But his story warrants our attention.
The employee chose not to go on the record, for fear of reprisals from his superiors. He works at the Willis Tower in Chicago or “headquarters” as United employees call it.
He described a workplace culture in which employees have been told to show up to work for the sake of optics and where inconsistent messaging places confusion and pressure on employees now worried about job security.
“We were told to keep showing up to work because if we worked from home it would ‘look bad to the front line’. We still have not received any official work-from-home guidelines from any level of leadership and most people just simply stopped showing up to the office or were told via text message from their direct managers to work-from-home.”
Is this really the case? Live and Let’s Fly has gained access to a pair of documents which shed light on United’s work-from-home policy. A document entitled Coronavirus Q&A includes a section called “Am I allowed to work from home?” It states:
“Please coordinate with your supervisor or business office and use our core4 framework to determine if working remotely is an option. If you and your leaders agree that your work can be accomplished remotely, you should feel free to do so.
The Digital Technology team has put together some guidelines, tools and instructions to help managers and team members effectively work remotely. You can find these resources on the Remote Work page.
Digital Technology is also working to add capacity to our remote work platforms, but there may be occasional periods of difficulty accessing systems. In addition, teleconference platforms worldwide are under tremendous stress.”
It is true that there is no clear edict on a preference for working from home. While a United spokesperson pushed the idea that the default for non-critical positions is to work from home, the written policy only mandates that employees receive clearance from their leaders to work remotely.
This, says the employee, is the heart of the problem.
“The security team at Willis Tower had to ban non-essential UA employees from the building because too many were showing up because UA never actually made a decision regarding this.
“The cascading failures of leadership and paralysis in decision making has been extremely concerning. It’s really showing the true colors of the VP and above level. We were told by leadership if we have worries about the future of the airline ‘then maybe we shouldn’t be working here’.”
But in a document entitled, Guidelines for Effective Use of Remote Work, United outlines several specific polices and procedures for working for home including:
- Plan ahead
- Taking equipment home
- Stay open and honest
- Communicate frequently with your manager and team
- Create an effective workspace
- Minimize Distractions
- Use technology to foster collaboration
- Maintain consistent working hours
- Respond promptly
- Show initiative, be proactive, and hold yourself accountable
While this doesn’t address who can work from home, it does illustrate a point I have independently confirmed that the vast majority of non-critical (“non-operations people” as a United spokesperson called it) are now working from home and United has provided details instructions on how to best work from home. In fact, United has even encouraged workers to take home computer equipment like monitors and keyboards to encourage productivity at home.
Lingering Fear Over The Future
The issue goes deeper than working from home or working in the office. At the heart is fear that the future is grim and that management still only cares about numbers, not people. The employee singles out incoming CEO Scott Kirby, but does not limit criticism to him.
“Kirby is always talking out of both sides of his mouth, but for a long time it created financial results. I don’t think Kirby actually cares one way or the other if people come in, but he certainly is pressuring his direct reports to encourage management employees to take the early out, or leave of absence. Now that we are guaranteed pay checks through September 30th and they are still saying it’s not enough to keep the airline afloat, it makes everything sound like a half-truth though so it’s difficult to tell.”
I understand that fear, which is real and justified. But Kirby and his lieutenants also find themselves in a near-impossible position. With loads cratering and revenue depressed to unprecedented levels, not just each employee, but United itself is in a fight for survival during this uncertain time.
United’s Coronavirus Response
The employee who reached out to me has tested positive COVID-19. I asked him if United encouraged him to continue working when his health was not at 100%.
“I was not asked to keep coming in after I informed them I was COVID-19 positive. But the lack of a decision beforehand kept me in the office while I was likely contagious.”
And isn’t that the problem? Of course no organization is going to ask a sick employee, especially now, to work. But if the default position (tacit or explicit) remains to show up for work, then many people who might be contagious and still feeling great may be putting others at risk. That gets to the heart of why stay-at-home and self-isolation measures have been enacted across the USA and around the world.
United has outlined, via Kate Gebo, the Executive Vice President of Human Resources and Labor Relations how it handles coronavirus cases:
- As soon as we become aware of a suspected case – either from the CDC, local health officials or an individual employee – we quickly communicate with that individual.
- We closely partner with local, state and national health officials to guide our response, including following all CDC guidelines.
- We also reach out and quickly contact any other employees who may have come into close contact with the person who is suspected of having COVID-19.
- Given the wide range of workplaces across our operation – offices, call centers, airports, aircraft, etc. – we take different measures to isolate and sanitize any suspected, impacted workspaces. For example, if a crew member is diagnosed with COVID-19, the aircraft upon which they worked is taken out of service immediately and undergoes a deep cleaning.
But what may be missing here is not the four steps above, but about dealing with the spread of virus before symptoms are shown. This is a problem not specific to United, but to many organizations who are grappling with balancing upended routines and a slowdown in efficiency due to remote working conditions.
United, for its part, is working with employees where possible, but has been reluctant to offer any assurances. Its Coronavirus Q&A document addresses multiple situations including:
- What should I do if I am pregnant and concerned about exposure to someone with COVID-19?
- What should I do if I have a weakened immune system or am considered high risk and concerned about exposure to anyone with COVID-19?
- What should I do if I live with or am a caregiver for someone who is considered high risk?
- Public transportation has been reduced or canceled, and I do not have another way to get to work. What should I do?
- What should I do if my child’s daycare or school is closed?
- If I live in an area that is deemed high risk with numerous COVID-19 cases and have been advised to stay at home by local officials, what should I do?
The answer is the same in every case:
Coordinate with your supervisor or business office and use the core4 framework to determine if working remotely is an option.
Per the Coronavirus Q&A document, employees who do contract COVID-19 must use their sick time and when exhausted, their vacation time while battling the virus.
All of these are not unreasonable per se, but also may create the incentive to come to work when ill.
Other Employees Paint Different Picture
Feeling of uncertainty and in some cases hopelessness run throughout the company. However, not all employees place the blame on management or see duplicity. I spoke to one employee in network planning who told me, “Look. Times are tough. In fact, they stink. But I’m glad to have Kirby at the helm. There’s not a better man to get us through this. I just hope my job remains intact once the dust settles.”
It is perhaps telling that even this glowing endorsement of Kirby was made off the record.
For United’s upper management, it seems the crisis of confidence is predicated more on uncertainty than a specific failure in leadership. But reading through the countless memos Live and Let’s Fly has analyzed in the preceding weeks, I’m not sure what else United can say at this point. Can anything calm frayed nerves?
I have no reason to question the feelings and experience of the COVID-19 positive United employee. His point in reaching out was not to impugn his company, but out of love for it. While opinions vary on the scope and severity of the disconnect between upper management and the rest of the employees, no one is disputing what a difficult time this is. Hopefully United…and all companies for that matter…will rise to the occasion and give employees far more than lip service. Survivability depends not just on cash, but in the long-term on a team that supports one another in an environment that nourishes progress, not fear.