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Drug manufacturer AbbVie pushes reluctant employees to return to work, raising safety concerns

A “key part” of the success of pharmaceutical company AbbVie is the “face-to-face” interaction, explained CEO Richard Gonzalez in an August 27 email outlining his process for getting thousands of employees back to work with based in the United States.

Gonzalez said “cross-functional collaboration” was a cornerstone of AbbVie’s high performance, adding that employees needed to “preserve and nurture our culture so we can continue to accelerate, rise higher and help the next generation of patients “.

All of this, he said, “means going back to our workplace,” according to the email displayed by CNBC. The company expects employees, even those who claim to have been able to work from home without problems, to report back to the office to promote creativity and innovation as part of its phased return to work plan, according to the interviews with three current employees, anonymous complaints in public forums and internal company documents.

But not all employees feel the same way. It̵

7;s a problem that’s starting to manifest itself in AbbVie and other workplaces across America. Some AbbVie employees say they fear the company is jeopardizing profits ahead of the safety and health of its US employees and their families. At the same time, they say they feel the pressure to enter. Headquartered in Lake Bluff, Illinois, the company is one of the largest drug manufacturers in the world with 47,000 global employees. According to its website, more than 12,000 employees work at AbbVie in the United States in four states.

AbbVie is not alone. Epic Systems, a provider of electronic health records in the Midwest, has also asked its employees to return to work in the fall, also to preserve their culture. This resulted in backlash from employees and questions from the local health department. Epic recently agreed to go back on his plans for returning to work.

AbbVie closed its doors during what it calls the first phase of the outbreak at its U.S. headquarters on March 17, days after President Donald Trump declared the pandemic a national emergency. According to an internal presentation reviewed by CNBC, the company brought back essential lab workers, manufacturing employees and some senior executives to a limited extent during the second phase, which began in early June and alternated with days when specific teams would been on site.

Phase three workers, which includes R&D, sales and marketing employees, were asked to start returning on July 13, when the company resumed daily office hours for all on-site workers. Three employees told CNBC that many have decided not to return.

Phase three employees have now been told to return to the office on Monday, according to an August 31 letter sent to staff by US President Jeff Stewart and other company leaders that was reviewed by CNBC.

“We expect a return to pre-COVID, regular on-site schedules, and working weeks,” the email states. The fourth stage would bring the remaining employees back to the office, a decision the company has not yet made.

Stewart said AbbVie has “child support and e-learning resources” for those with children at home. The company has also implemented security protocols, including partitions, hand sanitizer stations, signage, increased ventilation, and webcams for video-based conversations in conference rooms, he told employees.

AbbVie declined to comment on her return-to-work plans to CNBC or to provide further information on her processes to keep employees safe. The company also did not answer questions about the flexibility of its policies, particularly for those who have underlying medical conditions that make them more susceptible to the virus or who live with other vulnerable people.

Other drug manufacturers have announced flexible work-from-home policies. Novartis, for example, said its workers can voluntarily return without any pressure to do so. The Tylenol Johnson & Johnson producer is bringing employees back “in waves because it’s safe to do so,” spokeswoman Lisa Cannellos told CNBC. The company declined to say when its return-to-work program would begin. Cannellos said it currently offers “flexible working arrangements for those in need based on dependent care or underlying health conditions.”

Last year AbbVie agreed to buy Botox maker Allergan for $ 63 billion as it moved deeper into medical aesthetics. The company had been under pressure to diversify its drug portfolio beyond Humira, one of the best-selling drugs in the world, as it faced new competition from rivals. The company just announced a global agreement with China’s I-Mab to develop and commercialize a new cancer treatment.

The Chicago area, where AbbVie is based, has seen new coronavirus cases decline in the past week. But the area’s so-called positivity rate remains stubbornly above 5 percent, according to the city of Chicago, and the statewide outbreak is severe enough to keep Illinois residents on New York and New York limited travel lists. Jersey. So far, more than 256,000 people have tested positive in the state and more than 8,400 people have died. The virus is starting to spread in the Midwest, health officials reported, creating hot spots in various states.

The persistence of the outbreak has scared employees at AbbVie and elsewhere from taking public transportation, which is inevitable for many who rely on it or the often crammed company shuttle to get to work, employees said.

“Many employees are commuters who do not feel comfortable taking the subway,” said one worker, who asked to remain anonymous because he was not authorized to speak to the press. “We believe there could be consequences if we don’t go in.”

AbbVie intends to survey employees to see what they think. On September 22, he will launch a formal employee survey of his workplace and culture during Covid-19, according to an internal email displayed by CNBC that was sent to staff earlier this month. The company said it will release the results in November, well after many US employees are expected to be at their desks, according to the email.

The three employees CNBC spoke to said the survey seemed too little too late, as the results won’t be shared for several months after their expected return to office.

To continue working from home, employees say they need manager approval, but some say they fear the repercussions if they make that request.

“I don’t think I would be fired immediately if I didn’t come in,” said a second employee, who asked not to be named because he wasn’t authorized to speak to the press. “But I’m afraid I would be known as a dissident.”

Another employee who requested anonymity for the same reasons said: “Many of us are aligned in thinking this is inappropriate.”

While executives and some managers have offices, many employees claim to sit in an open office with cubicles, which studies show are prone to spreading infections of all kinds, including coronavirus. AbbVie told employees she built plastic partitions to try and reduce any outbreaks, according to an email.

Lawyers say AbbVie and other employers have the right to require staff to work in the office, unless they have a condition that would place them in a high-risk group and is documented, ideally confidentially with HR . Those in need of housing because of the children at home may qualify for the Families First Coronavirus Response Act, which requires employers to “provide employees with paid sick leave or extended family or medical leave for specific reasons related to COVID-19 “, but this only applies to companies with fewer than 500 employees. AbbVie is not among them.

Fear of contracting Covid alone could in some circumstances be considered a medical condition, said Troy Valdez, an employment and labor law attorney at Coblentz Patch Duffy & Bass.

“But this is between the employee and their doctor,” he said in an interview. “If an employee has a doctor who will say this fear is a limited condition associated with it, and the required accommodation is working from home, they (the company) may have to please.”

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