The Madison-area tech company’s botched COVID-19 response has spurred some employees to pursue unionization.
John McCracken contributed additional reporting for this story.
Photo by E. Nekervis on Flickr.
Epic Systems is putting Madison back in the tech-industry spotlight, this time for its troubling public health and labor practices. As COVID-19 cases mount in Wisconsin, Dane County’s second-largest employer is set to send workers back to its sprawling Verona campus in stages, starting on August 10.
Employee fears and anger surrounding the return-to-work plan are, at this point, well-established: national and local reporters have noted the dozens of messages, calls, and emails they received in response to requests for comment. But employee dissatisfaction has manifested in more than complaints. It has also cracked open an opportunity for collective action in the Madison area’s biggest, most ostentatiously anti-labor private employer.
Many of the Epic employees facing down the return-to-work date say they are scared about the health implications of heading back to share physical space with thousands of their co-workers.
“There’s a person in my household who is at high risk for serious complications from COVID-19 and I am very cognizant of the fact that my actions affect more than just myself,” says one employee, who also has two school-aged kids. Like many Epic workers speaking to the press this week, this employee asked to be cited anonymously, due to fears about retaliation or firing.
In an August 3 email, company executives addressed people who are parents or facing higher risks of coronavirus-related complications to offer an extended work-from-home period—but only until November 2, at which point employees are told to take a leave of absence without a guarantee of getting their jobs back. In an earlier message, sent on July 1, executives told employees: “If you’re a parent with young children, you will need to use the time between now and your return to campus to make arrangements for childcare so that you can be on campus full-time.”
Of the Epic employees who spoke with Tone Madison this week, even those who are not at personally heightened risk for COVID-19 expressed concern on behalf of the community at large.
“I’m a software developer at Epic, I’ve worked there for over 8 years…it’s disrespectful and risking the health of the entire community,” says another concerned employee, who remained anonymous for fear of reprisal. “We should all understand that personal risk is community risk. And so Epic, by forcing 10,000 people to increase their personal risk, it does risk the whole community.”
The scheduled plan will have workers populating the medical software company’s sprawling campus over the same period that University of Wisconsin-Madison students prepare to return to their dorms and downtown housing. To justify the rapid return to work, Epic CEO Judy Faulkner has cited the “culture” of the company: “It’s hard (actually, it’s impossible) to retain our culture when we’re working from our homes,” wrote Faulkner in an all-staff email on July 1.
Workers argue that given the projected course of the virus, there’s no way the company can provide for a safe return to work.
In Faulkner’s communications with Epic staff, she emphasized the role of individual employees in preventing the spread of COVID-19 on campus: “We ask you to do your part by avoiding bars, attending crowded gatherings, or other places where physical distancing can’t be easily observed.” By placing the responsibility of limiting exposure on individual workers, the company rhetorically absolves itself of the possibility of an outbreak: after all, Faulkner—Epic’s eccentric billionaire founder —claimed in the same email, “we’ve been told by many that our campus looks specifically designed to weather an epidemic.”
Epic is notorious for preventing employees from coming together to advocate for themselves as a group. In the 2018 ruling Epic Systems Corp. v. Lewis, the United States Supreme Court enshrined the right of employers to force workers into individual arbitration. To work for Epic, employees sign away their rights to file class-action lawsuits against the company. It’s now easier for other employers around the country to enforce those kinds of terms: In May 2018, citing the Epic v. Lewis SCOTUS ruling, the New Jersey Supreme Court ruled that truck drivers attempting to file a collective suit against their employer could be prohibited from doing so.
In mid-July, a coalition of Epic workers, concerned about the company’s plan to reopen offices, circulated a survey to demonstrate collective disapproval of the plan. The poll yielded hundreds of responses condemning the company’s response to the coronavirus pandemic—but an Epic employee familiar with the survey, who prefers to remain anonymous for fear of reprisal, says that the company ignored the survey results. In a CBS News segment that aired Tuesday morning, Epic’s Chief Administrative Officer Sverre David Roang evaded questions about the survey, claiming that he was unaware of complaints surrounding the plan to reopen.
The pandemic, and Epic’s disregard for workers’ concerns, have occasioned a sudden flurry of labor activism at the company. Groups of workers have started organizing with the International Association of Sheet Metal, Air, Rail and Transportation Workers (SMART) Local 565. The local represents workers at several Madison-area companies, including Sub-Zero and Trachte Building Systems, and at a few companies in the Wausau area. IWW, a political affiliation group emphasizing direct action, has likewise supported workers in their fight for better conditions at Epic. The IWW’s local activities of late have included working to organize employees at CapTel’s call centers in Madison and Milwaukee, and spearheading mutual-aid efforts during the pandemic.
One first-time organizer among Epic’s workers reached a boiling point after the usual channels available to Epic employees failed. “The reason that we reached out to the IWW,” says the worker, who requested anonymity, “is that we basically tried all of the internal avenues to have things change for the better, the work-from-home policies, the response to Black Lives Matter. Epic tells us that we’re supposed to be able to give feedback to whomever we want, and it doesn’t seem to have gone anywhere.”
“The only reason I am doing something is that it got to a point where my fear of getting fired was outweighed by ‘I have to do something,'” this worker says.
This worker and organizer provided internal emails that outline the supposed benefits of coming back to work. One email that Faulkner sent to staff argues that employees who return to campus will have a better connection to Epic’s software and internal employees. “Personally, I’m not willing to go back to work and possibly get sick for a better internet connection,” the worker says.
One employee in the company’s hosting sector, who has looked into the various union organizing drives, says that organizing at Epic will be a challenge, given the company’s hiring practices and labor structure.
“It is a little bit harder to organize than other places because there’s so many people that are young, straight out of college . . . without any frame of reference for their workplace conditions,” he says. “And there’s a lot of anti-union or anti-collective sentiments that the company will work very hard to enforce.”
In addition to the 2018 SCOTUS ruling, Epic has, in the past several weeks, quashed workers’ attempts to act collectively. In an email obtained by Tone Madison, a company representative explained that an employee’s post questioning the return-to-work plan had been removed from an internal discussion board “per request by upper management.” Employees also told The Capital Times this week that on multiple occasions, managers who had expressed concern about the company’s COVID-19 plan faced demotions.
The company has taken precautions to enable physical distancing on the premises, installing the same airflow systems used in hospitals, and rearranging the main cafeteria to preclude the daily mass gatherings characteristic of pre-pandemic lunchtime at the software company. But Epic’s coronavirus response diverges significantly from those of other tech companies, including Alphabet, Google’s parent company, which will not require workers to return to its Mountain View, California offices until July of next year.
Before the sudden spate of labor coverage at Epic, the medical software company had mostly drawn attention for its themed campus—an oversized playground paying homage to storybook figures like Alice in Wonderland, Humpty Dumpty, and Harry Potter.
But with COVID-19 spreading quickly in 61 of Wisconsin’s 72 counties, the pandemic highlights the contradiction between Epic’s friendly workplace aesthetic and its disregard for worker safety.
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