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A majority of Unum's employees are still working from home and the insurance giant's parking lot on campus remains mostly empty during the week. Staff photo by Robin Rudd.

This story was updated at 7:53 p.m. on Monday, July 13, 2020, with more information.

Four months after shifting their staffs to work at home, many of Chattanooga's biggest employers are still in no hurry to bring most of their workers back to the office.

The majority of those who moved their work sites from downtown offices to their own homes will keep working at home through the balance of the summer at such corporate giants as Unum, the Tennessee Valley Authority and BlueCross BlueShield of Tennessee.

Chattanooga's City Hall reopened to the public last week for the first time in 16 weeks after major attractions like the Tennessee Aquarium and the Creative Discovery Museum reopened in June following three months of being shut down to help limit the spread of the coronavirus. But while more businesses and attractions are opening to customers and allowing in-person visits, telework continues to be the norm, at least for some staff, at most of the city's major corporate offices.

Potentially, thousands of former downtown jobs may never come back as businesses are finding they can get their work done without congregating in downtown offices amid the pandemic.

Atop Cameron Hill overlooking downtown Chattanooga, only a few hundred of the more than 5,000 employees of BlueCross BlueShield of Tennessee are coming to the corporate campus to do their jobs. BlueCross Vice President Scott Wilson said nearly 96% of the staff of Tennessee's biggest health insurer are working from home "and our member and provider service levels remain very high" so the insurer sees no immediate need to change its approach.

Heather Calkins, an applications developer at BlueCross for three and a half years, was among the thousands of BlueCross employees who moved out of the corporate headquarters in less than two weeks during March as the coronavirus pandemic spread across the country.

"At this point, I have kind of settled in working from home and I have all the data resources I did when I was working in the office," Calkins said, noting that BlueCross distributed 3,700 computers to its workers to help facilitate the work-from-home change. "Connecting with people is more of the challenge now and I never thought this would go on so long."

Wilson said no decision has been made yet when to bring employees like Calkins back to Cameron Hill, "but we have engaged a third-party consultant to advise us on best practices to ensure a safe work environment." "We still estimate that 53% of our employees will be telecommuting once we return to the workplace, whenever that is."

At Unum, about 10% of the staff in Chattanooga has voluntarily returned to its corporate headquarters since May, company spokeswoman Kelly Spencer said. But about 2,600 Unum employees in Chattanooga are still working from home as they have since mid-March.

"Depending on conditions, we look for that number (working in the downtown office) to grow to about 25% by the end of the summer," Spencer said. "We continue to maintain flexibility for individual situations, especially underlying health conditions, close family members at risk and child and elder care challenges due to the pandemic."

About 60% of the 10,000 employees of the Tennessee Valley Authority are still working from home, and TVA spokesman Jim Hopson said telework remains the work rule this month "for those employees who are not required to be physically at a work station" to do their jobs.

"We do not expect any significant change in our reintegration plans until at least the end of July," Hopson said. "Even when we do reach a point where we feel it is safe to modify our stance, individual supervisors will have a great deal of flexibility in determining when employees return to the office, taking into account unique circumstances and needs."

The corporate headquarters for one of the nation's largest trucking companies, U.S. Xpress Enterprises, also emptied out most of its Ooltewah offices in response to the pandemic and expects to keep most of the corporate staff working from home until at least next year.

Danna Bailey, chief brand officer for U.S. Xpress, said about 95% of the more than 1,300 office employees for U.S. Xpress in Chattanooga and satellite brokerage offices are now working from home.

"We're evaluating the situation every day, but at this point, we're not anticipating having these employees come back to the office until probably early next year," Bailey said.

HomeServe shifted 500 employees from its call center on Lee Highway to work remotely in March and has kept most employees working from home.

"We're taking a phased approach, and so remain in Phase 1," said Myles Meehan, a senior vice president at HomeServe. "As a result, we're operating with only limited staffing in the center due to social distancing requirements. The majority of our staff remains working from home."

Meehan said the company has started hiring again and bringing in new hires on a limited basis for small group training sessions at its Chattanooga call center, still using social distancing protocols.

"These folks will be deployed to work from home once training is complete," he said.

Global Workplace Analytics, a research and consulting firm that studies the future of work, estimates that at least 56% of employees have a job where at least some of what they do could be done remotely and making the shift, in most instances, cuts costs and improves employee morale. A recent survey from The Conference Board found that 77% of human resources executives expect the trend toward remote work to continue, even one year after COVID-19 substantially subsides.

"Based on conservative assumptions, we estimate a typical employer can save an average of $11,000 per half-time telecommuter per year," Lister said. "The primary savings are the result of increased productivity, lower real estate costs, reduced absenteeism and turnover and better disaster preparedness."

But while office employers are benefiting by the shift to telework, downtown merchants and restaurateurs that rely upon downtown workers for their businesses are suffering from the exodus of downtown jobs.

"I'm probably down 25% to 40%," said Tiny Wycuf, the owner and operator of the Innside Restaurant on Carter Street for the past 25 years. "I sure didn't expect this would be this long or this severe. Downtown has been growing for years, but this sure put a halt to that — I hope only temporarily."

Amy Donahue, director of marketing and communications for River City Co., said about 170 restaurants like the Innside operate in and around downtown and many have felt a slump in sales due to the coronavirus.

"Of course, with daytime populations being less downtown, that means fewer people on the sidewalk and less people in restaurants and stores, and that has hurt the bottom line for a lot of downtown businesses," she said.

Donahue said many businesses have pivoted their approach in response to the pandemic, and the city has helped by allowing restaurants to use downtown sidewalks for more spacious seating and relaxed rules for food and alcohol pickup and delivery.

"It is being felt, but we have a diverse economy downtown and a lot still going on, so we're confident it will come back over time," she said

Contact Dave Flessner at dflessner@timesfreepress.com or at 757-6340

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