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Staff photo by Jenna Walker/Chattanooga Times Free Press / The BlueCross BlueShield of Tennessee corporate headquarters atop Cameron Hill is largely vacant of employees since the insurer shifted 96% of its staff to work from home during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Retail stores and restaurants have reopened and barber shops and salons will open again on Wednesday in Chattanooga.

But major office employers are still cautious about bringing workers back to their facilities. With the campus of the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga and major downtown attractions like the Tennessee Aquarium and the Creative Discovery Museum still closed, most of the workers and visitors who normally come downtown are still staying home this month.

BlueCross BlueShield of Tennessee, one of Chattanooga's biggest employers which shifted all but a few hundred of its 6,800 workers to work from home in March, is keeping its staff teleworking during May.

The Chattanooga-based insurer, the biggest health insurance company in Tennessee, already had more than 30% of its employees telecommuting full-time before the stay-at-home orders were issued to limit the spread of the COVID-19 virus. That share grew to 96% of all BlueCross workers in March and will continue for the next four weeks.

"We're planning to begin bringing some employees back to the office around June 1, starting with very limited numbers, increasing very gradually over time and adjusting our plans, if needed," BlueCross spokesman John Hawbaker said Monday. "Our distributed workforce has proven to make us more resilient and we do expect to have a larger number of telecommuters going forward."

At Unum, 98% of the company's 10,000-person staff is now working at home and will continue to do so, according to company spokeswoman Kelly Spencer.

"We have not started to transition workers back to the office yet," she said. "Although we don't have a definitive schedule yet, a mix of factors will influence when the time is right to begin the transition. This includes advice from medical experts, guidance from public health and research centers; input from federal, state and local officials; our ability to maintain social distance; and importantly, employee needs."

The Tennessee Valley Authority, which shifted 60% of its 10,000 workers to work at home in March, is bringing about 100 workers back to its Chattanooga Office Complex and about 35 workers back to its Knoxville headquarters this week as the first of a three-part phase to return to more normal operations. But most office workers at TVA and other major corporate employers in Chattanooga are not changing their remote work sites for at least another month.

"Those who can work at home and can continue to do their work remotely, we want them to continue to do so," said Sue Collins, senior vice president and chief human resources officer at TVA. "With the technologies available today, we feel we can be very effective in our overall productivity and service. We want to continue to ensure that we can operate as safely as possible and maintain our social distancing while getting our vital work done every day."

TVA President Jeff Lyash said the return of many workers to their old job sites will be informed by guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control an Prevention, along with federal, state and local regulations and TVA's own medical staff.

"We will remain flexible and we are not in a rush to return people to our facilities," Lyash said in a message to TVA employees last week.

Even when more workers return to home offices here, companies are planning more sanitation of work sites, limits on visitors and social distancing among workers, at least until a vaccine or cure is found for the COVID-19 virus. Collins said at TVA power plants, incoming workers are being given temperature and health care screenings before they may enter the plants.

Most manufacturing, construction, power plant operations and health care and personal services must still be done on site or with other people. But even those operations have, in some instances, been altered or delayed to avoid having so many people working on a site at one time.

Volkswagen has deferred the resumption of production at its Chattanooga assembly plant, which was originally scheduled to resume this week. Home builders such as Bell Development say they are putting fewer workers on each construction site.

Additionally, more health care services are being delivered to patients at home via telemedicine and some projects, including the current refueling of the Sequoyah Nuclear Power Plant near Soddy-Daisy, have been altered to cut the number of workers involved to ensure greater social distancing among workers.

"These type of events demonstrate that some of what you don't think was possible to do can be done differently or in the virtual world so I think we're likely to see some long-term changes coming out of this," Collins said.

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

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