Large employers in southern Maine are eliminating travel, cutting back on meetings, barring visitors from offices and asking employees to work from home in response to the escalating coronavirus pandemic.

As last week progressed, work-from-home plans spread and now thousands of Mainers are connecting to their offices from a spare bedroom or the basement, fitting their schedules around suddenly home-from-school children and spouses who are also working from home.

Friday, Portland-based Wex said it would require all its employees worldwide who are able to do so to work from home. The company has more than 5,000 employees worldwide, including 1,500 in Maine.

Wex, which provides payment processing and information management for client companies, started to transition some employees to working from home early last week. Then on Friday, it decided to make it a company-wide rule that it expects to have fully implemented in a week.

In addition, the company has closed some of its offices overseas, including those in the Netherlands, London, Rome and Singapore, said Rob Gould, director of public relations for the company.

Wex has implemented a slew of measures to combat the spread of the coronavirus, which has infected almost 200,000 worldwide. Like many large companies, it has a team of managers who have been monitoring the spread of the virus and determining steps the company should take.


Maine reported the state’s first case of COVID-19, the illness caused by the virus, on Thursday, when a woman in her 50s in Androscoggin County had what was termed a “presumptive” positive test for the virus. Friday, state officials said two more Mainers had presumptive cases, which meant the findings still needed to be confirmed by federal health officials.

As of Saturday, a total of six people in Maine were presumed to have contracted the virus, according to the Maine Center for Disease Control. By Monday, the state had a likely total of 17 cases.

Wex had moved about 500 service operations staff who operate a call center to working from home last week, Gould said. The company’s phone system for the call center is internet-based, so it’s relatively easy for a call to be routed to a worker off-site, he said.

Wex has also barred travel to countries hit hard by the virus, such as China, Italy and South Korea, requires senior management approval for other international travel, Gould said, and restricts entry to its buildings to employees and approved contractors.

Anthony Jackson, 28, an account manager in Wex’s client services operations department, said his first day of working from his Portland apartment on Thursday went well.

He uses a laptop connected to larger monitors and video conferences when he needs to work on issues directly with clients. His roommate works out of the apartment, Jackson said, so the distractions are minimal.


The den where he set up his office has “no window, so that’s kind of a bummer,” but otherwise day one working from home was smooth,  Jackson said.

“It was just a regular day,” he said.

Jackson admitted that he hadn’t been looking forward to working from home because he enjoys the company’s workplace culture.

“I’ll miss seeing them,” he said of coworkers, adding that he is looking forward to when he can return to the office.

Jackson said he’s followed a familiar routine, getting up at his normal time and dressing as if he were going into the office – almost.

“The only thing is I’m not wearing shoes,” he said. “I found that dressing as if I’m going to the office, and I know it’s a mindset thing … allows the productivity to continue.”


Gould said Wex has adopted a spectrum of responses to the coronavirus, both in Portland and at its other sites in the U.S. and overseas.

In Portland, the restriction on visitors to Wex’s offices is extremely tight, he said. It even extends to people delivering food – an employee needs to meet a delivery person outside if they ordered a sandwich, he said.

The company has also liberally distributed hand sanitizer throughout the building and had its janitorial staff take extra steps, such as regularly cleaning door handles, to reduce the chance of transmitting germs.

“We’ve just raised the level of cleaning,” Gould said.

At Idexx Laboratories Inc. in Westbrook, about 2,000 employees – roughly two-thirds of the workforce at its headquarters – worked from home Friday as the company prepared for the possibility of having workers stay away from the office for the long term to lower the risk of spreading the virus. Over the weekend, it determined the trial run was a success and told those employees who can do so to start working from home this week.

“This will pressure-test our preparedness,” said Giovani Twigge, the company’s chief human resources officer. “This is just good practice to do overall preparedness.”


Twigge said the company will try to find whether employees had a good place to work at home and also to look for quirks that could affect productivity, such as whether their internet bandwidth dropped when kids were playing video games in another room.

The trial should help the company and workers address potential problems ahead of time, Twigge said.

“It’s not just for us, it’s providing for employees the most effective way of working on a remote basis,” he said. “We feel very comfortable that we can do it, but you never know until you put it to the test.”

Idexx also has restricted some of its international travel by employees through the end of April, and urged workers to avoid conferences and large group events and do a self-evaluation of symptoms to determine whether they should stay home.

Freeport-based outdoor retailer L.L. Bean Inc. is planning to transition to a “virtual workforce” by Wednesday for office employees who are not required to be on site at the company’s headquarters, said company spokeswoman Amanda Hannah. The retailer also said it is shutting down all of its retail stores through March 29, but will continue to provide pay and benefits to all retail workers.

“We continue to closely monitor the coronavirus outbreak and to take proactive precautionary measures,” L.L. Bean President Steve Smith said in a Friday memo to employees that Hannah provided to the Portland Press Herald. “As part of our pandemic protocol, today we tested a remote workday for Maine-based office employees. Good news: Our systems performed well and were able to handle the volume of remote access, with over 900 employees connecting and working online.”


Covetrus Inc., a Portland-based veterinary technology and services company, is taking similar steps. It has restricted “all but the most critical” business travel and is requiring employees who have traveled to affected areas to undergo a two-week quarantine before returning to work. Like the other companies, Covetrus said it’s evaluating the situation and will consider whether other steps are needed.

The decisions by local companies mirror the steps national companies are taking. Last week, a number of large employers announced they were temporarily allowing as many workers as possible to work from home, including Google LLC, Ford Motor Co. and General Motors Co.

The key to managing a situation like the one now confronting companies is clear communication and making sure existing policies cover the current reality, said David Ciullo, a human resources consultant and CEO of Career Management Associates in Portland.

For instance, he said, companies generally have a right to tell an employee not to come to the office if the worker is sick, but there are differing policies on sick pay in such situations. Likewise, most companies can ask employees to work from home, but they need to make sure that the worker has the technology to work effectively.

“This will be the new normal” as long as the virus is circulating, Ciullo said. “Employers should rely on the policies they have in place.”

A key positive, Ciullo said, is that the employers he’s talked to want to do the right thing – for their employees, their customers and the community.

“It’s a unique situation and one where you want to do the right thing, you want to be socially responsible,” he said, adding that most companies have lawyers who have been sending out regular updates on what companies can do and what their legal responsibilities are.

Twigge, the Idexx human resources officer, said timing is everything for companies considering steps to combat the threat posed by the virus.

“You can trigger it too early and no one takes it seriously, and if you trigger it too late, it hurts your credibility,” he said.

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