You’d think that as lawyers, members of the management committee at the Portland law firm Norman, Hanson & DeTroy would understand the importance of choosing one’s words carefully in these troubled times.

Yet, in an email that went out Monday to the firm’s 85 employees, manager Stephen Hessert offered a perspective on the COVID-19 pandemic that is, in a word, troubling.

“We are a service business and clients look to us in times of crisis,” Hessert wrote to his workforce. “We all face risk whether we come to work or not. Here at NHD we need to strike a balance between safety and the practical reality that no one can be completely isolated in today’s world.”

Thus, according to a four-page COVID-19 policy statement attached to Hessert’s email, the firm’s attorneys can work at home with their secure laptops in the coming days.

But the staff who support them? They’re essentially being told to suck it up and come to work, use hand sanitizer and keep their distance while in the office. And if they get infected by a coworker, well, that’s life – chances are they would have gotten it anyway.

“Walking around downtown Portland today, it resembles a ghost town, with very little traffic or pedestrians, many food and retail stores closed,” an employee of the firm, who asked to remain anonymous out of fear of repercussions, said in an email to me Monday evening. “Yet we are asked to carry on as if it is just a normal flu season.”

All over Maine this week, employers are trying to draw the line between continued productivity, protecting the public with whom they interact, and safeguarding their workers from the novel coronavirus that’s finally getting the attention it’s deserved since Day One.

In some cases, the employees are coming first. In others, they’re clearly not.

Before we get back to the law firm, let’s take a look at some businesses that are doing it right.

L.L. Bean is the gold standard. The iconic Maine retailer announced Monday that, in addition to letting workers who don’t need to be on-site work from home, it’s shutting down all its retail stores through March 29. But during that time, year-round employees affected by the closures will continue to receive full pay and benefits.

Portland-based Wex has told all its 5,000 employees worldwide who can do so, including 1,500 here in Maine, to work at home and thus lessen their chance of contracting or spreading COVID-19. Idexx in Westbrook, 2,000 workers strong, has done much the same thing.

As you read this, the Portland Press Herald’s newsroom is empty. Reporters, editors, photographers, page designers and copy editors are all working out of their homes as of Monday. In a detailed memo to employees Tuesday – her third in less than a week – Masthead Maine CEO Lisa DeSisto also announced the establishment of a “COVID-19 temporary sick bank” that will provide full-time employees up to 10 days of pay if they are sick or at high risk of exposure and cannot work from home.

Hannaford supermarkets, where interaction with the public underlies the company’s very business model, is doing its part for its workers.

“All associates (hourly and salaried) who have been asked by us to stay home; who have been quarantined by an agency such as the local health department or CDC; or who themselves or a family member have been diagnosed with COVID-19 have access to at least two weeks of paid sick time for scheduled shifts,” spokesman Eric Blom said in an email.

Even other local law firms have sent everyone home.

Harold Pachios, a partner at the Portland firm Preti Flaherty, said in an email that all employees in the firm’s four offices in Portland, Augusta, Boston and Concord, New Hampshire, are working at home effective today.

“Our IT department has been working for days to ensure our systems are set up so that we don’t miss a beat as we work in this alternative environment,” Pachios said.

All of the above reflect smart, compassionate planning. And if you’re lucky enough to work for one of those employers, as I am, it’s heartening to know that your protection from COVID-19 is as high a priority as shielding the public from contagion and, when possible, still getting the work done.

Not so elsewhere.

Union workers at Bath Iron Works are justifiably up in arms over the company’s announcement that they can take up to 80 hours off to deal with the pandemic. But, the company said, they won’t get paid.

Think about that. BIW and its parent corporation, General Dynamics, build ships for the U.S. government. As taxpayers, you and I – and those estimated 8,000 BIW workers – pay for those ships with our tax dollars.

Yet, rather than share those tax dollars with their workers in times of duress, the company is now keeping the cash and telling sick or at-risk workers to use their “compensated time off” if they need to stay home. And, if and when that runs out, they’re on their own.

In announcing the unpaid-time-off policy on Monday, BIW said, “We recognize that the coronavirus creates challenges for everyone and we do not want employees concerned about their job security during this difficult time.”

Job security? How about paying the household electric bill? How about putting food on the table?

“BIW doesn’t value its mechanics. It only values its bottom line and its schedules and budgets,” said Chris Wiers, president of Local 6, which represents some 4,400 manufacturing workers at BIW, in a telephone interview.

As the BIW unions put it in a statement Tuesday, accompanied by a call for a two-week paid shutdown, “Billion-dollar companies like General Dynamics should be able to take care of their employees. Bath Iron Works could set the standard of employee worth during a time of crisis and create the opportunity to truly be a leader.”

More simply, to paraphrase the Gospel of Matthew, by how Maine employers treat their workers, so shall they be known.

Back at Norman, Hanson & DeTroy, firm manager Hessert put out another email to all employees Tuesday afternoon.

He announced that, effective immediately, the lunchrooms on the firm’s three floors at Canal Plaza in Portland have been shut down because they are “potentially high risk areas.” Employees can still use the water for drinking and hand wishing, “but please wipe the faucets and areas you touch after use.”

As for those employees who “may have concern about why we are coming to work,” Hessert wrote, “no one has to be at work if they decide their safety dictates otherwise. PTO (paid time off) time is available if you choose to use it, and, if not, no one will face any adverse employment action if they choose to stay home for safety reasons.”

Translation: In this time of unprecedented crisis, use your paid time off if you decide that need to stay home. And if you’re all out of that, rest assured you won’t be disciplined or fired when you come back.

How benevolent.


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