The risk of COVID-19 workplace transmission came under investigation in recent weeks following medical software developer Epic Systems Corp.’s decision to relax its return-to-work mandate. 

Epic’s decision now complies with the local public health order that states businesses must limit the number of individuals present in an office. 

Many of the University of Wisconsin’s students financially rely on local restaurants, shops and jobs offered by UW through the student job portal. Dane County Executive Joe Parisi gave a statement on the return of student employees.

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“My recommendations for companies to continue remote work as much as possible includes student employees,” Parisi said. “Physical distancing, wearing a mask and working remotely whenever feasible are steps our community can take to reduce our risk of contracting COVID-19 and furthering its spread.”

As of Aug. 26, Wisconsin’s State Department of Health Services reported 26 active workplace, non-health care investigations of COVID-19 in Dane County. The department is not releasing the names of the facilities under investigation, as previously done for nursing homes with more than two active cases. 

Out of 1,188 total active investigations as of Aug. 26, 479 of them, were at workplaces. Parisi commented on the prevalence of workplace cases.

“There’s no doubt COVID-19 has a disproportionate impact on the service industry — bars, restaurants and other places where younger people tend to work,” Parisi said. “That’s why Public Health Madison & Dane County created the strictest public health guidelines in the state for those businesses.”

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Businesses under the guidance of public ordinances are continuously updating their guidelines to either remain remotely working when possible or to ensure a safe return to work when in-person services are necessary.

UW put a COVID-19 Workplace Safety Policy into place and is following their existing Public Health Protocols. UW spokesperson Meredith McGlone specified protections in place for students who cannot virtually work. 

“Where employees are working in-person, we have additional health and safety protocols in place including requirements for face coverings, physical distancing/occupancy limits and cleaning,” McGlone said. “We’ve put in place a COVID-19 workplace safety policy and public health protocols which all employees are required to follow.”

To outline the current Dane County guidelines, Parisi said bars are closed except for outside service, and restaurants have a limited dine-in capacity of 25%. Parisi said these orders were put in place when COVID-19 cases began to spike in the community to better protect both customers and workers.

According to UW’s Smart Restart plan, all UW employees who are working on-site are required to follow additional workplace safety procedures. UW employees working in facilities controlled by other businesses may be subject to further workplace expectations. Free testing will be available to all UW employees and students.

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“Keep in mind that some employees, including student employees, are able to work remotely and that will continue wherever possible,” McGlone said. “The university is making decisions about whether employees, including students, may return to in-person work based on public health guidance and the importance of the in-person work to critical university functions.”

Though some employees are able to continue working either in-person or virtually, many have lost jobs because of the pandemic. In Wisconsin, the week of Aug. 9 through Aug. 15, 14,670 new people filed for unemployment. This number increased from the 3,368 claims reported during the same week in 2019.

 McGlone offered a resource to support students balancing these new employment challenges with existing tuition and housing costs. 

“We recognize that the pandemic is causing additional financial strain for many students and their families,” McGlone said. “We encourage students to reach out to the Office of Student Financial Aid to learn more about financial assistance.”

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Amidst the conflicting COVID-19 legislation between local, state and federal governments, Dane County released strict guidelines maintaining social distancing, requiring mask use and limiting gatherings.

Parisi noted some grievances regarding the lack of organization.

“Public Health created a metrics oriented, data-driven plan in the absence of a cohesive state or frankly even federal blueprint that has left local units of government to make the choice to draft their own set of guidelines, or as we have seen in nearly every other Wisconsin county, have no restrictions at all,” Parisi said.