CORONAVIRUS

Some Cedar Rapids area businesses discourage holiday travel for employees

Executives fret loss of healthy workers with Thanksgiving, Christmas ahead

Workers apply terminals to wire ends at Timberline Manufacturing in Cedar Rapids in July. (Rebecca F. Miller/The Gazette
Workers apply terminals to wire ends at Timberline Manufacturing in Cedar Rapids in July. (Rebecca F. Miller/The Gazette)

As many Iowans ponder whether to travel for Thanksgiving, some businesses either are advising employees to stay home or implementing quarantine procedures for when they return.

Business leaders discussed their concerns for the holidays during a virtual event Wednesday co-hosted by the Cedar Rapids Metro Economic Alliance, Marion Economic Development Corp. and Hiawatha Economic Development Corp.

But organizations are taking various measures to discourage some employee behavior, as much as possible, during the novel coronavirus pandemic.

Profol Americas, a Cedar Rapids-based manufacturing subsidiary of Germany-based Profol Group, has a quarantine policy in place for employees returning from out-of-state trips.

“We use the Harvard website, and if somebody travels to a place that is red, we force-quarantine them for two weeks,” said Mark Thoeny, Profol Americas president and CEO in Cedar Rapids. “Whether that’s work-related or vacation-related.”

Thoeny said some of the cast polypropylene and polyethylene films manufacturer’s employees already have needed to take a two-week quarantine after taking trips to the Wisconsin Dells.

Ray Brown, CEO of Marion-based electrical services business ESCO Group, doesn’t believe there’s a “one-size-fits-all” solution for employers, but he aims to have “open and honest” conversations with employees about the risk.

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“We try to lead by example,” said Brown, whose parents are on oxygen and mother-in-law is a three-time cancer survivor. “We’re not going to dictate anything, but I think we’re going to try to open up and say, ‘Hey, do you understand what it is that you’re after, and ... could you live with those consequences?’”

This isn’t a new discussion for Timberline Manufacturing in Marion, Tom Pientok, its president and CEO, said.

The rise in cases in March coincided with spring-break trips.

“We had some folks in Mexico and other parts of the world,” Pientok said. “At that time, if they had left the state, they had to quarantine.”

Pientok said the electronics company has relaxed that rule “quite a bit” since March. He plans to hold an all-employee meeting Friday to “reemphasize” the need to be “smart and safe” during the holidays.

Thoeny, from Profol Americas, is “assuming the worst and hoping it doesn’t occur.”

“We are concerned that with Thanksgiving and upcoming Christmas, we will get to a point where we will not be able to fully man the lines because of choices that people are going to make,” Thoeny said.

“We’re pulling orders ahead, trying to prepare for that day.”

Pientok expressed similar concerns.

“What they do outside of here impacts the health and well-being of their fellow employee-owners as well as the sustainability and longevity of our business,” Pientok said.

Even for companies who have a workforce mostly working remotely, the stakes can be high.

“If we have healthy employees, then we have a healthy company,” said Pankaj Monga, president and CEO of Hiawatha-based marketing consultant Channel Fusion.

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A spokeswoman from Collins Aerospace, the largest employer in Cedar Rapids, told The Gazette the company does not have any special policies for Thanksgiving travel.

The concern among business leaders is in line with recommendations from the Center for Disease Control and Prevention.

“Travel increases the chance of getting and spreading the virus that causes COVID-19,” the CDC said in its holiday guidelines. “Staying home is the best way to protect yourself and others.”

Avoiding out-of-state travel is only part of the problem. Iowa has the third-highest coronavirus cases per 100,000 people in the country, according to New York Times data, with every neighboring state except South Dakota at lower rates.

A Georgia Institute of Technology website shows a 57 percent chance of a Linn County gathering of 10 people including at least one person infected with coronavirus.

“Based on our numbers, it might be safer for all of us to be out of the state,” Brown said jokingly.

Comments: (319) 398-8394; john.steppe@thegazette.com

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