Even with college students back at downtown campuses, sidewalks in center city Wilkes-Barre remain mostly barren, and the absence of office workers is one major reason.
The downtown resembled a ghost town in March after Gov. Tom Wolf ordered non-essential businesses shuttered and required employees who could work from home to do so to slow the spread of COVID-19.
And although retail shops were allowed to re-open when Luzerne County entered the least-restrictive “green” phase in mid-June, and King’s College and Wilkes University resumed in-person classes about two weeks ago, office workers make up a large part of the downtown demographic.
Larry Newman, executive director of the downtown management organization Diamond City Partnership, estimates that roughly half of all people who work downtown work in offices, and that’s more than 5,000 people.
Newman said that downtown retail and food businesses have felt the impact of their absence, as sales are off “anywhere from 50 to 80 percent from their sales this time last year,” based on conversations he’s had with owners and management.
He and other local economic development experts say most downtown offices continue to have employees work remotely in one form or another as they follow coronavirus pandemic restrictions.
Teri Ooms, executive director of the Institute for Public Policy and Economic Development based at Wilkes University, said she’s found that many downtown offices have employees working remotely, some have staggered schedules for employees, and only a few have employees solely in their offices.
“Those working remotely are indicating there are no immediate return dates because there are too many unknowns. Some businesses can’t physically social distance office spaces or commit to the cleaning requirements, and others find working from home works” for them, Ooms said.
Newman estimates only about 10% of large companies’ employees — such as mail room and information technology staff — work on-premises “because they simply can’t do their job from anywhere else.”
“I fully expect that pattern to continue into 2021. I hope I’m wrong, but right now, the good money is on many major employers — as well as smaller employers — maintaining a work-from-home posture.
What must happen before office employees return to the workplace?
“A return in consumer confidence — to be comfortable again in an interior office environment,” Newman said. “Simply put, what we need is a vaccine.”
He said public health guidance also must be in place.
When Wolf announced Luzerne County would be entering the green phase, many employers thought they would be bringing employees back to the office relatively quickly.
In mid-June, Elizabeth Hartman, communications director for Berkshire Hathaway GUARD Insurance Companies, had said the plan was “to have any employees who are comfortable” start returning to the office on June 29.
Hartman said last week that the company is “back to only essential employees working in the office due to the current notice in effect from Governor Wolf. Once COVID-19 restrictions are lifted, we will take a gradual and cautious approach to returning to the office.”
GUARD is likely the largest downtown employer, with more than 790 workers at its Wilkes-Barre offices.
Other employers also are taking a wait-and-see approach.
Anthony Matrisciano, spokesman for Highmark Health (formerly Blue Cross of Northeastern Pennsylvania), said the company has about 700 employees in the region, and virtually all of them have been working from home since the pandemic started.
“We are monitoring the pandemic closely in all of the areas where we have locations, including NEPA,” Matrisciano said. “We will continue to evaluate when it makes sense to return. We have told employees it is unlikely that any employees will return before early in 2021.”
He said Highmark’s “team of doctors and clinicians” will determine when it is safe to do so.
Only three of the 62 employees of the Geisinger Pharmacy department at the office on Public Square have worked on site to date, although, next week, two more employees will return to the office to assist with a development program for Wilkes University students, according to Brion Lieberman, vice president of human resources for Geisinger.
The remainder of the staff has worked from home and will continue to work from home through Dec. 31, Lieberman said.
Likewise, William D. Loose, principal at the Wilkes-Barre office of the Bohlin Cywinski Jackson architectural firm, said the 27 employees there and at the company’s other five offices across the United States are still primarily working from home.
Loose said employees have not been brought back to the offices yet because the company’s focus is on “employee health and safety, particularly as they manage caregiving responsibilities” as well as “remaining flexible and supporting our employees through this crisis.”
“In many of the cities where we are located, local ordinances still require remote work whenever possible and we have made that consistent across our practice,” Loose said.
It’s not just the private sector where office employees are working remotely.
Most or all state employees with the Departments of Labor and Industry and Environmental Protection are working from home as well.
Of the 720 Luzerne County employees who work in downtown offices, 352 are in the office on a regular basis, and 239 are working remotely at all times, according to county Manager David Pedri.
The remaining 129 employees work remotely on a rotating basis. Since they are rotating, about half of them are in the office on a daily basis, Pedri said.
Pedri said there have been discussions about having some employees continue working remotely post-pandemic.
“Children and youth and many of the human services teams are thriving in this format so we will likely keep this as an option,” he said.
Representatives from some private sector companies said they have similar plans for some employees.
Newman said there are five pillars of the downtown economy — office employment; colleges; dining, arts and entertainment; the hospitality market; and residential units.
Fortunately, the downtown’s growing resident population has helped many downtown businesses stay afloat, Newman said, and Wilkes-Barre is fortunate to have a diverse downtown economy.