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Interpreting the final stage of Gov. Wolf’s transition phase a challenge for business leaders

Red, yellow, green. 

From children’s playground games to traffic signals designed for orderly travel the longstanding meaning of these colors – and our ingrained behavior surrounding them – has been recast by the coronavirus pandemic. 

Those who eagerly looked forward to a return to normal and the “green phase” of Gov. Tom Wolf’s traffic-light themed stages to restart Pennsylvania’s economy have instead discovered green is far from what they’d expected. 

“The green phase was promising from the business perspective. Everyone expected green means go, we’d be open and back to normal, and that has not happened,” said Rebecca Warren, a partner at Norris McLaughlin P.A., a law firm with offices in New York City, Bridgewater, New Jersey and Allentown. Warren is based in Allentown and heads the firm’s labor and employment department there. 

Gene Barr, CEO and president of Pennsylvania Chamber of Business and Industry in Harrisburg suggested the color coding system may actually be part of the ongoing problem with setting business and the public’s expectations. Many restrictions, including a maximum of 250 people attending outdoor events, restaurants currently at 25 percent capacity, bars closed and other requirements that become obstacles for industry, may not coincide with what “green” would mean to most people.

“The state maybe shouldn’t have used green as this phase of the transition,” he said. “Green really doesn’t mean go.”

Warren agreed.

“When we opened into the graduated [yellow] phase, I think people were expecting it would be a seamless transition, and green was going to follow rather quickly,” she said. 

But, instead of returning to business as usual many managers and owners are experiencing frustration, confusion and concern over how to meet a rapid and often changing roster of requirements that continue to plague and confound them on a daily basis.

Bill Kirk, CEO and founder of Weather Trends International, Inc. in Hanover Township, Northampton County, said his biggest frustration resulted from having a solid plan to reopen the office of about 10 employees on July 20, only to have the rules change right after they were released. He decided to continue with a remote workforce through the rest of 2020.

Kirk has added two positions since the pandemic began in March, and while the company was already scaled for remote working, it is nonetheless challenging.

“It’s traumatic for employees forced in a remote home situation with no child care. It’s a challenge for those who were not used to working from home, and it is not what they wanted,” he said.

During the yellow phase, Warren was consulting several businesses about what their reopening and return to work policies would look like. “We never thought we’d reopen in the green phase, essentially to be closed again,” she said.

Many felt blindsided by sudden reopening rollbacks. The constant revisions create confusion, Warren said. Frustrated business owners are faced with the unprecedented short- and long-term impacts on their businesses, as well as managing clients, vendors and employee safety. Most are doing their best to continue to operate within the moving target guidelines, she said, but it’s hard to be told, often within 24 hours, that they need to shut down again.

“The only solace for business owners [right] now is they are not alone,” Warren said. 

Jim Rodgers expected the green phase to allow his company to hire summer interns and fresh-out-of-college graduates to fill positions at Dawood Engineering, Inc., in Lower Paxton Township, Dauphin County, where he is chief strategic officer. “Longer term, mentoring and developing less experienced staff or interns when you can’t work shoulder-to-shoulder with someone” has been challenging, he said.

The annual process of making new professional hires out of college, and training them with experienced professionals “side-by-side” has been upended. “We’ve delayed hiring until we understood what the crisis would be. We thought it would be two or four weeks,” Rodgers said.

Getting it done

The company has remained open throughout the pandemic, servicing critical and life sustaining business sites such as medical facilities and utilities. “We had to figure out how to do that,” Rodgers said.

Prior to the green phase Dawood was able to quickly pivot and set up remote work situations. Collaboration between various disciplines required in the industry, from professional engineers to planners and graphic professionals, is challenging in an ongoing virtual format. But Dawood, like many companies, is adjusting and preparing for the long haul. The pandemic accelerated the schedule for moving many daily office functions to an online format. 

“This forced us to get really good, really fast to work in a remote environment, and the industry is on the course toward more electronic use…but our client and regulatory base was not prepared for that,” Rodgers said.

The company opted to take a conservative approach and continued to allow staff to work remotely, even before Pennsylvania went into the green phase. 

For those who want to return to the office, workspace has been reshuffled” to accommodate best social distancing practices and Center for Disease Control recommendations.

And among the biggest challenges has been making hard copy prints of concepts, plans and designs. Getting time on large-format industry equipment is achieved by staggering employees in the office, he said. 

Rodgers said one of the pandemic’s silver linings has been the remote setup, along with the potential to attract and hire new employees outside the company’s standard geographic footprint. “This gives us an opportunity now… [to] take advantage of a wider labor pool,” he said.

Leigh Twiford, owner of FirstLight Home Care in Lemoyne, Cumberland County, did not close during any stages of the pandemic. FirstLight provides home-based health care services to a mostly older client base. Business slowed down as a result of the early ban on elective surgeries, such as knee or hip replacement, along with at home rehabilitation care, many clients employ her services as an overall aging-in-place strategy, so they can remain in their homes for as long as possible. 

“In my fantasy world we were all going to back to normal, but…I don’t think we’re ever going to go back to the normal we used to know, I think we’ll be living a new normal,” Twiford said.

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