The boom in telemedicine, the May 31 deadline for the Paycheck Protection Program and the possibility of new workplace regulations around masks and vaccines were three topics that drew comment at a Central Penn Business Journal webinar this week on the post-COVID economy.
And the three experts who fielded questions designed to help businesses in the midstate position themselves for the post-pandemic economy agreed on one thing: working in any business, from retail to office work to tourism, is not going to look the same as it used to.
“I know it’s going to be a completely different workplace,” said Karen Young, founder and president of HR Resolutions, a full-service human resources management company based in Harrisburg.
“I bet you we have a whole generation of better handwashers now,” said John Lufburrow, vice president of sales for Eastern Pennsylvania at Highmark, a nonprofit healthcare insurance company based in Pittsburgh with more than 5 million members.
Young and Lufburrow were joined by Patrick Wasylson, vice president of York-based PeoplesBank, where he manages the company’s business solutions division. Their three companies sponsored the webinar.
From a human resources perspective, Young welcomed signs that more businesses and their employees are returning to offices but cautioned that limits may be coming on what employers can and can’t do.
“I’m starting to see a flurry of activity again from a regulatory standpoint,” she said, noting that the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration is considering issuing masking mandates.
“The biggest question I’m getting from clients now is, ‘Can I say that my employees must get the vaccine?’ Well, the answer from the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission is yes. The answer from most HR professionals is yes, but!”
Young discussed what is coming to be called “vaccine discrimination,” which is when employers treat people who choose not to be vaccinated or who simply cannot be vaccinated differently from people who are getting the vaccine. “There are medical reasons why some people cannot get a vaccine,” she said. “They are under no obligation under privacy laws to disclose to you those medical reasons.”
The EEOC is also working on guidelines for rewarding employers to sign up for the COVID vaccine.
“I do have a few employers who are incentivizing their employees to get vaccinated,” she said. “I’m not a tax accountant, but please do remember these bonuses are taxable wages.”
Health was major topic of conversation, particularly telehealth.
Highmark’s Lufburrow had no doubt that telemedicine is here to stay, partly because routine interactions between doctors and patients don’t always require an office visit.
“You could probably put this high on the list of some positives that came out of the pandemic,” Lufburrow said. “At Highmark in particular we saw an increase of well over 3,000% in telemedicine utilization – off the charts, right?”
“We see that enduring,” he said. “We are actually looking and working with a lot of different vendors and different provider systems across the state and here locally to expand their offerings. You’ll see that even teledentistry has become much more popular.”
As did other panelists, PeoplesBank’s Wasylson took note of healthy economic indicators this spring. “The positive economic data shows that we’re slowly getting out of this.” he said, citing rising U.S. retail sales and manufacturing, growth in home building and dropping unemployment claims.
He was struck by Federal Reserve Chairman Jay Powell’s optimism in a recent “60 Minutes” episode about the strength of the economy over the next few months. Noting that the deadline for the Paycheck Protection Program loans administered by the Small Business Administration is May 31, Wasylson urged local businesses who are interested in applying to move quickly.
“If you have not applied, my first piece of advice is to connect with a bank … because while that date is extended to the end of May, the question still remains is will there be funds until the end of May.”
The three panelists gave credit to the service industry, particularly restaurants, for pioneering options such as curbside service to salvage their business when the lights suddenly went out. And they found strong reasons for faith in a rebound in the local tourism industry.
“People still want to come to Hershey,” said Young.
All three panelists saw increasing signs of normalcy. For Wasylson it was a return to more normal relations between banks and their business customers. Lufburrow looked forward to Penn State games – with crowds. “We want to get out and do things,” he said.
For Young, the difference is already apparent on the highways. Asked her chief cause for optimism right now, she answered: “Traffic is picking up. There’s starting to be a rush hour again.”