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Many local businesses developed plans to deal with the new coronavirus well before state health officials reported the first case of the disease caused by the virus in Williamson County. 

The Centers for Disease Control recommends that businesses encourage sick employees to stay home, ensure that sick leave policies are flexible and ask employees to check themselves for symptoms when traveling. 

Some of the largest employers in Williamson County are already following those recommendations.

Community Health Systems — estimated by Williamson Inc. to be the county’s largest private sector employer with more than 2,300 employees in 2018 — is limiting non-essential business travel and considering an expansion of telecommuting opportunities for employees. 

Brentwood-based Brookdale Senior Living published a detailed report about how it’s protecting residents and employees.

“We have a corporate emergency response team in place to provide support to the local teams, especially in the event of a confirmed case of COVID-19,” a Brookdale media statement reads.

Brookdale says it’s following CDC recommendations, has restricted non-essential business travel and is trying to limit large group events when possible. 

Mars Petcare, which has a large office in Franklin, is providing information about the virus to employees and encouraging sick people to stay home or talk to managers about working from home. 

In an emailed statement, the company says it has restricted travel and is not participating in large events through the end of the month, unless it’s business critical.  

The composition of Williamson County’s workforce may make it relatively resilient if there is a disease outbreak. 

A 2019 report from the Bureau of Labor Statistics found almost all U.S. workers in management and professional occupations, which includes managers, teachers and some health care workers, have paid sick leave. 

That category represents well over half the workers in Williamson County, meaning many local workers can likely skip work if they start feeling sick. 

Other types of occupations are much less likely to have paid sick leave. Only 61% of service workers — about a tenth of the local workforce — had access to paid sick leave.

In addition, a separate Bureau of Labor Statistics report found that most people in management, business and financial operations — almost a third of the local workforce — can work from home.

Michelle Endres, the Chief People Officer for the Brentwood consulting firm LBMC, said that many LBMC employees already work remotely, in part because they spend lots of times on site with clients. That should make it relatively easy to ask workers to stay home if needed.

In the midst of a busy tax season — taxes are one of LBMC’s core businesses — a devastating tornado and the first case of the coronavirus in Tennessee, that kind of flexibility has been crucial. 

“It is a crazy busy season for us right now,” Endres said. “Between the tornadoes and the coronavirus we have not missed a beat at all because our team members can connect remotely. They can connect with our clients." 

In fact, LBMC has allowed some companies affected by the tornadoes to work out of its Brentwood office.

Endres said the company has been updating its business continuity plan, which details how a business will keep running during a disaster or disruption, for the last year. Over the last several months, leaders have focused on what to do in a serious disease outbreak.

LBMC hasn’t instituted mandatory restrictions on travel, but Endres said any employees traveling to meet with clients are calling ahead to make sure the trip is absolutely necessary.

“We want to call our clients and say, we're coming. Does this make sense for you? What are your safety policies and procedures for this?” she said. “Is this mission critical for us to be eye-to-eye, or is this something where we can utilize our technology and have a web connection?”

In other industries, the nature of the work makes it impossible for some employees to work from home. Karol Hernandez, the director of marketing and communications for Franklin-based Lee Company, said most office personnel have the ability to work from home if needed.

However, field employees, who provide electrical, plumbing and HVAC services, obviously have to work on site. Hernandez said she doesn’t expect employees to stop visiting worksites, but the company is monitoring the situation.

“In the event of a flourishing pandemic, we will implement new work rules, that among other things would work to identify if the home or business has sick people present, how to accomplish the work without engaging anyone in the home directly,” Hernandez wrote in an email.

Nearly all Lee Company employees have paid sick leave, and if the disease starts to spread locally Hernandez said the company would encourage employees to reduce meetings and distance themselves from others.  

So far, the Tennessee Department of Health has only found one case of COVID-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus, in Williamson County. 

The infected man only has mild symptoms and is isolated at home. On Friday, the health department reported that his household contacts tested negative for the virus. Still, at a press conference Thursday afternoon state epidemiologist John Dunn said he expects more cases in Tennessee.

As the state health department learns more about the disease in Tennessee, business leaders like LBMC’s Endres say they’re going to continue to monitor the situation and adapt if needed.

"We're a fact-based organization ... We want to make sure we're absolutely doing the right thing. What we would do is have that discussion, make sure we're understanding it and then make the right call, knowing we can utilize our technology" Endres said. "Doing what's best for (our employees) is how we'd answer that question."

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