Running the Railroad from a Distance


Businesses deal with social distancing; Union Pacific closes building to public


Under call to distance people socially, Union Pacific is taking action, too, at one of Omaha’s largest office buildings.

Union Pacific Center will have some 2,000 employees working remotely, leaving fewer than 500 workers on-site at U.P.’s downtown headquarters.

Inside, employees are keeping socially distant, keeping meetings to no more than 10 people and holding virtual conferences, said Beth Whited, U.P.’s executive vice president and chief human resources officer. Among the signs posted with the Union Pacific logo: “REMEMBER Maintain 6 feet of social distancing.”

As the country shuts down and hunkers down to fight the coronavirus, the business of America also needs to keep moving in many quarters.

The order of the day is that weddings and funerals, daycares and schools, and bars and restaurants cancel, close or shrink to 10 or fewer people.

Yet businesses, offices and employers are specifically excluded from the restrictions — and often are urged to stay open. Even with an unprecedented shift to remote work, not every business can conduct its business from its employees’ homes.

Union Pacific is not only a major Omaha employer. It’s also a key transportation link in keeping America supplied and commerce running.

So it is taking measures at its downtown headquarters, the Harriman Dispatch Center and all along Union Pacific’s system.

“We have to keep running, and our employees take a lot of pride in that,” Whited said.

New public guidance continues to roll out as the pandemic spreads. The White House issued guidelines calling for people to avoid social gatherings of more than 10 people.

Locally, the Douglas County Board of Health prohibited public gatherings countywide with more than 10 people through April 30. For gatherings of fewer than 10, attendees must keep a minimum social distance of 6 feet, or that gathering is prohibited.

But the order does not apply to “continuity of business operations” and “logistics/distribution centers.”

At a press conference, Gov. Pete Ricketts said he has no intention of shutting down private businesses. He urged offices to have employees who can work from home do so and urged workers to practice social distancing.

“We are still expecting people to work,” Ricketts said.

It’s understandable that a lot of businesses can’t operate remotely, said Sandra Hobson, program director for the Nebraska Preparedness Partnership, which helps businesses prepare and respond to disasters.

Hobson said businesses should get as many employees as they can to work remotely. For the rest — even if that’s a larger number — employers can spread out workspaces to perhaps 10 feet, move people to side areas, even a lunchroom, and hold in-office conference calls instead of face-to-face meetings, she said.

Manufacturing plants can clean high-touch surfaces more frequently and have employees wear gloves or maybe masks, she said. Plus, the standard recommendations apply to everyone: Wash hands, use hand sanitizer, stay home if you’re sick.

But she acknowledged, “None of this stuff is foolproof. We’re playing it by ear.”

Bellevue’s Beardmore Chevrolet and Beardmore Subaru are open seven days a week with 120 employees working a variety of shifts in three buildings, co-owner Brian Hamilton said.

At the car dealerships, handshakes are out. The morning sales meeting is handled through emails and one-on-one meetings. Employees also are urged to never use a bare hand on any vehicle or office door but to wipe down steering wheels and key fobs, Hamilton said.

At southeast Nebraska’s Endicott Clay Products in Jefferson County, the company needs employees on-site at two main plants to manufacture bricks used around the country, said Ryan Parker, president and CEO.

About 275 of the company’s 300 employees work in production. But sales, marketing and finance staff can now work remotely, Parker said, and he authorized the sales team to purchase GoToMeeting online meeting software.

Elsewhere, the company is staggering break times, holding training programs in smaller groups and stopping delivery drivers from coming into the offices, Parker said.

Ordinarily, the plant might have 20 employees in an area, and now it is trying to rotate workers around to help avoid that, he said.

“It is very, very difficult,” Parker said.

Parker said Endicott has contingency plans, but he had hoped to never implement them.

“We’re now to the point we’re having to implement these things. It’s certainly a new time, and it’s evolving.”


Read the full Omaha World-Herald article HERE.