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Boston Fed message on pandemic prevention is getting through

More local companies are adopting work-from-home practices, as Boston Fed chief Eric Rosengren penned an unusual column asking for companies to do their part to slow the virus

Boston Federal Reserve President Eric S. Rosengren's goal is to mitigate the virus and its economic impacts.
Boston Federal Reserve President Eric S. Rosengren's goal is to mitigate the virus and its economic impacts.Jonathan Wiggs/Globe Staff

Many employers wrestled this week with the pressing question about whether people should work with home. Boston Fed chief Eric Rosengren and Dr. Paul Biddinger, head of disaster medicine at Mass. General Hospital, have an answer: If they can, they should do so.

After huddling on Monday, Rosengren and Biddinger took the unprecedented step of circulating a column on Wednesday night directed at New England’s employers, about the responsibility they should take as COVID-19 spreads. The goal: to mitigate the virus and its economic impacts. Sacrifice normalcy now, they said, to avoid a much worse outcome down the line.

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They encouraged companies to take tangible steps: work-from-home, business travel restrictions, no large meetings.

Of course, plenty of companies didn’t need the impetus. White-collar businesses big and small were already shifting plans. Beth Monaghan, chief executive of Waltham PR firm InkHouse, decided to pull the plug on office work Wednesday night. She had told her San Francisco employees to stay home a week ago. By the end of the day Thursday, all 130 InkHouse workers were working remotely.

Many other companies raced to do the same. On Thursday afternoon, for example, Fidelity Investments chief executive Abby Johnson issued a memo to 45,000 employees worldwide that everyone capable of working from home should do so as of Friday. Now is the time, she wrote, for Fidelity to do its part to slow down the coronavirus.

David Rosenthal, head of Nixon Peabody’s labor and employment practice, had similar advice for clients when they call. (The law firm is practicing what it preaches, heading into WFH mode across the country on Monday until further notice). Employers, he said, who haven’t taken the necessary steps to accommodate employees working remotely en masse could face problems.

Unfortunately, it’s not always as simple as just handing someone a laptop as they walk out the door.

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Gregory Bombard, a lawyer at Duane Morris, said employers need to be mindful of data security, as well as nondisclosure agreements to protect sensitive information. The parameters of what people are asked to do at home should be made clear. Perhaps most important, he said, decisions should be communicated in as open a manner as possible.

And Brian Casaceli, a lawyer at Mirick O’Connell, said hourly employees at home should report the time they work on a daily basis to their supervisors. He also recommends employers put in writing that the work-from-home mandate is a temporary situation, due to the crisis.

Not every company can easily send its workers home. Manufacturers, restaurants and retailers all face challenges. The issue is already flaring up in Lynn, where IUE-CWA Local 201 said it is pressing its members’ employers — which include General Electric’s jet-engine plant — to ensure they aren’t penalized for missing work due to the pandemic.

Much has changed, in the 48 hours since Rosengren and Biddinger published their column. Pro sports games have been cancelled. The Boston Marathon, postponed. Governor Charlie Baker banned most gatherings of over 250 people. The situation is shifting faster than anyone anticipated.

A number of employers told Rosengren that the column helped push them to decide more quickly about switching to remote work. Rosengren said he’s encouraged by how many employers in New England seem to be looking beyond their immediate needs, and toward the greater good.

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Jon Chesto can be reached at jon.chesto@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @jonchesto.