As large swaths of life shut down in Minnesota, one of the state’s largest companies still is asking many employees to come to work.

Minnetonka-based UnitedHealth Group said in materials issued this past weekend that “employees are expected to come to their assigned work location” unless they have self-identified as being at higher risk for serious COVID-19 illness or are experiencing symptoms of respiratory infection. Exceptions also are being made, the company said, for people having trouble arranging child care or transportation.

Almost half of UnitedHealth Group’s employees in the United States already work from home or in a virtual manner, a spokesman said, adding that the majority of those who don’t are caregivers or directly assist caregivers.

Other health insurers in Minnesota say they are quickly adopting work-from-home strategies, but UnitedHealth Group said its policy fits with the company’s status in an industry whose services are critical. UnitedHealth Group operates the nation’s largest health insurer plus a large network of clinics and urgent care centers across the country.

“The health and safety of our employees is paramount to us,” the company said in a statement. “At the same time, the members, patients and customers we serve depend on the people of UnitedHealth Group to be fully engaged during this public health crisis, and we are committed to meeting their needs each and every day.”

UnitedHealth Group is the parent company of the health insurer UnitedHealthcare, as well as a large health services business called Optum. The company employs more than 320,000 people worldwide including about 18,000 in Minnesota.

UnitedHealthcare provided insurance to more than 43 million people at the end of 2019.

Optum employs or is affiliated with 50,000 doctors who work in the company’s clinics, urgent care offices and surgery centers. The division also includes large units for data consulting as well as management of pharmaceutical benefits.

Employees do not need to disclose their condition, or the condition of an at-risk family member, in order to work from home, UnitedHealth Group says.

“Except as detailed below, if you remain healthy and currently work in one of our facilities, you should continue to conduct your work from your assigned location,” states a memo from chief human resources officer Patricia Lewis. “While other, less-essential industries have implemented broad work-from-home practices, we are a health care company and our business needs to operate as smoothly as possible during this health crisis to serve others.”

In its statement, UnitedHealth Group outlined a number of precautions it’s taking such as sanitizing facilities and telling workers that they should stay home if they are experiencing symptoms of an upper-respiratory infection such as cough, fever or runny nose. Those employees will not be required to take PTO.

The company has stopped hosting visitors to its clinics, clinical-support facilities, and claim and call centers through April 30. That also applies to the company’s hospitals in Brazil.

Measures to reduce close contact among workers in offices include no handshakes or hugs, no large gatherings and a stop to nonessential travel.

“We are not like the other nonhealthcare businesses … our health care services are essential,” the company said in a statement. “We cannot walk away. We cannot close our doors. People are depending on us.”

UnitedHealth Group is not just a health insurer, but local competitors in the health insurance business are broadly adopting work-from-home strategies.

Eagan-based Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Minnesota started Monday requiring all employees who are able to work from home to do so through April 3. The same is true starting Wednesday for Minnetonka-based Medica employees until further notice. Minneapolis-based UCare said it started transitioning employees to work-at-home status last week.

Indiana-based Anthem, which is one of the nation’s largest health insurers, said in a statement: “We are also encouraging our associates who currently have the capability to work from home to do so, and we are implementing a thoughtful, phased approach to migrate additional associates to a work-at-home environment.”


Twitter: @chrissnowbeck