UnitedHealth Group is letting more employees work from home, after saying on Sunday that many were expected to be in workplaces this week.

Fairview Health Services is struggling with work-from-home technology and telling many they can’t transition to remote work.

And at Medica, the health insurer is reporting success with shifting to off-site work for about 2,000 employees and contractors.

Work-from-home has so quickly become the norm for many in the novel coronavirus era that the transition sounds easy. In truth, the shift raises all sorts of tricky questions.

“Work-from-home is de facto creating a socio-economic disparity, although this might be an unintended consequence of the safety measure,” Maria Figueroa, a labor and policy researcher at Cornell University, said via e-mail. “The reason for the disparity is that generally lower-paid occupations require physical presence in worksites, particularly in blue-collar occupations, but also white collar.”

At UnitedHealth Group, the question has been: Exactly when do you widely push working from home?

The Minnetonka-based health care giant announced Sunday that many employees were expected to come to their assigned work location unless they were sick or self-identified as being at higher risk for the serious COVID-19 illness.

In a statement issued Thursday morning, however, UnitedHealth Group pivoted by saying that “over the next several days, we will begin enabling employees to voluntarily work from home if they are not serving patients in hospitals or clinics, or if their physical presence is not deemed essential to business operations.”

The company’s UnitedHealthcare division is the nation’s largest health insurer with 43 million subscribers, and its Optum division for health services includes clinics, urgent-care offices and surgery centers.

With the initial policy, chief human resources officer Patricia Lewis said in a memo that while “other, less essential industries have implemented broad work-from-home practices,” UnitedHealth Group needed to operate “as smoothly as possible during this health crisis to serve others.” The statement issued Thursday didn’t explain the change, but noted the company would “adapt our protocols and business practices in real time.”

On Monday, Minneapolis-based Fairview Health Services issued a memo saying it had to limit remote working in order to reduce stress on its limited bandwidth. The subject line for the message read: “COVID-19: Limiting remote work for now.”

“All staff who normally work at our sites should continue to do so and not transition to working remotely,” according to a copy reviewed by the Star Tribune. “Employees who work remotely normally and who do not directly work with patients should report to a work location that is on the Fairview network and practice social distancing when possible.”

In a statement to the Star Tribune on Thursday, Fairview said it was adding network bandwidth every day. The health system said it has prioritized investments in people and patients “often at the expense of the broader IT infrastructure and digital capabilities that would accommodate the broad remote work environment we’re currently facing.”

It takes a lot of forethought and planning to dramatically expand work-from-home options, particularly at a time when many are trying to do so, said Robert Geyer, the chief operations officer at Minnetonka-based Medica.

Typically, about 600 Medica employees work remotely. By Wednesday morning, more than 1,800 employees were logged in to the company’s virtual private network (VPN), which still had plenty of capacity, Geyer said.

The shift didn’t require buying much hardware, since Medica recently replaced many company laptops and still had the old computers. The big challenge was to make sure security policies and procedures were in place, Geyer said, to protect patient data.

“This is kind of phase one, of getting people home,” said Lynn Altmann, vice president of human resources. “Now it’s about: How do we help people acclimate?”

 

Twitter: @chrissnowbeck