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Baltimore area companies plan for telecommuting amid coronavirus outbreak

Baltimore-based T. Rowe Price Group has told its workers in Hong Kong, Singapore and Tokyo to take meetings by conference call and work from home whenever possible. It has closed its office in Milan, Italy.

While offices remain open in Baltimore and elsewhere, “associates in roles that do not require a physical presence in the office can choose to work from home,” the company said in a statement Thursday, a new policy that takes effect Monday until further notice. “The safety and well being of our associates is paramount, and we recognize the personal impact this outbreak is increasingly having on our associates globally.”

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Less than a week after health officials in Maryland confirmed the state’s first cases of the new coronavirus, known as COVID-19, companies are making plans to shift employees to remote work from home if the outbreak worsens. In Maryland, 12 people have tested positive for the virus, which has sickened more than 130,000 and killed 4,700 around the world, including 37 in the United States.

Though Maryland has been spared a severe outbreak so far, health and government officials have warned residents to be prepared to work from home or in the event of closures of schools, businesses or airports.

Already, schools and businesses have imposed travel restrictions and numerous colleges and universities in Maryland have cancelled classes days before Spring Break and are planning for remote instruction by computer in the weeks to come.

Businesses say they are closely monitoring updates and following public health authorities’ guidance. In hard hit areas such as Seattle, big employers such as Amazon, Facebook, Google and Microsoft are having employees work from home.

Teleworking may become an option at federal agencies in the state and elsewhere as well. Maryland’s U.S. senators, Ben Cardin and Chris Van Hollen, introduced legislation last week that requires federal agencies to expand teleworking. The senators, who introduced the bill with Sen. Mazie K. Hirono, a Hawaii Democrat, called the issue urgent, saying the growing coronavirus epidemic is placing greater strain on federal workers.

T. Rowe Price said it has not had “significant business impacts and continues to serve our clients globally.”

But it announced Thursday that it was suspending all domestic and international business travel, including in-person conferences and events, except for some approved exceptions, until further notice.

“Our goal is to provide as much flexibility as we can, given the dynamics of the situation, the desire to reduce the chance of community spread of infection should an associate be diagnosed, and the need for certain roles to be in the office to maintain operations and serve our clients,” the company said.

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At Baltimore-based money manager Legg Mason, spokeswoman Mary K. Athridge said any employees who feel uncomfortable in the office "are able to work at home, per our flexible working arrangement.

The firm’s human resources and “business continuity” specialists are monitoring the global situation daily to determine how it might impact employees and offices, Athridge said.

“We are in regular communication with our employees regarding travel and office guidelines, including work from home options, restricting travel where appropriate, and asking colleagues to stay at home if they show signs of illness or have traveled to areas known to have cases of the Coronavirus,” she said.

But telework isn’t an option for those jobs that can’t be done with smartphones and the internet.

At Athena Enzyme Systems, a Halethorpe-based biotechnology company, most work is done in a lab, so there’s no work from home option.

Instead, “our existing sick leave policy is set up well for this type of outbreak,” said Benjamin Broedel, Athena’s manufacturing operations manager.

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Athena employees have no set sick days but are allowed and expected to stay home if they are sick. Those days are not counted against vacation days and are paid.

“This policy was set by the our CEO to prevent spread of illness internally, and to give employees more agency over their own health," Broedel said. "It also builds trust within the company, and we believe it increases employee happiness and productivity.”

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