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Church Mutual Plans To Reopen Campus In Sept., Cautiously: ‘I Don’t Get A Second Shot At This’

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Businesses large and small have had to make major adjustments during the COVID-19 pandemic.

One of the region’s largest employers, Merrill-based Church Mutual, sent almost all of its employees to work from home in March.

Church Mutual is the nation's largest insurer of religious organizations.

Now, the company has targeted Sep. 8 to allow some employees to start returning to their offices.

WE talked with Church Mutual President and CEO Rich Poirier about managing a big company during a global pandemic.

Poirier said the first hints of the size of the situation came in March.

“We kind of scrambled our fighter jets and said, ‘this thing’s going to spread countrywide.’ It’s going to have to be something [where] we have to be a leader, a thought leader, through words and deeds, not only for our policyholders, but for our people,” he said.

“Treated it like a disaster. Treated it like a bomb threat, or if you had a hurricane or tornado that took out your building. We started building plans in mid-March.”

Poirier told almost all of his employees to go home in late March, days before Gov. Tony Evers’ Safer-At-Home order came out.

“When you’ve got 600-plus employees in a town the size of Merrill, all working in the same building, the science and the data suggested to us that it wouldn’t be responsible [to have them at work]. If 20 or 30 of our employees were infected and spread it into a community the size of Merrill, it would be catastrophic,” he said.

“There was so much unknown early, and there was a lot of disinformation. The one beacon, the one voice, that seemed to be consistent, a board member said, ‘you know Rich, if I were you, I’d follow what Dr. Fauci’s saying.’ We kind of used Fauci as our North Star.”

Now, more than 90 percent of the company’s 1,300 nationwide employees are working from home.

“Our business is running well. Productivity’s actually up, believe it or not, with people working from home,” Poirier said.

“Our view is, we’re held to a higher standard because of the work we do..18 If we’re going to talk the talk, we better walk the walk. We know we’re being watched. I tell all of my employees, if you’re in town, when you’re walking in Walmart or pumping gas, I better hear you’re wearing a mask, because they know you work at Church Mutual and you’re a role model.”

Not long ago, the company announced it was targeting early September for cautious, gradual return-to-work plans.

“Labor Day will be where we sit down and figure out what the future’s going to look like. I want to get past the summer holiday season and all the travel,” Poirier said.

“One nonnegotiable promise I’ve made to all of the employees [is] if you’re not comfortable coming back before there’s a vaccine, I will not force you to come back. As long as you’re getting your job done and you’re productive, I will never force you to come back until there’s a vaccine,” he said.

“I thoroughly expect COVID will redesign how our office looks when the smoke clears, and we will have an increased number of people that work from home. No doubt about it.”

Like for many business operators, large and small, the pressure of return-to-work decisions can be crushing.

“It’s the number one thing that keeps me up at night. If I make a bad decision, I don’t get a second shot at this,” Poirier said. “If I reopen too quickly, or a do something wrong and somebody dies, I don’t get that back.”

Poirier said the company has not had a single employee test positive for COVID-19 nationwide.

Ben worked as the Special Topics Correspondent at WXPR from September 2019 until November 2021. He now contributes occasionally to WXPR. During his full-time employment, his main focus was reporting on environment and natural resources issues in northern Wisconsin and Michigan's Upper Peninsula as part of The Stream, a weekly series.
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