Health and Science

Drugmaker AbbVie pressures reluctant employees to return to work, raising safety questions

Key Points
  • Global drug company AbbVie has started asking U.S.-based teams to return to the office. 
  • The company told employees that working at the office is a "critical part of our collaborative cross-functional culture."
  • Several employees told CNBC they feel pressured to come into the office, even though they don't feel safe commuting to the office or working with colleagues in person.
A trader works by the post that trades AbbVie on the floor of the New York Stock Exchange.
Brendan McDermid | Reuters

A "critical part" of pharmaceutical company AbbVie's success is "face-to-face" interaction, CEO Richard Gonzalez explained in an Aug. 27 email outlining its process for bringing thousands of U.S.-based employees back to work. 

Gonzalez said "cross-functional collaboration" was a cornerstone of AbbVie's high performance, adding that employees needed to "preserve and nurture our culture so we can continue to accelerate, to climb higher and to help the next generation of patients." 

All of that, he said, "means returning to our workplace," according to the email viewed by CNBC. The company expects employees — even those who say they've been able to work from home just fine — to report to the office to foster creativity and innovation under its phased-in return-to-work plan, according to interviews with three current employees, anonymous complaints in public forums and internal company documents.

But not all employees feel the same. It's a problem that's starting to play out at AbbVie and other workplaces throughout America. Some AbbVie workers say they worry that the company is putting profits ahead of safety and the health of its U.S. employees and their families at risk. At the same time, they say they feel pressure to come in. Based in Lake Bluff, Illinois, the company is one of the largest drugmakers in the world with 47,000 global employees. More than 12,000 employees work at AbbVie in the U.S. across four states, according to its website.

AbbVie isn't alone. Epic Systems, an electronic medical records provider in the Midwest, also asked its employees to return to work in the fall — also to preserve its culture. That prompted employee backlash and questions from the local health department. Epic recently agreed to walk back its return-to-work plans.

AbbVie closed its doors during what it's calling phase one of the outbreak at its U.S. locations on March 17 — days after President Donald Trump declared the pandemic a national emergency. The company brought essential lab workers, manufacturing employees and some senior leaders back on a limited basis during the second phase, which started in early June and alternated days when specific teams would be on-site, according to an internal presentation reviewed by CNBC. 

Phase three workers, which includes R&D, sales and marketing employees, were asked to start returning on July 13 when the company resumed daily office schedules for all on-site workers. Three employees told CNBC that many decided not to come back.

The phase three employees have now been told to return to the office Monday, according to an Aug. 31 letter sent to staff from U.S. President Jeff Stewart and other company leaders that was reviewed by CNBC.

"We expect a return to pre-COVID, regular on-site schedules and work weeks," the email states. The fourth phase would bring the remaining employees back to the office — a decision the company hasn't made yet. 

Stewart said AbbVie had "supportive childcare and e-learning resources" for those with children at home. The company also implemented safety protocols, including partitions, hand sanitizer stations, signage, increased ventilation and webcams for video-based conversations in conference rooms, it told employees. 

AbbVie declined to comment to CNBC on its return-to-work plans, or provide any further information on its processes to keep employees safe. The company also did not respond to questions about whether there's any flexibility in its policies, particularly for those who have underlying medical conditions that make them more susceptible to the virus or who live with other vulnerable people.

Other drugmakers have announced flexible work-from-home policies. Novartis, for instance, has said its workers can return on-site voluntarily without any pressure to do so. Tylenol maker Johnson & Johnson is bringing employees back in "waves as it is safe to do so," spokeswoman Lisa Cannellos told CNBC. The company declined to say when its return-to-work program would begin. Cannellos said it's currently offering "flexible work arrangements for those who need it based on dependent care or underlying health conditions."

AbbVie last year agreed to buy Botox-maker Allergan for $63 billion as it moved more deeply into medical aesthetics. The company had been under pressure to diversify its portfolio of medicines beyond Humira, one of the bestselling drugs in the world, as it faced new competition from rivals. The company just announced a global deal with China's I-Mab to develop and commercialize a new cancer treatment.

The Chicago area, where AbbVie is based, has seen new coronavirus cases fall over the last week. But the area's so-called positivity rate remains stubbornly over 5%, according to the City of Chicago, and the outbreak across the state is bad enough to keep Illinois residents on the restricted travel lists of New York and New Jersey. More than 256,000 people have tested positive in the state so far, and more than 8,400 people have died. The virus is starting to surge across the Midwest, health officials have reported, creating hot spots in various states. 

The persistence of the outbreak has spooked employees at AbbVie and elsewhere from taking public transportation, which is unavoidable for many who rely on it or the often-crammed company shuttle to get to work, the employees said.

"Many employees are commuters who don't feel comfortable about taking the metro," said one worker, who asked to remain anonymous because they weren't authorized to speak to the press. "We feel that there could be consequences if we don't go in." 

AbbVie plans to canvass employees to see what they think. It's launching a formal employee survey on Sept. 22 about its workplace and culture during Covid-19, according to an internal email viewed by CNBC that was sent to staff earlier this month. The company said it would release the results in November — well after many U.S. employees are expected to be at their desks, according to the email.

The three employees CNBC spoke with said the survey seemed like too little too late, given that the results won't be shared for several months after their planned return to the office. 

To continue working from home, employees say they need manager approval, but some say they fear repercussions if they make that request.

"I don't think I'd be fired immediately if I didn't come in," said a second employee, who asked not to be named because they also weren't authorized to speak to the press. "But I do worry that I'd be known as a dissenter."

Another employee who requested anonymity for the same reasons said, "A lot of us are aligned in thinking this is inappropriate." 

While executives and some managers have offices, many rank-and-file employees say they sit in an open office with cubicles, which studies show are prone to spreading infections of all kinds, including the coronavirus. AbbVie told employees it's constructed plastic partitions to try to reduce any outbreaks, according to an email.

Attorneys say AbbVie and other employers are within their rights to require staff to work in the office, unless they have a condition that would place them in a higher-risk group and is documented — ideally confidentially with human resources. Those who need accommodations because of children at home might qualify for the Families First Coronavirus Response Act, which requires employers to "provide employees with paid sick leave or expanded family or medical leave for specified reasons related to COVID-19," but that only applies to companies with fewer than 500 employees. AbbVie is not among them. 

The fear of catching Covid alone could in some circumstances be considered a medical condition, said Troy Valdez, a lawyer specializing in labor and employment law at Coblentz Patch Duffy & Bass.

"But that is between the employee and their doctor," he said in an interview. "If an employee has a doctor who'll say this fear is a condition with limitations associated with that, and the requested accommodation is to work from home, they (the company) may have to accommodate."