Six months on, major employers push through the pandemic

U.S. Air Force personnel with the 18th Intelligence Squadron await deactivation of their squadron and activation of the 73rd Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance Squadron under the command of Lt. Col. Nathaniel A. Peace, U.S. Space Force Sept. 3. (U.S. Air Force photo/Ty Greenlees)
U.S. Air Force personnel with the 18th Intelligence Squadron await deactivation of their squadron and activation of the 73rd Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance Squadron under the command of Lt. Col. Nathaniel A. Peace, U.S. Space Force Sept. 3. (U.S. Air Force photo/Ty Greenlees)

Credit: Ty Greenlees

Credit: Ty Greenlees

New normal asserts itself in a time of remarkable instability

Every Dayton-area employer is finding its own equilibrium in the new reality created by the COVID-19 pandemic.

Workforces generally are smaller, but there are some comforting constants. Among them: Wright-Patterson Air Force Base remains the region and the state’s largest single site employer. That hasn’t changed, said Col. Patrick Miller, who was installed as Wright-Patterson’s commander June 12.

The base still has about 30,000 military and civilian employees, Miller said in his first meeting with the Dayton Daily News last week.

And though the way the work is performed has changed, contractor work goes on, said Miller, who leads the 88th Air Base Wing.

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Miller is aware of no widespread layoffs or furloughs among the large number of civilian contractors attached to the base. Roughly a third of the workforce is employed by private contractors.

Some scattered layoffs occurred this summer, although it isn’t clear any were immediately due to COVID-19. In late June, Danvers, Massachusetts-based defense contractor Sumaria Systems Inc. told Ohio government it planned to lay off 72 workers at Wright-Patterson by the end of August.

For the most part, however, base work has endured.

“When I say our mission didn’t stop, I mean our mission didn’t stop,” said Miller, a civil engineer by trade whose wife is a Miami University graduate.

Ohio and the Miami Valley began to really feel the effects of the pandemic the week March 16, as schools moved online, and nonessential businesses shuttered or told employees to work from home wherever possible.

The Air Force was not immune to that trend. By early April, only about a tenth of Wright-Patt’s typical on-site workforce (about 3,000 workers) reported to the base daily. But Miller emphasized that all workers remained “mission-focused.”

Air Force Col. Patrick Miller, left, with Chief Master Sgt. Jason Shaffer, meeting with the media for the first time Thursday. Miller became commander of the 88th Air Base Wing at the base in June. Shaffer joined him as command chief master sergeant of the wing in July. THOMAS GNAU/STAFF
Air Force Col. Patrick Miller, left, with Chief Master Sgt. Jason Shaffer, meeting with the media for the first time Thursday. Miller became commander of the 88th Air Base Wing at the base in June. Shaffer joined him as command chief master sergeant of the wing in July. THOMAS GNAU/STAFF

Military and civilian research continued. Instruction continued at the Air Force Institute of Technology. Acquisitions and production continued at the Air Force Life Cycle Management Center. The missions of NASIC (the National Air and Space Intelligence Center) continued unabated, he said. Construction on NASIC’s $182 million new home continued, as did repairs to the base’s small runway. Contractors worked on base where and when possible.

“What we did was essentially ask our mission partners, ‘Hey, who are your essential personnel?’" Miller said. “'Who has to come to the office every single day?'”

Access to the base was confined to those people. And it worked, Miller said.

“All those missions continued to happen. We just did them a little differently," he said.

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Work goes on

The Dayton area has lost thousands of jobs in the past six months. As of the week ending Aug. 29, Montgomery County had 803 first-time claims for unemployment benefits, on top of 16,370 claims continuing from previous weeks.

As of Sept. 5, the most recent numbers available, Montgomery County saw the first-time number rise slightly to 823, with continuing claims falling to 15,727.

But work is getting done everywhere. Redevelopment work at the Dayton Arcade downtown — easily one of the most-watched development projects in the region — is continuing, said Dave Williams, senior director of real estate development for developer Cross Street Partners.

“Probably our strongest conversations have been retail-related,” Williams said. “Offices — everyone is trying to figure out what tomorrow’s office looks like, right? And I don’t know that anybody has figured that out yet.”

Dave Williams, senior director of real estate development at Cross Street Partners, surveys work at the Dayton Arcade last month. THOMAS GNAU/STAFF
Dave Williams, senior director of real estate development at Cross Street Partners, surveys work at the Dayton Arcade last month. THOMAS GNAU/STAFF

“It has been a little bit slower than anticipated there,” he added. “But we’re pretty excited.”

Cincinnati Financial Corp., a top 10 employer in the Dayton region, has added 18 headquarters employees and 28 field employees since February. Its headquarters workforce in Fairfield stands at 3,368.

Health care

Premier Health, the Dayton area’s largest hospital system and second biggest employer after the base, said its workforce levels have not “significantly changed over the past six months.” Premier said it has about 13,000 employees.

FILE
FILE

“We are still in the middle of this pandemic, and there continues to be a great deal of uncertainty,” Premier officials said in a statement. “We value our employees and are committed to our mission and to providing this region with top-notch care.”

After the shutdowns kicked in, Premier used furloughs to “adjust our staffing to volumes that were greatly reduced when Ohio suspended elective procedures,” the statement says. “Economic conditions will dictate whether additional adjustments will be needed over the next several months."

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Most workers at Premier hospitals and other sites continue to work in person. At Premier’s corporate services building in downtown Dayton, about two-thirds of staffers are working remotely.

“We continue to assess the future of remote work,” Premier’s statement says. “In general, we have encouraged those employees who can work remotely to work remotely, and they have done so successfully. Others have returned to their physical workplace as operational needs have required."

Kettering Health Network — the region’s third largest employer — tells a similar story. The company has nearly 14,000 employees, it said.

Kettering Health Network, a Dayton-area health care provider, recently began construction on land acquired in 2017. FILE
Kettering Health Network, a Dayton-area health care provider, recently began construction on land acquired in 2017. FILE

Credit: FILE

Credit: FILE

"When patient volumes were low during the early months of our pandemic response, we responded by flexing down,” Kettering Health officials said in a statement. “In recent weeks, we have seen patient volumes rebound more quickly than anticipated for our industry, and we have been able to flex back up.”

Health care remains a face-to-face endeavor. But Kettering is weighing the value of remote work.

The company is "looking for remote work to be a bigger part of our future, especially in some of our business support areas where work can be done effectively from an off-site location,” the network’s statement says.

Manufacturing

In Ohio, Honda still has about 15,000 employees. At the company’s Anna engine plant, about an hour’s drive north of Dayton, the company employs some 3,200 people.

“We are always looking for skilled, new associates at Honda but it is hard to predict what the business conditions will look like as the COVID-19 pandemic continues,” Honda officials said in a statement. “What we can tell you is that the auto market improved dramatically as stay-at-home orders started to loosen nationally in May. Honda has seen steady demand at our dealerships over the last few months, and we are working to ensure our dealers have the inventory of vehicles on hand to meet customer needs.

Honda employee Holly McMillen inspects the front end of an all-new Acura TLX built at the Marysville Auto Plant for paint quality. Contributed
Honda employee Holly McMillen inspects the front end of an all-new Acura TLX built at the Marysville Auto Plant for paint quality. Contributed

Automotive production requires most workers on site.

“We continue to utilize remote work when feasible, and it has been working well for us,” Honda’s statement says. “Like most companies, we are assessing the feasibility of continuing some level of remote work in the post-COVID world, but we can’t speculate what that might look like.”

Local government cuts and hiring freezes

Montgomery County government said “significant" budget cuts and a hiring freeze early in the pandemic allowed it to refrain from laying off workers. Its number of employees dropped by 76 in the past six months, falling from 4,341 employees on March 31 to 4,265 as of Sept. 1.

Brookville police Chief Douglas Jerome talks with Michael Colbert, who today is the Montgomery County administrator (standing in the photo), during a Montgomery County Commission meeting. CHRIS STEWART / STAFF
Brookville police Chief Douglas Jerome talks with Michael Colbert, who today is the Montgomery County administrator (standing in the photo), during a Montgomery County Commission meeting. CHRIS STEWART / STAFF

“It is unlikely that we will add positions anytime soon, other than essential workers,” County Administrator Michael Colbert said. “When employees do leave, we monitor their workload and determine if the position had the correct skill set and skill level. In some instances, we find we can adjust the amount of experience required by candidates.”

During the pandemic, new food assistance and Medicaid applications each grew by about 14%.

The $92 million in CARES (Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security) Act funds the county received came with a requirement to create a temporary CARES Act office to manage and distribute funds to people, businesses and organizations before the end of the year.

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Ohio job losses by industry, from June 2019 to June 2020:

Leisure and hospitality: 170,800 jobs lost (30%)

Construction: 17,400 (7.7%)

Manufacturing: 44,300 (6.3%)

Trade, transportation and utilities: 65,200 (6.4%)

Information: 5,500 (7.9%)

Financial activities: 14,700 (4.8%)

Professional and business services: 83,500 (11.3%)

Health Care and social assistance: 45,200 (5.5%)

State government: 18,800 (10.6%)

Local government: 43,100 (8.2%)

Source: Ohio Department of Job and Family Services