The number of confirmed coronavirus cases this summer among employees of Pontiac-based mortgage company United Shore has risen to 84, according to the Oakland County Health Division, which is still determining how many workers may have caught the virus inside the company’s reopened headquarters.
The outbreak of COVID-19 cases among employees of United Shore, a nationally ranked mortgage firm and competitor of Detroit-based Quicken Loans, is believed to be the largest to affect any Oakland County business since the pandemic hit, a county spokesman said. The first confirmed case involving a company employee dates to June 29.
Buoyed by super-low mortgage rates and high refinancing and home purchase activity, the company has been on a hiring spree this summer — despite the pandemic-caused recession — and says it now employs 6,800 people. Many of those new hires received in-person training for weeks at the company’s headquarters on South Boulevard in Pontiac, although with social-distancing precautions.
In a phone interview, United Shore CEO Mat Ishbia said that according to company records and building entrance data, the majority of the 84 COVID cases involve employees who had been working from home and hadn’t returned to the office since March.
More: 53 coronavirus cases linked to mortgage company United Shore
More: Michigan coronavirus cases: Tracking the pandemic
That circumstance suggests the underlying problem is the virus’ persistent community spread — not unsafe conditions at United Shore’s office, Ishbia said. Michigan has seen a total of 90,392 coronavirus cases this year.
“Would I be here every day if I thought there was something that was not safe here, no,” Ishbia said in a video released Friday to United Shore employees. “It is safer here than in a grocery store, a restaurant, Target.”
Last week, when the COVID case count among United Shore employees was still at 53, Oakland County Health Officer Leigh-Anne Stafford sent the company an “Emergency Order” in response to complaints of possible violations of the governor’s pandemic orders, and demanded enforcement of social distancing rules, face coverings, daily illness screenings and the encouragement of employees to work from home when possible.
Under Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s executive orders, Michigan businesses are required to “promote remote work to the fullest extent possible.”
County spokesman Bill Mullan said Friday that Health Division officials will likely visit United Shore next week to meet with company executives and, among other things, try to determine exactly how much virus spread is occurring in the headquarters’ two large office buildings.
“Both we and United Shore need to take a deeper look at what’s going on in their workplace there and what procedures they have in place, and whether they need to be improved,” Mullan said. “Even if you give the benefit of the doubt and say only 40 were in the office and became sick, that’s still 40 people who were in the office and became sick.”
Ishbia insists that his fast-growing company remains in full compliance with the governor’s executive orders and the policies outlined in the county health officer’s order.
Only about 27% of United Shore’s employees have returned to working in the Pontiac headquarters, he said. Most of them decided on their own to return, he said, because in-person work is only generally required of new hires who are still in training or employees in leadership positions.
Employees who wish to continue working remotely during the pandemic have that option until at least Jan. 1, he said.
“We’ve had a lot of positive cases, and we’re going to have a lot more, because you know what — that’s what happens in a pandemic,” Ishbia said in the company-wide video Friday. “The key is that it’s not being spread around here.”
Some employees worried
Multiple United Shore employees have told the Free Press that they attribute the outbreak to what they consider management’s lax attitude toward the virus — especially early in the summer — and reluctance to allow more people to work from home until the pandemic eases.
These employees spoke only on the condition of anonymity for fear of retribution and losing their jobs.
One major point of criticism was the company’s unwillingness to alert the entire workforce about the rising number of coronavirus cases.
Under Whitmer’s executive orders, businesses are required to notify any co-workers, contractors or suppliers who may have come into contact with an individual who contracted COVID-19 within 24 hours of the case being identified.
There is no requirement for businesses to announce the total number of employees who contracted COVID, according to a spokesperson for the Michigan Occupational Safety and Health Administration, commonly known as MIOSHA.
However, according to a Wayne State business professor, companies may have an ethical obligation to inform employees about COVID infections that happened in their workplace.
“Is there a legal obligation to say how many people have been infected, I’d say no,” said Bill Volz, professor of business law and ethics at the university’s Mike Ilitch School of Business. “Is there an ethical obligation to keep your employees fully informed about the safety of their work environment, I’d say yes.”
The Free Press first reported the outbreak at United Shore on Aug. 5.
“Prior to the story that came out, we were at zero,” an employee said. “We were told there was zero confirmed cases in the company.”
Ishbia denied that employees were improperly kept in the dark. He said various regulations, such as the federal HIPAA law, that is meant to protect patient privacy, would prohibit him from making company-wide announcements.
However, Ishbia emphasized that anyone who was in close contact or on the same work team as an individual who tested positive was notified and asked to seek testing and quarantine at home for 14 days.
“I can’t share that ‘Jenny Smith’ had COVID. There’s guidelines, there’s HIPAA violations, we can’t share it,” he said. “I don’t need to tell 7,000 people about 28 people that had nothing to do with them.”
The MIOSHA spokesperson said that HIPAA doesn’t prohibit an employer from voluntarily disclosing to their workforce that some employees contracted COVID, including to employees who didn’t have direct contact with the sickened individuals.
Several United Shore employees said they knew of colleagues who had gotten into trouble after voicing concerns.
As a result, others who worry about catching the virus at work have kept quiet out of fear of losing work and health insurance during a recession.
“There are so many people who don’t feel safe at work, and they’re afraid to talk because they need this job,” one employee said.
Ishbia denied that anyone has been unjustly treated.
“No. No one’s been fired for being outspoken of their COVID concerns,” he said.
Working in the office
Employees told the Free Press that management has made it difficult for some people who want to work from home to do so.
“I think the motivation here is control,” said another employee, who also asked not to be named for fear of retribution. “They want to see their people, they want to know what they are doing.”
Ishbia said United Shore has taken numerous precautions to help keep employees safe in the office.
It appointed a COVID compliance officer, spent more than $1 million installing new dividers between workstations, set up health checkpoints at entrances and ordered thermometer stations that will arrive soon, he said.
United Shore did tighten its enforcement of face mask rules last month after Whitmer issued an executive order that expanded requirements for indoor mask use.
“You didn’t get yelled at without wearing one before that,” Ishbia said. “Now, you can’t walk through here without wearing one.”
Contact JC Reindl: 313-222-6631 or [email protected] Follow him on Twitter @jcreindl. Read more on business and sign up for our business newsletter.