Refiner Phillips 66’s Return-to-Work Policy Stirs Unease as Virus Flares

By Liz Hampton and Erwin Seba | July 6, 2020

About 20 employees of U.S. oil refiner Phillips 66 tested positive at its Texas headquarters for COVID-19 in recent weeks, people familiar with the matter said, alarming employees as the company strove to keep staff working in its offices.

Texas has reported record daily cases of the virus this week and Houston hospitals began emergency staffing and occupancy measures. On Thursday, the state ordered face masks be worn in public, reversing officials’ earlier opposition to a mandate.

Phillips 66, which began bringing back its 2,000 headquarters staff in May, has become a test case for Houston employers looking to recall workers from home offices.

In a video to employees, Chief Executive Greg Garland said their return would support its main product, gasoline, and be fair to company employees who cannot work from home, according to a video transcript reviewed by Reuters.

“Our company bled $1.6 billion of cash in the first quarter. We’ll bleed at least that much in the second quarter,” he said, adding that weak fuel sales put employee jobs in jeopardy. “If people don’t commute, we don’t have a viable business model.”

The company also had very few COVID-19 cases and no workplace transmission that it knew of, he added.

But since then, the rising number of employee cases has troubled staff, according to four people who spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to talk to media. Phillips only recently mandated masks be worn in all areas of its offices.

Employees had expressed concern about going to work amid Texas’ surge in cases and were unhappy about the relative protection of top executives with private elevators and enclosed offices, the sources said.

A Phillips 66 spokesman said in a written reply to questions that the safety of employees, contractors and communities was the company’s top priority.

Employee “monitoring, isolation and/or quarantining is taking place as necessary,” he said, but did not respond to a question on the number of cases.

Office seating complied with social distancing guidelines, and where this was not possible, employees worked staggered shifts, the company said. (Reporting by5 in Denver and Erwin Seba in Houston; editing by Richard Pullin)

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