American businesses have all had to adapt to changing conditions throughout the coronavirus pandemic, but for multinational companies that conduct operations outside the United States, there have been additional challenges, requiring base offices to monitor COVID-19 situations not only locally, but around the world.

Now, as COVID-19 cases continue to drop throughout the country and the domestic economy booms, these companies – including many in Maine – are facing vastly different situations abroad.

“The United States is leading the rest of the world in terms of recovery, which is great, and American consumers are ready to get out there and have a wonderful summer and buy things and enjoy experiences,” said James Breece, an economist at the University of Maine. “But the rest of the world is not where we are … Some countries are still in lockdown and (have) heavy restrictions on travel. We’re aware of it, but I think Maine firms are really feeling that pinch.”

Don Bernier is program manager for K&A Engineering Consulting P.C., a Maine company with international offices and operations. K&A is based in New York but has an office in Maine and a team in Nepal. Ben McCanna/Staff Photographer

DELIVERING AID TO OVERSEAS OFFICES

When 13 of 30 employees in K&A Engineering Consulting’s office in Lalitpur, Nepal, tested positive for COVID-19 in early May, the New York-based firm – which specializes in power delivery and energy engineering services – and its regional office in South Portland kicked into gear to offer support from afar.

Nepal kept COVID-19 cases relatively low in the first year of the pandemic but saw a second wave of infections this spring, propelled by the B.1.617 variant first discovered in India and exacerbated by an under-resourced healthcare infrastructure and a low vaccination rate. The Kathmandu Valley – which includes Lalitpur – went into a strict lockdown on April 29, forcing the employees in K&A’s Nepal office to pivot quickly to working remotely and then, only three days later, to isolate and quarantine following the first positive case on May 2.

K&A Engineering’s John Blowers, vice president of operations (3rd from left), and Rishi Sharma, director of Nepal operations (far right), with members of K&A’s Nepal operations and HR teams in Kathmandu in February 2020. Courtesy of K&A Engineering

According to K&A President and CEO Purna Kharel, the U.S. and Nepal offices communicate frequently – Kharel talks with Nepal management on a daily basis – but the pandemic and its impact on K&A employees brought the offices into even closer contact.

“After the pandemic hit, we have actually gotten in even more intense communication because things are changing almost every hour,” Kharel said. “So we’ve been communicating … multiple times a day because there are challenges they’re facing every day.”

After employees in the Nepal office began testing positive for COVID-19, these calls between offices pivoted from general work updates to check-ins on employees’ well-being.

“(The Nepal office) would walk me through all of those 13 employees and their health status every day, making sure that they’re being tested, they’re being monitored,” Kharel said.

Because so many employees had tested positive and others were quarantined – in hotels booked by K&A’s Nepal office manager, Rishi Kesh Sharma – Kharel decided to entirely pause operations in the Nepal office for a week. Employees continued to receive their salaries, and after a week, the office began to transition to a more permanent system of remote work.

According to Donald Bernier, a program manager based in the firm’s Maine office, the absence of the Nepal employees during that week was clearly felt.

“(The outbreak) did affect the overall process of how we process things,” Bernier said. “For instance, we’re doing a coordination study with Central Maine Power. Essentially all that work that was being done had to be brought back to the U.S. to get completed. It actually put everything in a huge backlog of work that we still really haven’t recovered from yet.

“It’s stressful enough trying to work through a pandemic, but then when you’re actually having co-workers that are truly impacted by this, it adds even another layer of stress,” Bernier said.

To show their support for their Nepal-based colleagues, K&A employees put together a video message wishing them speedy recoveries.

“We wanted to show our support to them, and the theme was ‘get well soon,’ ” Bernier said. “So everybody that was on the call basically was saying ‘get well soon’ in their native tongue, which I thought was pretty powerful … We basically had seven different languages that were spoken in the video.”

All employees recovered and, although still remote because of the continued lockdown, the Nepal office is again up and running at full capacity.

OPERATING IN 47 STATES, 19 NATIONS DURING A PANDEMIC

The Portland-based animal health company Covetrus Inc. – which operates in 47 states and 19 countries including China, Brazil and Australia along with various European countries – has had to adapt to rapidly changing pandemic situations in the United States and around the world over the past year.

Covetrus has a permanent crisis management team, which before the pandemic primarily focused on addressing natural disasters, system outages and other unexpected crises. In the past year and a half, however, the team has shifted to monitoring global COVID-19 conditions, ensuring the safety of its distribution centers and production facilities – which have continued to operate in-person throughout the pandemic – and implementing protocols for remote work.

Vice President and Senior Corporate Counsel Magill Weber, who co-leads the team, explained that addressing the pandemic has required Covetrus to maintain extensive communication among its offices.

“We monitored regularly in all of our jurisdictions,” Weber said. “We have people in 47 U.S. states so we had to monitor 47 state laws, changing those laws around masking … And in all the European countries as well, we had very specific local geographic requirements and the same in Asia and Australia.”

“Every single office – including every office within the United States – is different,” said Hobie Sheeder, vice president of Global Real Estate & Facilities.

In addition to local requirements, the team also monitored COVID-19 cases within its facilities. Sunil Malik, vice president of Human Resources for Europe, addressed an outbreak in a warehouse in the Czech Republic by increasing testing frequency.

“When there were a couple of positive cases, employees were being tested every day,” Malik said. “They were going for 15 minute tests to make sure that they were testing negative and if they were positive that there was communication and we would send the employee home.

“What’s been complex is just making sure we know who’s going into the office, making sure that they’re following all the right protocols, and then our manufacturing staff that they’re getting well looked after: their health, their mental health (and) their physical health,” Malik said.

In addition to the crisis management team, the company also formed a return-to-work team that is navigating current situations to determine when it is safe to reopen offices. While the date is set tentatively for October in the U.S., situations differ in other regions.

“A lot of it has to do with vaccine availability globally,” Weber said.

In Brazil, employees received their first vaccine doses only two weeks ago, a timeline far behind Covetrus’ locations in the U.S. and the U.K.

“The U.S. is so far ahead in vaccine availability, so this is really where we’re seeing the most opportunity,” Weber said. “In the U.K., vaccines are also quite widely available, and we have been encouraging colleagues to take time off to go to an appointment … So it really just depends on geography.”

BORDER CLOSURES, TRAVEL RESTRICTIONS

Unlike K&A and Covetrus, Tilson, a Portland-based cellular network deployment and information technology firm, does not operate its own offices abroad but works closely with U.S. multinational companies and internationally based firms. The greatest challenges posed by the pandemic for this work have been the closure of the U.S.-Canada border and company-imposed restrictions on travel, as well as the loss of international conferences.

Tilson frequently works on projects in Canada, but since the border was closed in March 2020, these projects have been disrupted.

“The logistics (of working in Canada) are usually quite straightforward, but the border has been closed,” CEO Joshua Broder said. “And so that’s basically made work impossible.”

As for work in other countries, Tilson staff have been unable to travel to meet with clients in Europe and form the usual relationships with global sourcing departments.

“We have a customer in the U.S., a big multinational company and they have their sourcing department in Europe, and so probably four times a year, several of our senior executive team members would go there and work on starting to plan together for our upcoming projects,” Broder said. “(They would) work through difficulties and disputes, and educate and inform them about our service offerings and capabilities. All those things can happen over Zoom or (Microsoft) Teams, but they’re much better in person and oftentimes building relationships with those departments is very, very important.”

In addition, Tilson typically attends large international conferences to sell its services. Because of travel restrictions, these conferences have not occurred throughout the pandemic.

“Not having access to these conferences is a drag on sales,” Broder said. “Clearly things have been shut down here in the United States for conferences, but also the international conference scene has been turned off for a little over a year. I think all that’s just about to start up again so we’re encouraged about the future, but it was just another impact of the pandemic that it was harder for us to do our work overseas because of closed borders.”

Broder is optimistic about the timeline for resuming this international work, largely because of the improving situations in many countries where Tilson operates.

“Most of the work that we do overseas is with people and companies that have had better vaccine access,” Broder said. “We think the U.S. is probably ahead of most places but other developed countries are not too far behind. … I’ve heard some places in continental Europe are still a bit difficult, and so we would keep a weather eye on that, but my assumption is that in the coming months things will level out as vaccines catch up.

“We are not in a position where we have to think through what that looks like in other countries that are even farther behind continental Europe in the developing world because we are just not doing business in those countries,” Broder said.

According to Breece, the recent agreement by G-7 (Group of Seven) leaders to distribute 1 billion vaccine doses to poorer countries is cause for optimism about the return to more normal operations for multinational companies.

“I think (distribution of vaccines) is vital,” Breece said. “I think it’s important from a humanitarian point of view but also from an economic point of view.”


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