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After Years of “Silencing, Repression, and Retaliation” at This Software Company, Workers Decided to Organize

At Epic Systems, a Wisconsin-based software company, workers had complaints that will be familiar to many workers across the United States: an oppressive culture of surveillance and control, executives pushing to end their pandemic-induced working from home. Now, Epic's workers are organizing.

Electronic health records giant Epic Systems, Wisconsin.

In a July 1, 2020 email to all employees of Epic Systems, a health records software company based in Verona, Wisconsin, billionaire CEO Judy Faulkner discussed the company’s plans to phase out working from home (WFH), emphasizing the firm’s workplace culture as a key reason to reopen the offices. “Even if work gets done [remotely] — we are losing, big time, the culture that made the company successful,” writes Faulkner.

But what is Epic’s culture, and why is it important enough to risk the health of not only the company’s roughly 10,000 employees, but their families and the rest of the Dane County population? With other tech giants like Google announcing that they will extend their WFH policies through July of 2021, why is Epic pushing for workers to return to the office even as the country experiences an ongoing spike in coronavirus cases?

I spoke with more than twenty current and former Epic employees, and the picture they paint dramatically diverges from the one presented by company leadership. In contrast to the emphasis in Faulkner’s email on serendipitous run-ins with coworkers in office hallways and impromptu brainstorming sessions over lunch, workers spoke of a grinding culture of overwork, depicting a company running young employees ragged and then encouraging them to quit when they can no longer sustain the pace.

Notably, the company was a defendant in a recent Supreme Court case which considerably weakens workers’ right to bring class-action lawsuits, instead allowing companies like Epic to insert a mandatory arbitration clause in their employment contracts. It is this anti-worker culture, say Epic employees, that Faulkner and her fellow executives are eager to retain.

“Silencing, Repression, Retaliation, and Frustration”

Several employees mention Epic’s recruitment of recent college graduates, positing that this allows the company to mold young workers with little job experience to fit the company’s grueling norms, such as workweeks that exceed forty hours — some mentioned regularly working fifty-five to sixty hours a week.

“To me the company culture was to hire as many young, naive people as you can and work them as hard as they can take,” says Jake Whited, a former employee. “Overall, the culture at Epic is a culture of control,” says another employee who left the company last week, citing the company’s reopening plan as the final straw that pushed him out the door.

As an example of the emphasis on control, he alleges that a coworker who was working from her parents’ house out of state received a call last week from the company telling her that “they could tell from her IP address that she was not in Madison and that she needed to return to Madison that night.”

He was not the only employee to mention the company’s surveillance of employees. Several other employees speculated that the push to get workers back in the office was more about the company’s ability to “spy” on workers than anything to do with collaboration.

Another employee, who only began working at Epic in June, describes the current culture as one of “silencing, repression, retaliation, and frustration.” In light of the reopening plan, she adds that the culture at Epic is now above all one of “fear—fear of returning to the office, fear of being retaliated against for speaking out, and fear of putting family members and community members at risk because management can’t trust employees to work remotely.”

(Indeed, this employee, like the majority of those interviewed for this article, requested anonymity out of fear of retaliation — several employees mentioned unconfirmed rumors that members of management who expressed concerns about the company’s phaseout of WFH have been demoted in recent weeks. As Epic puts it in one of its “company commandments”: “If you disagree, dissent. Once decided, support.”)

Such tensions come on the heels of a June 2020 email from Epic president Carl Dvorak that caused widespread outrage at the company. In the email, sent to employees who were part of company groups for employees of color such as “Black @ Epic” and “People of Color,” Dvorak warned employees against a planned pro-Black Lives Matter virtual walkout.

Writing that “the approach of threats and demands to disrupt our work and our customers is not consistent with our culture, mission, or policies,” Dvorak went on to highlight instances of police officers getting “hit, spit on, Molotov cocktailed, and shot” during the protests that followed George Floyd’s murder by a Minneapolis police officer.

“Leadership uses a slogan of “Work Hard, Have Fun, Make Money” but the company culture is completely focused on the “Make Money” aspect of that by working employees hard,” says one current employee. “Most employees feel the need to work 50+ hours a week and are expected to volunteer for twelve-hour extended shifts to ‘help grow the success of the company and their customers,’” he added.

“It’s a kind of limited, updated idea of the factory town — you can spend pre-paycheck right off your ID card,” says another employee of the company’s “intergalactic headquarters,” as the Verona campus is called. The campus includes themed buildings, such as a treehouse and a conference room named after a Star Wars planet, a Humpty Dumpty sculpture, and a slide, among many quirks.

“Epic makes a big show of the ‘cool’ parts of working there,” says Nathan Goldman, a former technical writer for the company, citing “the free popcorn and juice, the whimsical campus (a postmodernist nightmare, if you ask me), the casual dress code.”

But these “perks,” as is the case at Silicon Valley companies with similar features, are a means of maximizing productivity. Says Goldman: “The ‘cool’ amenities were also geared toward keeping people on campus throughout the day — if you can get fancy, subsidized meals and elaborate coffee drinks down the hall, why leave for a coffee break or lunch?”

Other employees spoke of the stress that comes from the demands for hyperproductivity paired with inadequate support. One former employee says that after being assigned to lead a team despite having less than six months of experience at Epic, their hair “began falling out because of the stress.” “My team lead sympathized with me when I brought this up, but nothing was done to reduce my stress, and it seemed like she didn’t consider my hair falling out a problem worth addressing,” says the former employee.

“They Don’t Think the Rules Apply to Them”

Faulkner’s July 1 email laid out the specifics of the return to the office, where roughly 10,000 people are employed. There will be four phases: phase 1 was August 10, phase 2 August 24, phase 3 September 8, and phase 4 September 21. Employees over sixty-five who consider themselves at increased risk of severe effects from coronavirus (as defined by the CDC), or who live with someone who is at increased risk have the option to delay their return until phase 4.

Given that local schools will operate at least partially remotely rather than in-person, Faulkner urged employees with children to arrange childcare, and offered that those who have trouble doing so can also delay their return to the office until phase 4. While Epic says it will adhere to CDC guidelines regarding social distancing, several workers express skepticism in light of the campus’s narrow hallways and common areas such as bathrooms and cafeterias.

In what can only be described as a hype video put out by the company to encourage workers to return to the office — the video features air horns and an employee who recently had a heart transplant okaying the company’s reopening plan — there is little mention of the risks the reopening plan places on the blue-collar workers responsible for maintaining scrupulous health and safety standards during a pandemic.

The plan has provoked outrage among Epic employees, who say it is not only “ridiculous, irresponsible, and unsafe,” but unnecessary. Workers say they have had no trouble carrying out their job duties remotely, and have received praise for their performance from customers, such as hospitals relying on Epic products during the pandemic.

Employees have not only bombarded the company’s internal feedback systems with questions and memes about the plan, but have begun organizing with both the International Association of Sheet Metal, Air, Rail and Transportation Workers (SMART) Local 565 — which has members at nearby Madison-area companies, including Sub-Zero and Trachte Building Systems — and the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) to coordinate opposition to the end of WFH.

“Epic brands themselves as a company that emphasizes ‘data-driven’ decision-making, yet they have not shared a single piece of data demonstrating why they believe we need to work from the office,” says one employee when asked why dissent is so widespread. Others mentioned last-minute updates and the company’s instructions that employees must call Human Resources if they plan on delaying their return to campus as sources of frustration.

Epic employees aren’t the only ones pushing back on the company’s plans. As reported by CBS, Dane County officials have responded to complaints, warning Epic that its reopening plans may not accord with county guidelines for controlling the pandemic. In a CBS segment yesterday, Dane County executive Joe Parisi said “Epic is going to have to adhere to the same rules as everyone else.”

“They don’t think the rules apply to them,” says one employee in response to the company’s flouting of public health and safety guidelines. “I do not know a single person who works there who is happy about working there right now,” he adds.

The region’s public health department had previously issued a COVID-19 emergency order mandating that employers “facilitate remote work.” In response, according to the department, Epic claimed that “requiring staff to work in the office, but allowing them to work alone in their office” counted as remote work, an interpretation the department deemed “incorrect.” “Working remotely means working remotely,” said Parisi yesterday, calling it something on which the county “has a disagreement with Epic.”

Faulkner’s email to employees last Saturday night was a response to the growing backlash which, according to posts on Epic’s internal Wiki, now includes denunciations from some of the company’s own clients. The email, announcing new changes to the reopening plan — which was slated to begin less than forty-eight hours later — stated that Epic would be “modifying our return-to-work policy.” What this will mean in practice remains to be seen.