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Downtown Parkersburg restaurants feel the pinch of remote work

PARKERSBURG — The customer base for downtown Parkersburg eateries has been greatly reduced over the last year with many employees of two of the largest operations remotely working.

As vaccinations increase and regulations are relaxed, that could be changing.

As of Tuesday, Highmark West Virginia will move to a “yellow” operating level “which will accommodate employees’ personal preferences and afford those who want to work on-site with the opportunity to do so,” President Jim Fawcett said in an emailed statement.

Most Highmark employees have been working from home for the last year instead of at the company’s Market Street headquarters.

“Our employee survey results have shown increased job satisfaction and overall productivity for those who have been able to work remotely,” Fawcett said. “These results speak for themselves: how we work is more important than where we work.”

The company will be utilizing the concept of “Work from Anywhere” more in the future.

“Rooted in the core concepts of our enterprise, Work from Anywhere is a cultural shift to a more flexible work environment that empowers our team members to think and work where and when they’re personally most effective, as mutually agreed upon with their leadership, while ensuring customer and business needs are met,” Fawcett said. “This more flexible, hybrid way of working enables us to collaborate, expand our partnerships and talent pool, reinforce our position as an employer of choice and align with our promise of innovation.”

The transition to the Work from Anywhere concept will begin once the building is back to a green operating level, Fawcett said. More employees are expected back on-site beginning late in the third quarter of 2021 and moving into the fourth quarter.

The Bureau of Fiscal Service has 94 percent of all employees teleworking during the pandemic, according to an email from the Fiscal Service Media Relations office.

“In Parkersburg, there are several employees who are reporting to the office on a voluntary basis or because the work performed is deemed mission essential and cannot be conducted remotely,” the email said. “Fiscal Service continues to examine options of how and when to return employees back to the office based on federal guidance.”

With the majority of Highmark and Fiscal Service employees working remotely, the daily population of potential customers for downtown eateries has been significantly reduced, even after restaurants were allowed to reopen and gradually increase capacity.

“Having that downtown workforce not here I’m sure has affected all of them,” said Wendy Shriver, executive director of Downtown PKB, the Main Street program promoting the area. “It’s kind of had to force people to change their target audience.”

It’s a concern she’s heard about from her counterparts on monthly calls with other Main Street communities around the state.

“We haven’t lost nearly as many businesses as some of our other communities have,” Shriver said.

Chams Lebanese Cuisine namesake and co-owner Chams Ekelman said she’s starting to see some regulars again for the first time in a while.

“We have a lot of customers, we haven’t seen them for over a year because of COVID,” she said.

Ekelman attributed the absences more to the pandemic itself than the absence of certain workers downtown. As more and more people are vaccinated, folks are returning to the eatery. Often, they’ll inform a server when they enter that they’ve been vaccinated, as Ekelman said she and her employees have been.

“They care about us like we care about them,” she said.

Evan Bevins can be reached at ebevins@newsandsentinel.com.

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