PNC's Customer Care Center's 1100 employees worked here until the Coronavirus crisis hit. Photo from wikipedia.

NOTE: This story was updated 5/20/2020 to reflect the different number of employees staying remote.

One of Pittsburgh’s largest employers — PNC Financial Services Group — has decided that hundreds of its employees will work from home permanently, as businesses in the city prepare to reopen from COVID-19 shutdown orders.
An internal PNC posting on Wednesday initially put the number of employees who will work remotely at 750, but a spokeswoman later clarified that the actual number will be 400.
In a memo distributed Tuesday to some PNC employees, Todd Barnhart, head of retail distribution, and Ryan Helwig, customer care center executive, say the employees of its Smithfield Care Center will become a remote workforce.

Marcey Zwiebel, director of corporate public relations, says certain PNC employees will transition to “a virtual model on a long-term basis.”

“The work-from-home model for this group of employees has proven to be an effective way to serve our customers and provides an opportunity to attract and retain great talent in the Pittsburgh area,” she says. “… Freeing up space in our Smithfield Street location allows us to offer needed office space to employees from other PNC teams Downtown.”

The company established the call center at 500 Smithfield St. in 2013, restoring a historic Downtown building that once housed a Mellon Bank branch.

In their memo, Barnhart and Helwig say: “The Customer Care Center is key to our success and our future growth and expansion. As the coronavirus pandemic grew, the Care Center swiftly set up more than 1,100 on-site consultants to work remotely, with nearly 100 percent working from home. Despite the tremendous volume of customer interactions during an unprecedented time, the team delivered an exceptional customer experience.

“Now, as decisions are being made about our plans for returning to the workplace across PNC, as well as within retail and the care center, we have decided to transition our Smithfield Care Center site in Pittsburgh to our virtual model.”

The memo notes that PNC executives were discussing the idea even before the pandemic, “based on the strategic goals of the retail bank.” Because the care center team is already working remotely, “moving to a virtual model now makes sense.”

On Wednesday, PNC clarified that they were keeping more than 750 of 1,100 employees working remotely.

Some experts say call centers are among high-risk workplaces for COVID-19, given their close quarters, shared equipment and shift work. Post-pandemic, working remotely could become a trend, especially for tech companies.

PNC’s decision is the first to become public among Pittsburgh employers. Nationally, remote work changed from niche to mandatory for many Americans during coronavirus business closures, and some employers including Twitter and Square already have decided to make remote work permanent.

“It’s too early to know all the impacts the pandemic will have on Pittsburgh’s economy, but city officials are in regular talks with the Allegheny Conference, the [Pittsburgh Regional Alliance] and others to gauge and prepare for the future,” says Tim McNulty, spokesman for Mayor Bill Peduto.

McNulty says Peduto “is confident that the city’s economic fortunes will ultimately bounce back.”

With 13,000 local employees and nearly 54,000 nationwide, PNC is one of the region’s largest employers, ranking fifth behind UPMC, Highmark Health, and the federal and state governments. Others in the top 10 are Giant Eagle, Walmart, Allegheny County and BNY Mellon.

Jeremy Waldrup, president and CEO of the Pittsburgh Downtown Partnership, says most businesses are still working through their return-to-work policies and have not made those public.

“Clearly there are a lot of questions about what returning to work will look like for companies, but Downtown is part of our region’s identity,” Waldrup says. “We know that we will come together again, and Downtown will play an integral part in our economic recovery. We are inspired by the efforts underway to rebuild, and we are already seeing our entrepreneurs find unique and creative ways to serve their customers and adjust operations. We know it is going to take some time, but we will be ready for a comeback.”

From March through May 8, data from the City of Pittsburgh’s Office of Management & Budget show revenues were $94.4 million, compared to $126.4 million for the same period in 2019 — a decrease of 25 percent. Though expenses also declined, the problem is expected to continue.

Last month the city estimated its projected revenues will drop 21 percent in 2020, from $608 million to $481 million. Tax revenues that are most impacted by the pandemic’s toll on the economy are payroll, parking, earned income and property taxes — which together could experience $97 million in losses this year.

The city instituted a hiring freeze to save an estimated $3 million in salaries and will cut non-personnel spending by 10 percent across all departments.

Sandra Tolliver

Sandra Tolliver is a freelance writer, editor and public relations professional in Upper St. Clair.