Sunday, January 31, 1999

Y2K fears will chain many to their desks

USA Today

        Traffic lights fail, elevators grind to a halt, power outages drape cities in darkness — all potential fallout from next New Year's computer glitches.

        Worries about the Year 2000 threat, which could cause widespread computer failures, are prompting many employers to warn workers that vacations around New Year's Eve 1999 might be canceled.

        For about 3,000 workers at Denver Health, a county health care system, that means no vacations from Dec. 29, 1999, through Jan. 31, 2000, because of the Y2K threat.

        “It's not going to sink in until August,” spokeswoman Stephanie Denning said. “Then I'm sure there'll be lots of grumbling.”

        Western Union, with locations around the world, will have employees at all management levels working. The company is considering renting blocs of hotel rooms for some who might work overnight.

        At Indianapolis Power and Light, all of the roughly 2,000 employees have been told they can't take vacation in December 1999 or January 2000.

        “I've been telling all my friends where I'll be having my New Year's celebration,” Marni Lemons said at the utility. “I'll be on duty.”

        Nurses, factory foremen, bank supervisors, police officers, utility workers, parts suppliers and a host of others are realizing that the worries about the Y2K bug will affect them — even when it comes to taking time off.

        Half of respondents in a survey think the Y2K issue will negatively affect them at work. That's based on an online poll of 1,700 visitors to the Everything 2000 Web site, a chronicle of issues related to the new year and Y2K. And almost 20 percent already know they'll have company restrictions on vacation.

        Word is already out among city employees in Denver that essential personnel could see vacations canceled. The mayor issued an executive order to that effect, even though efforts have been under way since 1996 to correct Y2K problems. City workers will be standing by if traffic lights fail, elevators get stuck, automatic doors slam shut, or other mishaps occur.

        “We're going to be on full alert,” mayoral spokesman Andrew Hudson said.

        How employees will be affected depends on how spooked individual employers are by Y2K issues. The Year 2000 computer bug arises from computer codes that can't comprehend dates beyond 1999.

        Doomsayers fear the worst. Failures could strike medical equipment, automated tellers, traffic signals, 911 systems, financial transactions, power systems and more.

        The hope is that companies and governments, scrambling to make system changes, are successful, problems are minor, and the kinks work themselves out. But faced with the unknown, employers are marshaling their troops.

        Banc One is making plans. Wells Fargo will have staffers at the ready.

        And some hotel chains are planning early for guests looking to work instead of party. The Millenium Hilton in New York is offering a “Millennium Bug” package — complete with coffee, aspirin and pen and paper in case of computer meltdowns — for those on Wall Street or at the nearby World Trade Center stuck working around New Year's Eve.

        Other examples:

        • Hundreds of employees for the Federal Reserve have gotten the word from supervisors that they may spend New Year's in the office.

        Managers, regulators, computer experts and public affairs officers all are affected.

        “We don't know exactly who will be here, but everybody's been put on alert that they could be working that weekend,” spokeswoman Rose Pianalto said. “Everybody knows they could be putting in a lot of overtime.”

        • Ford Motor Co. is identifying those employees who will have to be in place. “We will have some folks on standby and some people in the plants on standby,” spokesman George Surdu said.

        • At General Motors, contingency teams will be ready in case of trouble. That may include alternative suppliers as well as employees in manufacturing, production, engineering and technology.

        “We'll have SWAT teams ready,” spokesman John Ahearne said. “If something occurs in a factory, they're there to be sure things are working.”

        And those employees in the office might find that work is no party. The International Facility Management Association (IFMA), in an alert released this month, warns that many employees should prepare for potential mishaps, such as ringing fire alarms and malfunctioning heating units.

        It even suggested that employers consider installing chemical toilets in case utilities shut down and providing brown-bag lunches if food service operations fail.

        But those likely to put up with the most headaches will be employees with technology skills.

        At MarketSwitch, a Herndon, Va.-based maker of financial services software, employees will be ringing in the new year at their desks.

        “We'll make sure we have absolute coverage,” said Drew Eginton, president and chief executive officer. “I'll be sitting in the same chair I am now. A lot of people will be very, very eager to see New Year's over.”


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- Y2K fears will chain many to their desks