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Wright-Patterson commander considers allowing workforce back to base as coronavirus numbers remain steady

By THOMAS GNAU | The Dayton Daily News | Published: September 12, 2020

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DAYTON, Ohio (Tribune News Service) — Wright-Patterson Air Force Base’s new commander is nearing a decision that could allow up to half of the installation’s workforce back within the fenceline, cautioning that he has not made that decision yet.

“Our (COVID-19 positivity) rates look very similar as to how the community looks,” said Col. Patrick Miller, who was installed as commander of the 88th Air Base Wing and installation commander of Wright-Patterson in mid-June.

“As we look to transition to open up more capacity on the installation for more people to come on, I think we’re getting close to that,” Miller said Thursday in his first meeting with local media. “We’re looking at the numbers, we’re trending in the right direction, we see some stability.”

The base has suffered no “major pockets of cross-transmission on the installation, which is good," he added. “That tells me we’re doing the right things.”

However, he cautioned: “We’re not there yet. I haven’t made that call yet. But if things hold the way they are, we could be making that call fairly soon.”

Miller’s predecessor, Col. Thomas Sherman, led the base as it first came to grips with the effects of the global pandemic in late March.

At the time, Air Force and civilian contractor leaders had most workers employed remotely, a huge feat at Wright-Patterson, which remains Ohio’s largest single-site employer, with about 30,000 military and civilian employees.

At first, only about a tenth of the base’s workforce physically worked on the installation, with people such as security forces, health care workers, air traffic controllers and others on-site.

By May, commanders and directors were allowed to bring up to 20% of their assigned workforce back to work centers and offices.

If up to half of the base’s typical workforce were permitted to return, that would boost the daily presence to up to 15,000 or so workers.

“Up to 50% of folks would be able to come on the installation,” Miller said Thursday. “And I say, ‘Up to.’ Some of our mission partners, we may decide, "Hey, we don’t need up to 50% to come on the installation.'”

Tele-working has been successful, and for many employees, that may become a permanent way of performing their duties, he said. A number of positions may become remote going forward.

“The Air Force, writ-large, is kind of looking at our overall operating methods,” Miller said. “Is tele-work something we kind of need to solidify more permanently?”

With that sea change in how people work, we may never again see some 30,000 vehicles driving on base on a typical work day.

“We may not have that day where that many folks (30,000) are coming through the gate on a given day," the commander said. “That’s not to say that we don’t have those jobs here."

The jobs are staying, he emphasized. “We may just may execute those jobs a little differently.”

“When you think about it, we have (30,000) people working right now,” said Command Chief Master Sgt. Jason Shaffer, who assumed his 88th Air Base Wing command role in July. “But just where are they working from? We may not have (30,000) cars, but we have (30,000) people working every day.”

Miller’s biggest concern?

“I wanted to see what the Labor Day holiday looked like, and I wanted to see what K-12 schools starting back up looked like,” the colonel said. “Because now you have population bases moving around.”

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