Cummins Inc. has announced it has set a date for office workers in Indiana to return to the office for the first time in two years after COVID-19 barreled across the state and country.
On April 4, Cummins will reopen its offices in Indiana, including its corporate office building in downtown Columbus and Seymour, said company spokeswoman Katie Zarich.
During the pandemic, the company assessed what its “new normal” would be and categorized each role in the company as fully onsite, fully remote or a hybrid between the two based on the nature of the work, Cummins officials said.
Currently, it is unclear how many Cummins workers will be onsite or working in a hybrid capacity. Company officials previously said they anticipated most roles would be hybrid.
Cummins employs about 8,000 people in the Columbus area and has several offices in downtown Columbus, including its corporate headquarters, which can accommodate around 1,000 workers. The company also employs another 900 or so employees at the Seymour Engine Plant, Seymour Technical Center and Komatsu.
The announcement from Cummins comes as COVID-19 hospitalizations plummet in Indiana.
Hospitalizations in Indiana have fallen from a record 3,519 on Jan. 13 to 677 this past Thursday, an 80% decrease, according to the latest figures available from the Indiana Department of Health on Monday morning.
There were 12 people hospitalized at Columbus Regional Health as of this past Wednesday, down from a record 70 on Jan. 17, according to the most recent data from the local COVID-19 Community Task Force.
The return of Cummins workers downtown could have significant implications for downtown businesses that have relied for years on foot traffic from employees of the county’s largest employer and have fallen on hard times since the pandemic hit in March 2020.
Before the pandemic, downtown Columbus was bursting with workers, who would pour out of their offices and into nearby restaurants during their lunch breaks, pop into retailers along Washington Street, file into fitness centers to take yoga and spinning classes and grab drinks at local bars after work.
But downtown Columbus has grown much quieter during the pandemic.
For Kelley Schwartz, who co-owns Fresh Take Kitchen, 424 Washington St., with her husband, Kurt, the return of at least some Cummins workers to downtown was “wonderful” news for the downtown community after a “very hard” couple of years.
Fresh Take Kitchen closed for about a year during the pandemic, Schwartz said. The restaurant reopened this past April, but business “has been very slow,” depending on what the county’s metrics were.
Before the pandemic, the majority of Fresh Take Kitchen’s customers were Cummins employees, she said..
“(The pandemic) definitely put a damper on our business, and Cummins not being downtown … all downtown businesses took a big hit,” Schwartz said.
“We’re very excited about (Cummins workers coming back),” Schwartz added. “(April 4) will also be our four-year anniversary here.”
Business at Gramz Bakery and Cafe, 409 Washington St., also remains lighter than it was before the pandemic, though some people still make the drive into downtown, said general manager Rachelle Cole.
Cummins wasn’t the only company that sent employees home during the pandemic, she said.
“We are definitely looking forward to having some more foot traffic downtown for sure,” Cole said.
“Now, we’re not expecting to get back up to pre-pandemic numbers, especially since they are giving people the option to still work from home,” Cole added.
Columbus Mayor Jim Lienhoop said the announcement is “an exciting development.”
“It’s an exciting development for two reasons,” Lienhoop said. “Number one, we appreciate the economic activity that an announcement like this implies. And number two, Cummins is a thoughtful employer and for them to make a move like this indicates that their assessment of the coronavirus risk is diminished enough to where we can reserve some of those normal activity.”
However, it remains unknown what kind of lasting impact the COVID-19 pandemic will leave on downtown Columbus and what a new normal would look like for local businesses in the downtown area, local officials said.
“My assessment is that the world has changed a bit, and part of where we’ll see that is that the new normal will be different from the old normal,” Lienhoop said. “It’s just difficult to put a number to it, but if beforehand we had 2,000 people coming to work downtown Columbus, what will the new number be? And we just won’t know for a while.”