Business-as-usual is nowhere to be seen among San Antonio’s major corporations as the nation faces off against the novel coronavirus pandemic. From USAA to Valero, corporate leaders have taken drastic steps to keep operations going and protect employees even as economic doom is widely predicted.

COVID-19 has delivered a sudden shock to a previously booming economy. Analysts began downgrading economic forecasts in late February and as the pandemic raged on, businesses have shut down or sent their employees home to work. Gross domestic product estimates have plummeted while unemployment has risen to historic highs.

Belinda Román, associate professor of economics at St. Mary’s University, estimates that San Antonio will lose a net 25,000 jobs due to the pandemic and lose close to $2 billion in economic activity. San Antonio’s high poverty rate might make it even harder to bounce back, she said.

“These are rough estimates right now,” she said, noting that jobless claims are still rolling in. “These numbers will shift again, and once the [federal stimulus payment] checks start to hit … if people go out and spend on new things in the local economy, then that makes a difference for us.”

San Antonio’s flourishing tourist industry took a direct hit early on from the impact of social distancing and canceled meetings, events, and travel. Hotels, restaurants, bars, and attractions have been shuttered, and employees laid off. Since then, the impact has rippled across every other industry operating in the city and continues to pummel the hospitality industry, with the high-end St. Anthony Hotel announcing Friday it was closing for up to 60 days.

On Thursday, Toyota joined the growing list of major auto manufacturers suspending production at all North American plants due to the pandemic and a significant decline in demand for new cars and trucks.

Toyota’s facilities will remain closed through April 17, resuming production on April 20, the company said. In San Antonio, Toyota directly employs 3,200 people, and with its 23 local suppliers, there are approximately 7,200 total at the project site.

The announcement comes less than seven months after Toyota said it would be investing $391 million to upgrade its San Antonio plant and then in January revealed the truck factory would start producing the automaker’s Sequoia model of sport utility vehicles.

Major suppliers and other manufacturers followed, promising to build plants and employ hundreds, making for a celebratory “billion-dollar week” in San Antonio’s economic development efforts. Those projects are now likely delayed at best.

On Friday, the San Antonio Economic Development Foundation fielded a short survey to monitor the impact of COVID-19 on business operations in the San Antonio area. 

Among the city’s service companies and office workers, the order of the day thus far is a mix of remote working systems, business travel restrictions, expanded leave policies, and deep cleaning of offices.

An untold number of San Antonians are on duty at home, connected to the office by their laptops, often tasked with schooling their children while playing some role in maintaining the nation’s critical industries: banking, transportation, construction, energy, and food distribution.

Bexar County Judge Nelson Wolff, who joined Mayor Ron Nirenberg in declaring the “Stay Home, Work Safe” order on March 23, listed several major employers he had alerted before announcing the order, saying they were “very, very” supportive of the decision.

“I want to thank the business community for being leaders in this effort,” Wolff said at a press briefing. “They’ve been far ahead of any other people in the aggressive actions they have taken to protect their employees.”

One of those was the financial services firm SWBC. Ninety percent of its 1,800-member San Antonio workforce is working from home, said a spokeswoman. “We’ve also deployed significant technical measures to ensure SWBC’s network remains available and secure,” she said in an email.

Valero and USAA have most of their employees, who usually work from the companies’ amenity-rich, sprawling Northwest Side campuses, also working at home.

Valero employs about 1,800 people at its San Antonio headquarters, and USAA has about 19,400 of its total 35,000 nationwide workforce in San Antonio.

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Nearly 80 percent of USAA employees are logging into company systems remotely, said a spokesman, with 2,100 of its workers converted on Wednesday alone. USAA, which revealed mid-March that one of its San Antonio-based employees had contracted the virus, also is providing employees with up to three weeks of emergency pay for COVID-19-related illness, child care issues, or for employees unable to work from home.

San Antonio-based Holt Cat, the largest Caterpillar machinery dealership in the country, is maintaining regular hours in its sales, parts, and service operations, according to a spokeswoman. But the company has been reminding employees and customers to practice social distancing, use curbside pickup to minimize interaction, and is allowing employees to work from home if their job permits.

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Aircraft manufacturer and defense contractor Boeing has temporarily suspended production at its Seattle headquarters plant, due to a severe outbreak in that region, a spokeswoman told the Rivard Report. But its nearly 4,800 employees in Texas are on the job, either in Boeing facilities, where they have implemented heightened sanitation procedures, or working from home when possible.

The pipeline and fuel distributor company NuStar Energy also asked most of its 500-plus office workers to work from home last week. But faced with dropping oil prices affecting the entire energy industry, the company has cut its 2020 capital expenditures by more than $100 million.

NuStar also will reduce operating expenses by at least 10 percent this year, but has no plans to layoff employees, said a spokesman.

“We have a no-layoff policy at NuStar, as we believe that our employees will be the ones who will help us get through this difficult time,” he stated in an email.

Shari Biediger

Shari Biediger

Shari Biediger is a journalist and writer in San Antonio, and a business reporter for The Rivard Report.