The CDC's updated guidance suggesting facial coverings be worn in "public indoor settings" adds a new but hopefully surmountable barrier to returning the workforce to the office. The latest guidance has frustrated some employers who are attempting to develop sensible policies to return their workforce to offices.
A recent article in CCH HRAnswersNow gives some guidance:
CDC's Updated Facial Coverings Guidance
On July 27, in response to the spread of the Delta variant and in light of new scientific data, the CDC reversed its previous guidance advising that fully vaccinated individuals could remove facial coverings in most indoor settings and instead recommended that individuals resume wearing facial coverings in public indoor settings in areas experiencing "substantial" or "high" transmission (most U.S. areas).
In response to reports of breakthrough infections (fully vaccinated individuals becoming ill with the virus), the CDC also recommended that individuals wear facial coverings if:
1. They are immunocompromised
2. They are at increased risk for developing a severe case of COVID-19
3. They have someone in their household who is immunocompromised, at increased risk of severe disease, or not fully vaccinated.
The CDC also recommends that those who are fully vaccinated and exposed to someone with suspected or confirmed incidents of COVID-19 to be tested 3-5 days after exposure, and they should wear a mask in public indoor settings for 14 days or until they receive a negative test result.
Can One Size Fit All Worksites?
In light of CDC's updated guidance that suggests facial coverings be worn by fully vaccinated individuals in certain locations, employers with multi-jurisdictional worksites are faced with an immediate decision regarding the approach to facial coverings for fully vaccinated individuals.
A policy providing for facial-coverings would have the benefit of a simple, non-invasive and relatively low-impact approach that aligns with CDC guidance. Of course, this approach could affect employee morale as employees may view a masks-all policy as unnecessarily punishing those who have been vaccinated and live or work in low transmission areas. It could also hinder employees already reluctant to return to the office from doing so unconstrained.
The other option to this would be a fluctuating mask policy that is updated weekly based on the newest CDC guidance and your local area’s transmission rates. Prior to implementing this policy, it will be important to have a clear understanding of the location of each physical worksite and whether any updated state or local regulations also apply to that worksite.
Diagnostic COVID-19 testing is becoming more affordable, prevalent, and efficient. Employers returning workers to their worksites may wish to consider implementing regular employer-paid COVID-19 diagnostic testing on a voluntary basis, even absent reports of confirmed employee COVID-19 exposure. Regular testing may provide peace of mind, particularly to those fully vaccinated employees who have individuals in their households who are immunocompromised or are not able to be vaccinated (such as children under the age of 12).
(Re)consider Mandatory Vaccination?
While the latest scientific data suggests that even fully vaccinated individuals can transmit the highly contagious Delta variant, the public health benefits of mandatory vaccination are undisputed as the data shows that the vast majority of individuals who become seriously ill or die are those who are unvaccinated. Employers who have rejected mandatory vaccination programs or put off making this decision might wish to reconsider implementing mandatory vaccination programs, which are permissible in the private workplace, except in those states that have banned mandatory vaccination in the private workplace (such as, to date, Montana).
Postpone the Return?
Many businesses were in the process of planning for a post-Labor Day return to the physical office, whether on a transitional, semi-hybrid, or permanent basis, when the CDC updated its guidance in response to the Delta variant. Given the shifting guidance, some employers may decide to wait to plan the return. But to some employers, delayed planning might be no planning at all as the Delta variant wanes, the Epsilon variant might rise, new vaccines or boosters might be developed, and additional guidance might be implemented.
What Are Most Michigan Employers Doing?
ASE recently surveyed Michigan employers around their plans for return-to-work, vaccinations, and how they are being affected by the Delta variant.
- Among the 143 Michigan employers surveyed, nearly 30% stated the recent increase in COVID-19 infections and the recent news regarding the Delta variant changed their organization's pandemic preparedness response or approach.
- A majority of those surveyed (74.1%) will continue to encourage vaccinations, but not mandate them.
- Of those who encourage the vaccine, 16.3% are considering a mandate.
- Few employers surveyed (4.9%) require proof of vaccination for in-person work, and just 13.3% are considering doing so.
- 36.4% of employers stated that all or most employees have fully returned to the office; 27.3% have implement a staggered approach where all or most employees are required to return to the workplace for a minimum number of days per week.
- Just 7% of those companies who have not returned to work have set a formal date for a return to in-person work. Of those companies, 60% plan to be fully open for hybrid or in-person work by September 2021.
- 42.7% of those surveyed currently require face coverings at work. Another 27.3% of respondents are considering the measure. When required for in-person work, 34.4% of respondents stated they are required only for unvaccinated employees. 55.7% require masking for all employees.
- Regarding travel, 58% of employers allow domestic travel, 32.2% allow both domestic and international, and 9.8% are not allowing business travel at this time.
“We are seeing a slow and careful return to the office. The Delta variant does not seem to be having much of an effect on return-to-work plans or vaccination policy. This is likely due to the already conservative approach most employers are taking to the return to work,” stated ASE President & CEO Mary E. Corrado.
ASE members can access the full ASE COVID-19 Pulse Survey results in their ASE Member Dashboard. Non-members can request the survey results here.
Sources: CCH; ASE COVID-19 Pulse Survey