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For a while there, it seemed like things were finally getting back to normal. Now, not so much.
In just a week, plans for a September return to the office were pushed back. Mask warrants have made a comeback. And a growing number of employers, including the federal government, are setting the vaccine limit.
Walmart – the country’s largest private employer – reversed its policy on Friday and will again demand that all workers wear masks in areas worst affected by the delta variant of COVID-19. The New York Times has indefinitely postponed his scheduled return to the office.
The delta variant is much more transmissible, and health officials now fear that it will also make people sicker and may even be spread by fully vaccinated people. This means that, nearly a year and a half after the start of the pandemic, companies face the difficult task of once again recalibrating the measures needed to keep workers safe.
“It’s a Rubik’s Cube with a thousand colors on each side,” says David Lewis, CEO of OperationsInc, a human resources consulting firm. “There continue to be a lot more questions than answers.”
The overthrow of the CDC on masks was a tipping point
First came the CDC’s turnaround.
In response to the delta variant on Tuesday, CDC director Rochelle Walensky said fully vaccinated Americans should again wear masks indoors in places where the coronavirus is on the rise, citing new research that has shown that vaccinated people can pass the virus on to others.
The automotive world was ready to act. Ford said it was re-imposing masks at its facilities in Missouri and Florida, effective Wednesday. He has since added Kentucky. Previously, General Motors had reinstated mask requirements at its factory in Wentzville, Missouri.
Big Tech’s response has also been swift. On Wednesday, Twitter announced the closure of the New York and San Francisco offices, which had just reopened. Google has announced that it is extending its return to office date for most employees from September to mid-October. Google and Facebook also said they will now require employees to be vaccinated before entering the office, a requirement Twitter already had in place.
Then on Thursday, calling the deaths among the unvaccinated an “American tragedy,” President Biden ordered federal civilian employees and contractors to confirm they were vaccinated or to undergo regular testing. The Pentagon later said members of the military would be subject to the same rules.
Many companies are still finding out.
Most large companies are taking a few days’ break to figure out how to adjust to the CDC’s new call for universal indoor masking in parts of the country.
“As a country, vaccination options have been available for months, but, unfortunately, because so many people have chosen not to receive it, we have made ourselves more vulnerable to variants,” Walmart executives wrote in a note to American personnel.
Decisions are particularly difficult for companies whose workers have never been able to work remotely. Grocers and supermarkets, for example, were quick to drop mask requirements for shoppers when the CDC relaxed its guidance in May. Workers there had been harassed, attacked and even killed as they were forced to become executors of mask warrants.
Walmart and its Sam’s Club branch, for now, are “strongly encouraging” but are not forcing shoppers to wear masks in stores. The company is, among others, like Target and Dollar General, which pay bonuses to workers for vaccination. Walmart announced on Friday that it was doubling the bonus to $ 150.
NPR reached out to nearly two dozen major retail, hotel, food and drugstore chains. Many, like Costco and Publix, say they monitor regulations from local and state authorities.
“We are working very closely and monitoring the local situation and we are adapting accordingly. So if that means that we have to wear masks again, even if we are vaccinated, that is what we will do,” said Thursday. Amazon CFO Brian Olsavsky. .
Olsavsky added that Amazon “is still aiming for a return to power in September,” striving to provide more vaccines to its employees but without needing them.
Expect a range of responses from employers
Lewis, the human resources consultant, advises clients against rushing into decisions to postpone return-to-work plans, given uncertainties over how long this latest wave of COVID will last. But, he says, communication is the key.
“Tell your employees what you think and at least make them feel like you care,” says Lewis.
As with every stage of the pandemic, what employers ultimately decide to do will vary widely by industry and region.
One size doesn’t fit all, he says, and no decision is easy. Companies that choose to reinstate masks, for example, run the risk of generating greater resistance among employees who may already have concerns about returning to the office.
This week, as the number of new COVID-19 cases continued to rise, a feeling of exasperation could be felt across the country.
“It is truly unfortunate that mask recommendations are back,” the National Retail Federation said Tuesday, “when the safest known way to reduce the threat of the virus is through widespread vaccination.”