Millions of US adults have had their first COVID-19 vaccine. Here's how the rollout could transform WFH and in-person work in the weeks and months to come.
On Monday, March 8, more than one year after the first U.S. COVID-19 cases, the CDC released its first set of guidelines for people who are fully vaccinated. The guidance outlines a wide range of recommendations related to gathering indoors, mask compliance, testing after an asymptomatic exposure and more. In recent weeks, the U.S. has vaccinated millions of adults, but what does the CDC's guidance mean for employees and organizations in the age of remote and hybrid work?
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"The latest CDC guidance brings with it hope for employers that there can be some level of normalcy again. People who have been vaccinated and who are otherwise not exhibiting symptoms can work together and not wear masks or social distance in small groups," said Dr. Teresa Bartlett, senior medical officer at Sedgwick.
"We are definitely not all the way back to normal but we do have room for cautious optimism," Bartlett continued.
While the various COVID-19 vaccines offer optimism for a return to normalcy in the long term, organizations still have obstacles even with the latest CDC guidance. In the interim, Bartlett said many challenges remain related to health screening diligence, mask compliance and social distancing for those who have not been vaccinated as well as people who are not eligible for the vaccine.
"COVID-19 is still going to be present in our world and we will still need to test those who are symptomatic and quarantine people exhibiting symptoms," Bartlett said. "Fatigue from all of this is real and it appears employers will have their work cut out for them trying to stay diligent."
For employers, there are legal considerations to bear in mind as current employees and prospective candidates choose to be vaccinated or opt-out. For example, can an employer mandate vaccination for its workforce?
Jonathan B. Orleans, an employment attorney at the law firm Pullman and Comley said employers can mandate employees become vaccinated once their group has access to vaccines while making note of the "reasonable accommodation" requirements for individuals who decline vaccination due to medical or religious reasons. Furthermore, Orleans said employers can ask employees and candidates about their COVID-19 vaccination status and ask to see proof.
"Employers should be careful, however, in asking employees why they refuse to be vaccinated. Such inquiries may elicit protected medical information, so they should be conducted under conditions that assure the employee that such information will be kept confidential," Orleans said.
If an employee exposes other coworkers to COVID-19 at work, Orleans said employers should notify those exposed employees without identifying the infected coworker for medical privacy purposes. Additionally, employers should inform both employees and prospective candidates that the company "will attempt to provide reasonable accommodations" (additional PPE, placement in a part of the office with less traffic, etc.) if an employee declines to be vaccinated due to a "disability or a bona fide religious belief," Orleans added.
To mitigate the risk of spreading COVID-19 in-house, organizations have deployed a wide range of technologies and architecture solutions. Moving forward, employees who decline vaccination could further transform the traditional office layout.
"It will be interesting to see whether some (particularly larger) employers reorganize their workspaces to group vaccinated individuals together, and whether any further guidance from the CDC may suggest that precautionary measures may be relaxed in such situations," Orleans said.
Beyond the legalities surrounding vaccination verification and reasonable accommodation, there are internal social considerations to bear in mind. While employers are able to require a vaccine mandate for employees, doing so could disrupt company culture, overall morale and productivity, explained Niki Jorgensen, director of service operations at HR provider Insperity. Instead, Jorgensen said that employers could recommend or incentivize employees who choose to be vaccinated.
"The best approach is to be transparent with employees. Communicate openly with managers and frontline staffers and explain the decisions. For example, if the business is in a high-contact industry or workers deal with the public often, that could be a reason to mandate or strongly encourage vaccination," Jorgensen said.
More than 69 million Americans have received their first vaccine dose and more than 37 million are fully vaccinated, according to the CDC. For perspective sake, about one-in-five people in the U.S. have received one dose, and about 11% are fully vaccinated, meaning the vast majority of an organization's employees are probably not fully vaccinated at this time.
Justin Beck, the founder of Contakt World, said the latest CDC guidance means "employers are closer to bringing employees back to the office," but doing so is "probably premature."
"If your company has operated thus far virtually during the pandemic, opening your doors immediately would be complicated and create undue risk," Beck said.
Any new workplace implementations "must consider the fact" that most people haven't had access to vaccines, and organizations "shouldn't treat people unfairly if employees desire to work remotely," Beck said.
"Employers should think about equality among off-site employees who haven't been vaccinated and on-site employees who have been," Beck said.
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