Health

As omicron uncertainty mounts, US revises return-to-office plans

With COVID case counts soaring, fuelled by the
highly contagious omicron variant, businesses are once again weighing when to
reopen and what steps they need to take to do so safely.

In recent days, Jefferies, Goldman Sachs,
Chevron and many more employers have delayed or changed their January
return-to-office plans. Starbucks, Delta Air Lines and BlackRock have amended
their COVID safety protocols, responding to shifting guidance from public
health authorities.

At Jefferies, the investment bank, a memo to
the staff Monday morning from Rich Handler, the CEO, and Brian Friedman, the
president, announced a new plan: “Realistically, we do not foresee us all
having a safe opportunity to be together in our offices until at least Monday,
January 31st.”

The executives added a dose of optimism:
“While nobody knows for sure, we believe (and fervently hope) this could be the
last truly challenging period of this pandemic.”

The memo reflected a view, shared by some
business leaders, that the spread of the omicron variant — which is more
infectious but also milder, especially for the vaccinated — could usher in the
endemic phase of the pandemic, and with it a wave of office reopenings that
might actually be executed.

Other companies are devising new ways to keep their
workplaces open.

Starbucks announced Monday that it would
reduce the number of days that vaccinated, asymptomatic workers who test
positive must isolate, to five days from 10, following the latest guidance from
the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The company also said US
workers would have to be fully vaccinated by Feb 9 or submit to weekly testing,
in compliance with a Biden administration vaccine rule for large employers.

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A spokesperson for Starbucks said the company
gave store and district managers some leeway to decide when specific locations
need to make adjustments, like opening for drive-thru orders only. “Our retail
leaders are empowered to modify operations locally,” said Reggie Borges, the
company spokesperson. “They’re able to make those adjustments on the fly.”

CNN, which had earlier planned a January
return for some employees, confirmed to its staff in an email Sunday that its
offices would remain closed except to “those who absolutely need to be there.”

Goldman Sachs told US employees Sunday to work
from home until Jan 18. The investment bank, which called most of its staff
back to the office in June, had announced just last week that it would increase
its vaccination and testing requirements, even as its Wall Street rivals were
returning to remote work.

More changes could be coming soon as guidance
from public health authorities continues to shift and the administration pushes
to keep the economy running.

Dr Anthony Fauci said Sunday that the CDC was
considering recommending that Americans test negative for the coronavirus
before leaving isolation, updating a policy change it made just last month. For
companies like Delta, that might mean once again altering protocols. For
others, that may invite an intense set of negotiations with unions.

On Friday, the Supreme Court is scheduled to
hear arguments over the legality of the Biden administration’s mandate for
large employers to require vaccinations or weekly testing. Meanwhile, the very
meaning of “fully vaccinated” may soon change.

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Marcia St Hilaire-Finn, who runs Bright Start
Early Care and Preschool in Washington, DC, said she recently changed her
coronavirus polices and approach, responding to both news about omicron and new
CDC guidance. Previously, if an employee or child tested positive, she closed
their classroom for 10 days. Now she requires vaccinated asymptomatic employees
with COVID to isolate for just five days, though classroom closures last longer
because the children are not vaccinated.

Over the holidays, St Hilaire-Finn offered a
$100 bonus to any employee who got a booster shot. She estimates that every
staff member will have received a booster shot by the end of this week.

“At this point, we’re leaning more towards
being open than closed,” she said.

George Colony, the CEO of Forrester Research,
a consulting firm in Boston, said last month that he was once again pushing
back his company’s office return.

“We expected to open our US offices in early
January,” he said. “That timetable is not going to happen. We are going to stay
remote.”

Colony said he was preparing for some
Forrester employees to be out of commission in the weeks ahead. “I think many
of us are going to get sick here in the next few months,” he said. “I expect
more people will be absent, more people will be sick.”

When to bring recovered workers back will be a
new challenge.

If the CDC recommends that infected workers
test negative before returning to work — as many scientists have urged it to do
— companies will have to figure out how to supply in-demand tests to employees.
While big companies have been buying tests in bulk, smaller employers often do
not have that capacity. Deciding whom to prioritise for tests, who pays for
them and how to verify the results will bedevil boardrooms in the coming
months.

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Some firms have already begun to incorporate
testing into their plans. BlackRock, the asset management firm, told its
roughly 7,600 US employees before the holidays that it was “encouraging
flexibility” and requiring those who continue to go into the office to be
tested weekly. Last week, it announced it would extend that policy through Jan
28.

Whether deciding when to open offices or
setting policies for isolation, employers are grappling with a key question:
How much risk of exposure and spread are they and their workers willing to
tolerate? They do not all agree.

This week, Dr Brian Monahan, the attending
physician for Congress, advised all congressional offices, committees and
agencies to maximise remote work and reduce in-person meetings as much as
possible, though this is a recommendation.

“While some view the SARS-CoV-2 coronavirus
disease as ‘endemic,’ the ‘new normal,’ and ‘inevitable,’ these views are
premature,” Monahan wrote in a memo reviewed by The New York Times. “The entire
community must continue to take every measure to suppress the rapid spread of
this disease.”

©2021 The New York Times Company

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