Will Delta Variant Pause Workplace Reopenings?

By Cristina Rouvalis June 30, 2021
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Will Delta Variant Pause Workplace Reopenings?

​With workplaces reopening after a seemingly endless coronavirus pandemic, many employers are looking forward to some semblance of normalcy.

But the specter of the highly contagious Delta variant looms, causing concerns about a COVID-19 strain that has led to lockdowns in other countries.

A survey of 1,000 HR professionals found that about half of U.S. organizations are concerned about the Delta variant and are encouraging employees to get a booster vaccination if one becomes available, according to research conducted by the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM) and Lucid. Likewise, employees who have already been vaccinated overwhelmingly intend to get a booster if it is recommended. Seventy-two percent of employed Americans are fully vaccinated, according to the survey.

Los Angeles County health officials are again strongly recommending that people wear masks indoors, even if they have been vaccinated, in light of the spread of the Delta variant. But at this point, the county appears to be the exception among most U.S. municipalities and employers, employment attorneys said. 

"What we're seeing here is a rush to get people back to the office. I am hearing that in places where the vaccination rate is high and in places where it isn't that high," said Michael Bertoncini, an employment attorney at Jackson Lewis P.C. in Boston. "So unless the CDC [U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention] or the state or local government takes a different approach, we probably are not going to see employers backtrack."

Stephanie M. Weinstein, an attorney at Marcus & Shapira LLP in Pittsburgh, agreed. "The hope is that because the vaccination rate is high, things will be OK. If not, businesses will have to adapt. Most of my clients are following the local rules." 

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Preliminary reports that the Moderna and Pfizer vaccines are effective against the Delta variant have allayed some concerns. But some employers are worried about the possibility of more-contagious, vaccine-resistant variants adding new tensions to already stressed workplaces where some workers are vaccinated and others are not, said Darlene Claubault, SHRM-CP, senior human resources editor at J.J. Keller & Associates, a Wisconsin-based consulting firm. 

"I have to keep my workers safe under [the Occupational Safety and Health Act]," she said, "but what happens if another variant comes along that is stronger and the vaccines aren't as effective? Now what have I got? Someone may say, 'You have unvaccinated people putting others at risk.' It all depends on how well we control the virus."

Some people may feel the virus is now under control. The SHRM/Lucid survey also showed that 85 percent of U.S. employees working in person are comfortable about their safety. Less than 10 percent of organizations are operating fully remotely, the survey found.

But many who have not yet come back to the office are feeling anxious about returning, Bertoncini said, and reports of new variants only increase the tension.

Some believe it's too soon to return to worksites, while others don't have child care or don't want to be around people who aren't vaccinated. "Some people are very concerned about that exposure, even though they have been vaccinated themselves," Bertoncini said.

The prospect of the Delta and other variants may deepen the tension between those who are vaccinated and those who choose not to get the shot or have a medical or religious reason for not doing so.

Bertoncini said he is getting calls from companies about tensions between employees, with some people becoming aggressive toward those who are not vaccinated and others making fun of people who wear masks. Often the arguments fall along political lines, he said.

He encourages employers to intervene and stop any potentially harassing behavior. "The standard answer here is to look at your regular workplace policies that prohibit that kind of conduct, regardless of the basis for the dispute," he said. "We're going to treat each other respectfully. It's similar to the sorts of disagreements that end up popping up with every election cycle."

[Want to learn more? Join us at the SHRM Annual Conference & Expo 2021, taking place Sept. 9-12 in Las Vegas and virtually.]

If the Delta variant keeps spreading, travel advisories could be reinstated, said Ann-Marie Ahern, an employment attorney at McCarthy, Lebit, Crystal & Liffman Co. in Cleveland. For example, she can envision a scenario where employers would require employees who travel to states with high rates of the Delta strain, such as Alabama and Utah, to quarantine or get a COVID-19 test before they return to the office.

But most employers are trying not to reinstate those restrictions unless they have to.

"People are just so fatigued," Ahern said. "People feel like we are out of the woods now. So if there is any attempt to curtail people's ability to move freely and to do so without a mask, there's going to be some pretty serious backlash."

David Barron, labor and employment attorney at Cozen O'Connor in Houston, agreed. "It will be interesting to see what the CDC does if things get worse. I feel like it will be unpopular if they backtrack. No one wants to go backward. Everyone wants to go forward."

Cristina Rouvalis is a freelance writer in Pittsburgh. 

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