Once the COVID-19 omicron wave died down after exploding during the 2021-22 holiday season, mask mandates quickly went by the wayside.
Fewer mandates were seen in public places, cities and workplaces, and in April 2022, the U.S. stopped enforcing mask-wearing on airplanes, trains and buses after a federal judge struck down the Biden administration's mask requirement for public transportation.
"Although during the early months of 2022, masks were a hard requirement for many businesses, once the [Centers for Disease Control and Prevention] eased their masking recommendations, most employers followed suit," said Richard Wahlquist, president and CEO of the American Staffing Association, a trade association based in Alexandria, Va.
But with parts of the country still seeing ongoing COVID-19 cases, most of which are the highly contagious "Kraken" variant, are any workplaces going back to requiring masks? And should they?
Although some sectors, such as the health care industry, still require masks in workplaces, mask-wearing now is generally encouraged by many employers, but rarely mandated, said Patricia Toro, senior director of health and benefits at consulting firm WTW.
"The majority of employers do not require mask use," she said. "That said, most employers will allow mask use and even encourage it. This encouragement may extend to work-related travel as well, but mask use at the destination or in transit is still optional."
The Kraken COVID-19 variant will likely do little to change mandates, Toro said, although some municipalities have recently reinstated masking requirements in the workplace for the time being.
"It's notable that there was so little movement in mask-wearing despite the surge in all types of communicable diseases at the end of 2022," she said. "For some businesses or geographies, the pandemic is essentially over, as is their tolerance for any changes due to the pandemic. For others, pandemic fatigue is very real, and there's very little appetite for mandates that will cause worker push-back."
As far as enforcing the return of masks, it's more unlikely than likely—no matter what happens with new COVID-19 variants or surges. However, many industry insiders said employers would be wise to be flexible and adaptable in their policies regarding masks, testing and other precautions.
"Masking policies are now more fluid and dependent on the needs of particular offices and individual preferences," Wahlquist said. "Are employees working in close quarters and unable to social distance? Are the needs of high-risk employees being adequately accommodated? Can employees who choose to mask do so without feeling stigmatized? Is there a significant uptick in COVID cases and related hospitalizations in the area? These are questions employers will have to answer, both this winter as well as in the months and years ahead."
Mitigation Can Curb Employee Absences
Although workplace mask policies are, for the most part, few and far between for the time being, experts say employers may want to consider reinstituting disease mitigation measures—masks included—or at least be amenable to doing so.
Aside from keeping employees safe and healthy, masks and other preventive measures keep employees working. A number of employers have been hit hard in the past few weeks as cases of COVID-19, as well as flu and respiratory syncytial virus (RSV), have caused significant employee absences.
"Some level of ongoing disease mitigation would be helpful," Toro said. "We're moving to a period where the most effective measure may be ongoing measures: encouraging and supporting vaccinations—COVID-19, flu and RSV if it becomes available—improving air quality, masking, and encouraging employees to stay out of the workplace if they are ill. Hand sanitizer and workplace cleaning can also help mitigate the spread of common and more rare infectious diseases."
Recent research from the Integrated Benefits Institute pointed out the staggering impact COVID-19 has had on lost work hours. The Oakland, Calif.-based nonprofit research organization estimated that the cost associated with the loss of work hours from the pandemic was a staggering $167.4 billion in the pandemic's first year and $45.7 billion in its second year. The number of lost hours attributed to the pandemic was 6.6 billion—5.2 billion hours in year one and 1.4 billion in year two.
"The pandemic continues to have a profound effect on the workplace," IBI researcher Carole Bonner recently told SHRM Online. "Staffing shortages, burnout, long-haul COVID and continuous preparedness weigh heavily on both employees and employers."
IBI President Kelly McDevitt said that although many employers have relaxed safety standards around mitigation, "that could change overnight as new variants emerge here and abroad."
One of the most important things employers can do, experts say, is to remain flexible and adaptable when it comes to pandemic precautions and policies. Company and HR leaders should also keep the lines of communication open with employees and continue to talk to them about COVID-19 and other illnesses—whether there are outbreaks in the office, an increase in employee absences or a spike in cases locally. Doing so will also help explain the employer's decisions about masks, testing and/or other preventive measures.
"As with any major decision about the workplace, open and regular communication is key," Wahlquist said. "Employees need to hear and see evidence that their well-being is at the heart of every health-related HR rule or policy. Employers may not be able to make everyone happy with their masking policies, but employees will appreciate the efforts to keep them informed of how and why those policies were created."