As offices ease Covid safety measures, workers worry

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Employers are embracing a work atmosphere reminiscent of pre-pandemic times — blocked elevators, overflowing snack tables, optional face coverings — even as a new subvariant of the Omicron coronavirus raises health and safety concerns. Across the country, office occupancy has hit a pandemic high, 40%, hit only once before in early December, as indoor mask mandates drop.

After several false starts to call workers back, business leaders now seem eager to move forward. A flurry of back-to-office plans have been rolled out in recent weeks, with companies including American Express, Goldman Sachs, JPMorgan Chase and Microsoft calling some workers back to their desks. Many of these companies have followed state and local governments in easing Covid-19 restrictions, arguing that ending mask mandates could make workplaces more pleasant. But some workers, especially those with compromised immunity or unvaccinated children, feel uncomfortable with the hasty return to open floor plans.

“Masks have created a real psychological barrier to returning to office culture,” said Kathryn Wylde, head of the Partnership for New York City, a business group. “As long as things are going in the right direction with Covid, I think easing mandates will work for the vast majority of people. As soon as you see a reversal, I think you’re struggling.

The Partnership’s January survey of New York City employers found that 38% expected more than half of their employees to be back in the office on an average weekday by the end of March. . As employees return, they are faced with a patchwork of Covid safety protocols. According to Gallup data from last month, only a quarter of American workers are covered by workplace vaccination mandates.

This has left many workers navigating masking alone, making Covid safety measures a matter of office etiquette rather than protocol. Some negotiated new remote working arrangements with their bosses as the rules eased, or even left their companies in search of jobs in workplaces that made them feel more secure.

“When the rules came out that you could drop your mask, a lot of people were like, ‘Yay, we’re free,'” said Diane Rames, 65, an office administrator at a law firm in Oakland, Calif. . “I was like, wait a minute – there’s not a line in the sand that looks like it’s here today, gone tomorrow.

Wall Street was quick to change its Covid-19 protocols after New York State dropped its indoor mask mandate last month. At JPMorgan Chase, masks are now voluntary for vaccinated and unvaccinated employees, and the company will end mandatory Covid testing as well as reporting of Covid infections by April 4. At Morgan Stanley, where vaccines are required to enter the office, the mask requirement was dropped early last month.

At Goldman Sachs, mask requirements were dropped on February 14, although testing is still needed. Citigroup dropped its mask requirement last week. Wells Fargo has maintained more rigid Covid protocols than some of its finance peers, requiring unvaccinated employees to wear a mask at all times unless eating, drinking or alone in a closed room.

Other industries that have pushed for in-person work, such as real estate, have also reformulated their Covid guidelines in recent weeks. BlackRock, which has asked its 7,600 US employees to return to the office at least three days a week, no longer requires masks in its US offices, although employees must be vaccinated to enter the building and are asked to test themselves twice a week. Prologis, a real estate logistics company, said its office mask guidelines complied with local regulations. Guardian Life Insurance, which has around 6,300 employees in the United States, does not have an office mask requirement in most parts of the country.

Still, some tech companies are holding firm on Covid safety protocols. Google requires all unvaccinated employees with permission to enter its offices to test themselves regularly and wear a mask. Meta, Facebook’s parent company, requires anyone entering the office to be vaccinated – including with a booster from March 28 – and follow local guidelines on masking.

Intuit announced Wednesday that starting May 16, its 11,500 U.S. employees would return to the office in a hybrid model, in which teams would determine how many days per week workers should be in person. Although the company requires everyone entering its offices to be vaccinated, it follows local and state guidelines on masking, which means masks are not required in any of its US offices.

“We’ve tried to emphasize that people should feel comfortable doing what’s best for them,” said Chris Glennon, vice president of global real estate and workplace at Intuit. . “We see some people masking up, especially in public spaces, but overall most don’t mask up.”

National Insurance, which has 25,000 employees in the United States, has instituted a hybrid model in which workers come into the office between one and five days every two weeks, although it says the office never exceeds 50% of its capacity. The company does not require vaccines and lifted its mask guidelines on March 2. All employees who test positive for the virus after arriving at the office are required to report their result so that the company can conduct contact tracing.

At Jefferies, an investment bank in New York, masks are still mandatory in common office areas. The company has embraced hybrid working, and on peak days its office is almost back to its pre-pandemic occupancy rate of 70%. TIAA, an investment firm with a vaccination rate of around 97%, no longer requires vaccinated workers to wear masks in common areas except when required by local regulations – but noted that it was providing in-home molecular testing to employees.

For those responsible for developing office protocols on masking and vaccination, the relaxation of state and local government guidelines has brought a new set of challenges. Some said they found it difficult to appease their colleagues who wanted more flexible policies while maintaining a safe environment. Those concerns have heightened this week, as the BA.2 subvariant leads to an increase in Covid cases in Europe, pointing to a similar increase in the United States.

Ms. Rames, the Oakland office administrator, recalled that the same week California dropped its indoor mask mandate, one of her law firm associates came and removed all the panels office encouraging social distancing. Ms Rames has often felt like the ‘Covid police’ as she gently reminds colleagues to put their masks over their noses and urges people to space themselves out.

She finds herself torn between partners eager for a return to pre-pandemic office culture and employees like her who are nervous about being exposed to Covid-19.

“I understand Covid fatigue, but people don’t understand how overwhelming it is to try to protect everyone,” Ms Rames said.

Workers with children too young to be vaccinated have been particularly hesitant to show up at their desks. Some companies have allowed caregivers to negotiate special accommodations for remote or hybrid working, an option many working parents said they have embraced.

“I made it clear to my boss and several layers of bosses above me that I had no intention of returning to the office until my young children were vaccinated, said Greg Howard, 36, who works at a tech company and lives in Kirkland. , Washington, with her children, a 4-year-old toddler and a baby.

Some workers have even changed jobs in search of safer work environments. Saskia Cervantes, 42, worked at a Denver health food company that began encouraging its employees to return to the office last April as Covid vaccines became widely available. Masks were required by local regulations, but she found most of her colleagues weren’t wearing them. Ms Cervantes, who is immunocompromised, felt out of place as one of the few masked workers in the office.

She moved in August, taking a pay cut, because she wanted to be at a company that allowed permanent remote work.

“It was the kind of thing where you would go into someone’s office and they would say, ‘Are you comfortable with masks on or not? “”, she recalls. “It was like, ‘Look at me, I’m wearing an N95.’

For many employers, it feels like they know what is needed to keep businesses open and workers safe, having weathered the surges from Omicron and Delta. And having revisited their return to work date several times, they would like to stick to their plans. But they also recognize that as restrictions ease, they will need to keep a close eye on fluctuating Covid case rates, especially with some people set to walk if safety standards are not met and the remote work is not an option.

“We’ve moved from cautious optimism to more confident certainty,” Intuit’s Mr Glennon said, although he added that the company remained vigilant in monitoring the status of the virus. “It’s going to take a while before everyone feels like we’re beyond that.”

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