With the arrival of a new season comes the arrival of a new variant of COVD-19: Omicron. As employers navigate another season of managing the virus’s impact on the workforce, it remains important to stay informed and take precautionary measures surrounding the workplace.
Preliminary Information on Omicron
As the first death related to the variant was confirmed in the United Kingdom on Monday, December 13, scientists continue to assess the danger of Omicron. According to early reports conducted by the CDC, even those who are vaccinated remain susceptible to Omicron, and breakthrough cases continue to be a pattern with the emergence of the new variant. Furthermore, while additional data needs to be gathered, early studies show that the Omicron variant potentially causes more serious illness than the other variants. However, not all news surrounding Omicron is negative, as studies suggest that vaccines and booster shots continue to provide strong protection for those exposed to the variant, mitigating the severity of the symptoms, and likely having life-saving effects. Best practices that have worked in the past continue to be effective and serve as a good reminder regarding public health.
Notably, President Biden’s attempt to federally mandate that large private employers, businesses that employ over 100 employees, require all staff to be vaccinated or comply with regular testing—a topic covered in our October newsletter—was blocked on December 8, when the Senate passed a bill attempting to overturn this proposed rule. However, it is unlikely that this bill will seriously impact the implementation of the anticipated legislation requiring vaccines or testing as it is likely President Biden will rely on his Veto power to overturn the bill.
Suggestions for Employers
With such uncertainty surrounding the trajectory of the variant and its impact on the workforce, employers, and employees likely are scrambling to put plans in place. Based on preliminary information, the following suggestions may prove helpful to keep in mind upon entering the Winter season:
- Continue to promote vaccines
Studies continue to show that vaccines prove the most effective means of preventing complications surrounding COVID-19 and its variants, including hospitalization and death. According to recommendations by the CDC, everyone 5 years of age and older should get fully vaccinated, while individuals above the age of 18 should get a booster shot following their vaccination series. Specifically, the CDC advises that a booster shot is recommended at least two months after receiving the Johnson and Johnson vaccine, and 6 months after receiving the Pfizer or Moderna vaccine. Importantly, studies conducted by Harvard Business Review indicate that vaccine requirements are not having a significant impact on either staff recruitment or retention, with only 13% of employers surveyed reporting staff resignations due to mandates. If possible, employers should consider providing time for staff to get vaccinated. Additionally, companies have begun offering on-site vaccination clinics to assist in this process, another option to consider in encouraging staff vaccination.
- Encourage frequent testing
With the availability of new at-home tests, employees have greater access to testing. Based on information collected by the CDC, two self-tests are available. Both types of tests, the nucleic acid amplification tests and the antigen tests, detect for infection. The convenience of these tests allows individuals who suspect they may have had exposure to COVID-19 or suffer from related symptoms to complete a test and begin recovery as soon as possible based on results. With the availability of these tests comes more immediate information surrounding COVID-19 exposures and cases. Encouraging frequent testing can avoid unnecessary at work encounters of those who test positive for the virus and can expedite the recovery process, avoiding a loss of missed work time. Moreover, frequent testing promotes a healthy workplace when it comes to taking responsibility for public health and wellness.
- Maintain social distancing in office spaces
The moniker remains as social distancing seems to have a permanent place in work force dialogue. Social distancing continues to be an effective proactive measure to take in response to COVID-19’s persistence as well as the emergence of additional variants. Setting up spaces that allow employees to space out as well as separating workers around the office or workspace to the greatest extent possible remains a useful approach to combatting the virus.
- Emphasize the importance of mask wearing around the office
Likewise, mask wearing proves integral in blocking virus transmission and is a good idea to encourage whenever possible. Specifically, when employees come into direct contact with one another, such as during in-person meetings, walking around the office, or when collaborating face to face, mask wearing decreases exposure and virus transmission risks.
- Take efforts to improve ventilation of workspaces
While this may seem an expensive approach, improving ventilation does not require the extensive renovations it may suggest. Efforts as simple as frequent replacement of air filters and leaving windows open, weather permitting, can assist in the ventilation process and allow fresh air to filter through the workspace, decreasing the chances of virus exposure. Consider taking stock of what reasonable measures you can undertake to improve air quality in your workplace.
- Travel only when necessary
In many businesses, travel is an essential component of work. However, to the greatest extent possible, employers should consider limiting travel when it is not necessary. Travelling puts staff at risk of being exposed to a larger array of people and may lead to quarantine based on exposure to individuals with COVID-19. Limiting travel can help mitigate temporary worker loss due to quarantine and may prove worthwhile in the long run in maintaining a healthy and present work force.
- Provide options for remote work for immunocompromised staff
Finally, remote work remains a sensible option for staff who are unable to come to the office due to a medical condition or necessary quarantine based on exposure to COVID-19. In order to continue the efficacy of your business, consider offering remote work opportunities on a need-based basis.
If you have question or concerns regarding how the Omicron variant may impact you and your business, please contact the attorneys at Rock Fusco & Connelly.