How Return-to-Office Plans Are Changing in Light of the Delta Variant
Delayed return dates, cancelled events, and workplace vaccine requirements are increasing as the Delta variant of COVID-19 spreads globally
By Sarah Larson
Euphoria had set in.
Mask mandates were lifted. Restaurants were back to full capacity. Conference organizers eagerly revived plans for fall events. Law firms began to issue back-to-office plans.
At the beginning of the summer, it felt like the United States finally was emerging from the coronavirus pandemic limbo in which we had been suspended for months on end. Even in July, life seemed to be easing into a post-pandemic groove. Now, in early August, the exponential spread of the ultra-contagious COVID-19 Delta variant has law firms, businesses, and organizations across the country re-evaluating their plans to get “back to normal.”
For many businesses, including big banks, law firms, and leading tech companies, that means delaying or suspending plans to return their workforces to the office. Among the companies recently announcing changes in plans:
- Uber, Twitter, Google, Apple, and Netflix have delayed their return to office dates, with Google and Apple pushing their planned return to at least October.
- Amazon postponed a return to the office for corporate employees until Jan. 3, 2022.
- Rideshare company Lyft pushed its September return date by six months to Feb. 2, 2022.
- Software company Asana pushed its return date to “no earlier than Feb. 1”, 2022.
- LinkedIn reversed its planned return to office entirely, announcing that most of its 16,000 employees will be allowed to work remotely full-time.
- On Wall Street, mega-bank Wells Fargo and BlackRock, the world’s largest asset manager, pushed their reopening to at least October.
- BigLaw firms similarly are delaying return-to-office plans, with Cozen O’Connor pushing it to late September, Faegre Drinker to Oct. 4, and Wilson Sonsini to Oct. 25, according to Law.com.
Business leaders attributed the changes in plans to bring large groups of people together indoors to concern over the spread of Delta.
“There are increased caseloads across the globe, and the Delta variant has caused us to adjust our plans,” Andy Cecere, CEO of US Bank, wrote to employees in announcing that US Bank would suspend its planned return to the office, previously scheduled for Sept. 7. No new date has been set.
The Dawn of Delta
The Delta variant of the COVID-19 virus is driving a surge in new infections and deaths from the disease. “For the first time since February , the United States is averaging more than 100,000 new coronavirus cases a day,” the New York Times reported on Monday, August 9, “a resurgence that is hitting especially hard in states where large portions of the population remain unvaccinated.”
Viruses change, or mutate, frequently as they spread through a population. The original strain of the virus that caused the first cases of COVID-19 in the United States in January 2020, for example, is no longer detected among the variants circulating in the country today. Scientists chart the genetic makeup of the circulating viruses to quickly identify the emergence of new variants and monitor their impact on countermeasures such as vaccines, treatments, and diagnostics.
Variants are classified in the U.S. into three tiers of increasing significance: Variant of Interest, Variant of Concern, and Variant of High Consequence. Today, health officials are monitoring six Variants of Interest, including Eta, Iota, and Kappa, and four Variants of Concern:
- Alpha, first identified in the United Kingdom
- Beta, first identified in South Africa
- Delta, first identified in India
- Gamma, first identified in Japan and Brazil
In the region that includes Pennsylvania (along with Delaware, Washington, D.C., Maryland, Virginia, and West Virginia), the proportion of the circulating COVID-19 variants has shifted significantly in recent weeks. In May 2021, the variants Beta, Gamma, and Iota were detected in small quantities while the overwhelming number of cases – more than 70% – were caused by the Alpha variant.
By the end of July 2021, the Alpha variant had dropped to 6% of the cases in the region, and Beta and Iota had all but vanished. Instead, Delta was in the driver’s seat, causing 84% of the COVID-19 infections in the region. First detected in India in 2020, the Delta variant swept through the subcontinent, then through Great Britain, and now is the dominant strain of COVID-19 across the United States.
HR Requirements: Masks and Vaccines
One of the reasons the spread of the Delta variant is giving health officials pause is the mounting evidence that it is far more contagious than the original strain. An internal CDC document obtained by the New York Times said Delta is as contagious as chickenpox and more transmissible than 10 pandemic and common viruses, from Bird flu, Smallpox, and the 1918 flu to polio and the common cold.
“The amount of virus in a person infected with Delta is a thousandfold more than what is seen in people infected with the original version of the virus,” said the New York Times, citing a recent study of a large, well-traced outbreak caused by the Delta variant.
The dramatically increased rate of transmission, coupled with concern that Delta might cause more severe illness in unvaccinated people, spurred the CDC to recommend masks again indoors, even for fully vaccinated people, particularly if you’re in an area “of substantial or high transmission” and if you or someone you love is at increased risk of severe disease. The CDC also has stepped up its campaign to try to increase vaccination levels across the country.
“Given what we know about the Delta variant, vaccine effectiveness, and current vaccine coverage, layered prevention strategies, such as wearing masks, are needed to reduce the transmission of this variant,” the CDC said.
That updated guidance has spurred business leaders to institute new HR requirements for employees and, in some cases, for visitors.
No Jab, No Job?
Though few companies have expressly said that unvaccinated employees will be out of a job, an increasing number are requiring employees to show proof of vaccination to get back to work.
United Airlines announced that it will require its U.S. employees to be vaccinated. CEO Scott Kirby wrote in a notice to customers, “We’ve all learned a lot about this disease, including that vaccines are — by far — the most effective way to protect people from the virus and its variants… Our greatest responsibility to our employees is to ensure their safety when they’re at work at our airports and on our aircraft. And the facts say that we’re all safer when we’re all vaccinated.”
Google and Facebook will require anyone coming to work at any of their U.S. campuses to be vaccinated.
BigLaw firms Seyfarth Shaw, Cozen O’Connor, and Faegre Drinker will require vaccinations to enter their offices. Seyfarth Shaw said anyone entering its offices will have to prove they are either fully vaccinated against COVID-19 or have tested negative for the disease, according to Bloomberg Law, adding that unvaccinated attorneys and staff will have to get tested weekly.
Investment bank Goldman Sachs similarly will require employees either to be vaccinated or to wear masks and undergo weekly testing.
Other major companies have instituted similar guidelines, including Disney, Lyft, Microsoft, Twitter, Salesforce, and Netflix – which is requiring vaccinations for cast members of all its U.S. productions.
Midsize law firms Hangley Aronchick Segal Pudlin & Schiller; Hanson Bridgett; Klehr Harrison Harvey Branzburg, Weber Gallagher Simpson Stapleton Fires & Newby, will require vaccinations for their employees to return to the office. In addition to employees, Hanson Bridgett’s vaccination policy applies “for anyone working in or visiting any of Hanson Bridgett’s five physical office locations or attending a firm-sponsored event at other locations” per a firmwide memo. The number of law firms announcing mandatory vaccination policies is growing daily.
Employment Law Attorneys: ‘Don’t Ask Too Much’
Business leaders face a significant challenge in trying to implement and communicate evolving workplace policies regarding COVID-19. SHRM, Society of Human Resources Management, offers the following advice on how to ask employees about their vaccination status:
- Limit the Inquiry. Employers can ask for proof of COVID-19 vaccination, but don’t ask follow-up questions, including why the employee is or is not vaccinated.
- Maintain Confidentiality. Any documentation or confirmation that employees provide about vaccination status is considered medical information and must be kept confidential.
- Keep Policies Updated. Stay up to date on changing federal, state, and local rules that apply to your workplace, and establish a process for tracking vaccination status and train relevant team members to handle the inquiry appropriately.
Meanwhile, the next frontier in the evolving COVID-19 pandemic may be increasing frustration and anger toward those who refuse to get vaccinated, and increasing restrictions on terms of employment for the unvaccinated.
Employer Considerations Regarding Return-to-Office Plans
It is imperative for employers to understand the needs of their employees, clients/customers, and the court of public opinion. Return-to-office plans affect these audiences on many levels. For some, it is their ability to be effective at work and to seek opportunities for promotion. For others, it is their need to keep themselves and other family members safe and to provide proper childcare at home. There is no one-size-fits-all approach to how employers should handle return-to-office plans; however, it is important to ask the following questions.
- What lessons did we learn as a result of COVID-19 and business closures? How do those lessons affect our employees and business?
- If we have to close again what would we do the same and what would we do differently?
- Can we be effective in delivering our services remotely? If so, how? If not, what do we need to do to keep our employees and visitors safe?
- What flexibility is necessary to support the diverse needs of our workforce?
- What technologies do we need to put in place to give our employees the tools for success?
- Are we willing to take a stand on vaccinations?
- What standard of care do we want to set and live by that fits within our corporate culture?
SHRM has also put together a roundup of the most common questions facing employers grappling with the impacts of COVID-19 on the workplace.
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