Masks at the office? Employers take on role of COVID czars – Daily News

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By Jeff Green and Michael Tobin | Bloomberg

For millions of employees returning to the office after a long work-from-home hiatus, one of the biggest changes will be getting most of their pandemic orders from a new Covid-19 czar — their employer.

The decision by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to relax masking and social-distancing guidelines for vaccinated Americans has compelled employers to quickly determine how it should apply in their workplaces. JPMorgan Chase & Co., Southwest Airlines Co. and Walmart Inc. are telling vaccinated U.S. office workers they can drop the masks.

Others, such as Citigroup, are keeping the mask requirement. M&T Bank and Starbucks will allow vaccinated customers, but not employees, to shed facial coverings.

The lack of a centralized database of vaccinated Americans or a system employers can use to verify shots — and the legal and privacy ramifications of tracking them — means that calling workers back is shaping up to be just as complicated as it was to send them home. Relying on the honor system for ditching masks risks bringing the acrimony that has roiled the public square into the private office. Either way, the burden is shifting to employers to figure it out.

“We are seeing businesses small, medium and large flexing their muscles and saying this is what we want, this is what we need and this is what we’re going for,” said Mara Aspinall, a professor of practice at Arizona State University’s College of Health Solutions. “This is a significant new state in the pandemic. Employers are beginning to, and will continue to, play a bigger role.”

The CDC caught employers and workers by surprise in upending its own policy and announcing May 13 that vaccinated workers can now drop their masks in most situations and no longer need to social distance, while keeping in place restrictions for those who haven’t been inoculated. As of Friday, 48% of U.S. adults were considered fully vaccinated and 61% have had at least one shot, according to the CDC.

The new rules have created a “cascade of confusion,” said Neal Mills, chief medical officer for insurance brokerage Aon. Only one client he’s aware of has a workforce that is 100% vaccinated, and levels of inoculation may vary widely even within subgroups at the same company. Claims data from companies is often weeks or months out of date, he said.

Retaining or adding regular testing will be key to making the new policies work, said Mills, who is also a family physician. Even with a vaccine, COVID-19 outbreaks will likely continue, much in the way measles is still a factor almost 60 years after a vaccine was introduced.

“The pandemic is not over,” Mills said. “We may have to mask up again later in the year. We can think of a whole host of scary scenarios we may have to be prepared for.”

Rules range

Companies are introducing a range of rules, often influenced by the industry they’re in and the kinds of jobs employees do. said it will no longer require vaccinated warehouse workers to wear masks, as long as those employees upload their inoculation data to the company’s portal. JPMorgan also requires workers to document their vaccination status. United Airlines Holdings is taking a similar stance at its non-airport offices, making face coverings optional for those who prove they’ve had shots.

The rules are disparate even within the same industries. While United and Southwest have made masks optional for vaccinated workers at their offices, Delta Air Lines and American Airlines Group require them for employees at their corporate locations, according to representatives for the companies. All airline workers on planes and in airports still must still wear masks, in accordance with CDC guidance.

Costco Wholesale, Target and Trader Joe’s eliminated mask requirements for vaccinated shoppers. Apple and many other retailers haven’t relaxed their rules.

Walmart, the nation’s biggest private employer, said it was dropping its mask requirement for fully vaccinated staff at all U.S. Walmart and Sam’s Club locations, distribution centers and offices. It’s not requiring proof of vaccination. There is an asterisk, as at most workplaces — masks could still be required by local ordinances.

Those local rules add to complexities. While New York has lifted indoor mask mandates for the vaccinated, neighboring New Jersey is still requiring them. California, the most populous state, is keeping masks in place until mid-June.

On the other end of the spectrum, Texas Governor Greg Abbott enacted an executive order last week that makes it illegal for local governments to require masks, and many companies have adopted the CDC guidance. Oil refiner Phillips 66, for instance, dropped mandatory masking for vaccinated employees at its Houston headquarters last week, with the exception of in elevators and the cafeteria.

Varied reactions

Employee reaction to shifting rules has, as expected from a pandemic that is highly politicized, run the gamut from disgust to jubilation.

A collegial feeling is back now that employees are fully vaccinated, said Kevin Frisz, a portfolio manager who works in midtown Manhattan. Frisz, who is fully vaccinated and comes into the office a few days a week, said employees still social distance and wear masks in the lobby of his workplace, but remove them while in the office.

“Having looked at the effectiveness of the vaccine data, I feel more than safe not wearing mine around the office with my coworkers,” he said. “If someone showed up for a meeting and the two or three of them were wearing masks, there’s sort of an unwritten rule that I should put mine on.”

Jenifer Bologna, a member of the disability, leave and health management group at the Jackson Lewis law firm in White Plains, New York, said she has been “inundated” by employer questions since the CDC announcement.

She said companies have three choices: rely on the honor system and assume anyone without a mask is vaccinated; have employees sign a policy saying they acknowledge they have to wear a mask if unvaccinated; or require proof of inoculation from each worker, she said.

The response can vary based on state and local laws. Some privacy statutes may prohibit asking employees about their vaccination status. On the opposite side, California’s Santa Clara County — the heart of Silicon Valley — is requiring companies to obtain the vaccination status of all workers before they return to the office, Bologna said.

An important factor will be for companies to emphasize why the CDC is relaxing the rules in the first place — the vaccines work, said Brad Sagarin, a professor of social and industrial psychology at Northern Illinois University.

“This is a very complicated time and the messaging and rules have changed drastically in a very short period of time, which leaves a lot of us reeling,” he said. “Clues and cues we were using only recently just don’t apply anymore.”

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