COVID-19 Briefing: Key Considerations for Reopening Your Workplace

COVID-19 vaccines are being distributed in all 50 states—there is now light at the end of the tunnel. Many employers may be wondering if, when, and how they should begin reopening workplaces that have now been closed or at partial capacity for over a year. Watch this webinar to gain a better understanding of vaccine availability timelines, human resources best practices, and fluctuating transportation demands so that you can better manage your workplace in the next 6-12 months.

Moderator: Evelyn Lee, President, Greater Washington Region, SunTrust Bank now Truist

• Dr. Jesse Goodman, Director, Georgetown University’s Center on Medical Product Access, Safety & Stewardship
• Reggie Jones, DC Office Managing Partner, Fox Rothschild
• Shyam Kannan, Vice President of Planning, Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority

Watch the Recording

Read the Summary

Evelyn Lee began the webinar on a positive note, reminding viewers that a year ago we faced much more ambiguity and anxiety than we do now. Our understanding about how to protect ourselves against COVID-19 is more robust and many people are vaccinated, which is why many employers are preparing to reopen their offices. This panel discussion will investigate what the next 6-12 months might look like on that front.

Will everyone be able to get vaccinated in May?

Probably not. Dr. Jesse Goodman said that it will likely take some time to get the whole eligible population vaccinated, even if all adults are eligible as of May 1, as the Biden Administrations claims they will be. It will also take some time to get the vaccines approved for use in children.

What can employers require of their employees?

Reggie Jones explained that we are in uncharted territory and guidance is pulled from a patchwork of legal precedent.

First, companies should know that they can legally ask employees whether they are vaccinated so long as they keep that information confidential.

Second, they can also require their employees to be vaccinated, but it gets much more complicated. This is easier in the healthcare industry or education where an infected person could be a threat to others around them. But in other industries where employees could continue to work remotely, they may ask for that accommodation rather than be vaccinated. In that case, the employer would determine if there is a legitimate disability or sincerely held religious belief that prevents the employee from being vaccinated. (A sincerely held religious belief is different than a simple personal belief.) In that case, if possible, the company may wish to provide remote work accommodations.

In some cases, employees may want to come to work though they are not vaccinated, in other cases employees may have special circumstances that make them afraid to come to work regardless of their vaccination status.

Whether you should require vaccination depends on your bandwidth to navigate these complexities. But Mr. Jones stressed that it is navigable.

Is public transit a vector for COVID-19?

Shyam Kannan says no, research has shown that taking public transit is not a serious risk for COVID-19 transmission. That is because people spend less time on transit than they do in other spaces like office buildings, and the air inside Metro transit vehicles is recycled every 180 seconds. Metro has also continued to ensure proper spacing to avoid over crowding on trains and busses.

Mr. Kannan calls on Board of Trade members and friends to help with the “myth busting” that is needed to calm fears about getting back on transit.

Dr. Goodman agrees with Shyam’s assertion that public transit is not a significant vector for disease, assuming people are wearing masks and relatively distanced. He later added that the virus is not usually passed through surfaces. It passes through the air around people who have it. That’s why mask wearing and ventilation are so important, and why transit is not a significant vector.

Why have vaccination rates increased so rapidly in the past few months, and are there barriers left ahead of us?

Dr. Goodman says that the biggest factors that have contributed to increased vaccination rates are increased supply and improved organization and logistics. However, public acceptance is still an issue. Republican males are statistically much more likely to say they do not plan to be vaccinated, and minority populations have historically been hesitant as well.

How did Metro continue operating during the pandemic and how does Metro plan to operate over the next few months?

Mr. Kannan stressed that safety has been and will be a top priority for Metro. To protect riders, they have enhanced station and vehicle cleaning and kept capacity above demand to allow for social distancing while on trains and busses. To protect workers, they have switched to rear boarding and eliminated fares on busses so that the bus operator would not encounter customers, and they made changes to staffing, creating A teams and B teams so that workers had less exposure to each other.

Right now, they are providing 85% of pre-pandemic bus service and 80% of rail service, even though ridership is still down to about 5% of what it was pre-pandemic. On rail during peak commuting hours, there will be a train every 4-6 minutes. All stations will be open as normal. Metro will continue these service levels through June 2022.

Metrobus customers will have some service improvements coming soon. They will extend late night service until 2am on 32 lines. It should feel to riders like the transit system is much more “normal.”

What liabilities might employers face if they require employees to report to the office now, and how might those liabilities change over the year?

Some people may claim that an employer is not providing accommodations under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) or Title VII. They may also claim negligence, which is why companies should follow CDC guidance even if it is not required in their state. If you require people to be vaccinated, you may need to also provide paid time off to do so. If someone gets COVID-19 on the job, sick leave and treatment should be covered by workers’ compensation. Your HR staff are probably sensitive to these issues but may need a refresher.

What creative tactics have you seen employers use to encourage vaccination if they are not going to require it?

Mr. Jones says some companies have given out gift cards or small cash gifts. But if it is worth $500 or more you may violate the ADA because some individuals are not eligible to receive the vaccine, so you end up giving large gifts to some people and not others.

Will the vaccines be effective against the variants? How long do the vaccines work?

Dr. Goodman says that as of now it appears that a high degree of effectiveness lasts at least six months. They will likely provide protection for a year or more, but as of now we do not know the vaccines’ duration for certain.

Variants are an attempt by the virus to confuse our immune systems. Fortunately, the vaccines appear to be quite effective at preventing severe disease and death from the variants, but they may be less effective at preventing mild disease. Boosters against variants in the future may be needed and it should be a much more accelerated production/distribution process compared to what it took to provide the vaccines.