For workers fortunate enough to have been working remotely during the pandemic amid historic layoffs, thoughts about a return to the workplace are not just centered around plexiglass dividers, sanitizer dispensers, and separated workstations.
Employees surveyed by NBC News had a whole range of concerns. How will the elevator be handled? Will you need to get a temperature check every time you enter the building? Will one-way pathways be established in hallways? If employees are required to use contact tracing devices or apps, who gets to keep the data and how will personal privacy be protected? What if a coworker becomes infected? If someone doesn’t comply with safety guidelines, how will they be enforced?
Already, it’s not clear that a “right” answer on all of these questions would send desk jockeys clamoring to get back to their chairs. Only 47 percent of employees said improved safety measures would make them feel comfortable returning to the office, according to a survey from consulting giant PwC. Some say they won't be ready to go back until there’s a vaccine — and one that has been proven to be safe and effective.
One of the biggest issues is timing. Return-to-work dates have largely been pushed back from September to the beginning of January. Now, dates are getting pushed back even further, with companies such as Facebook, Google and Uber encouraging staff to continue working remotely until mid-2021. The new strategy is designed to allow families to plan a whole year of remote school from a new location, or indefinitely.
Most employers plan to have only 5 to 15 percent of their workforce return before the end of 2020, said Bhushan Sethi, global people and organization co-leader at the PwC consulting agency. Even then, that number would be limited to employees who require physical site access, such as some technical and operational roles.
With cases rising in some states, there are no more discussions of alternatives such as setting up satellite offices, heavily discussed in early June. Employers are back to waiting and watching the data.
Employees have some burning questions — and answers — before they would want to come back.
“We'd need to have social distancing in the workplace, masks at all times, and we'd likely need to have meetings continue to be virtual, as none of the meeting rooms I've ever been in really have enough space to maintain social distancing,” said Dan, a software manager, who asked that his last name be withheld as he’s not authorized by his company to speak publicly.
“We'd need to reconfigure the break rooms too, so that people can avoid piling up at the coffee machine and refrigerator,” he said. “Hand sanitizer stations and foot handles for doors would also be nice.”
After working remotely, some employees discovered that a few of their technical skills had become computerized or that the workflow developed workarounds. Now, they’re worried that with decreased responsibilities, their employer would think about cutting their salary.
Experts say employers aren’t talking about reducing salaries in that way, but employees in the U.S. are largely “at will,” which means they can be fired for any reason that is not illegal. If an employer orders employees back to work and they refuse, those employees can be let go.
“There’s no one-size-fits-all solution” Sethi said. “There is personalization of return-to-work plans based on individuals, demographics, and understanding common constraints and needs. The last thing people want is workers fearful of coming back to the office or of their job.”
Businesses have had to submit their restart plans with new safety measures in order to be allowed to reopen their doors under phased reopening. While most employers say they will follow guidelines set by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, compliance is largely left up to businesses. With workers thankful to have jobs during record unemployment, most employees are afraid to flag any safety breaches or issues.
However, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, the federal agency in charge of workplace safety, has said it has received nearly 8,000 complaints about unsafe work situations related to COVID-19, according to the agency’s database. Over 6,500 of them have been closed.
“OSHA is supposed to protect workers. All they’ve done is issue suggestions and voluntary guidance,” to employers,” said Sharon Block, former Assistant Secretary of Labor for OSHA and current executive director of the Labor and Worklife Program at Harvard Law School.
OSHA has “turned everything over to employers to inspect themselves,” Block said. “If workers can’t rely on the federal government to stand up for them, they have to stand up for themselves.” Some workers have been fired for speaking up about conditions, she said.
OSHA didn’t respond to an NBC News request for comment.
Block recommended that concerned employees should document conditions at work and, if they feel unsafe, workers can consider leaving and filing for unemployment, using the unsafe conditions as justification.
“But the employer can fight it, and then the employee is in a legal fight with their employer while trying to put food on the table,” she said.
Dan said he’s been fortunate enough to have a leadership team at work whom he trusts won’t ask employees to return until there’s “verifiable data” that they can do so safely.
If his state’s governor and health authorities say it’s safe, “I'm likely to have at least some confidence,” he said.