To relax Covid guidelines in the workplace or not to relax Covid guidelines; that is the question.
Just as individuals are reacquainting themselves with their workplaces, the world has recently learned about a new, more powerful version of the dreaded coronavirus – the Delta variant. Little is yet known about this variant, but already there has been literature published trying to forewarn the public about the complications it might bring. “The B.1.617.2 (Delta) variant of the severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2 (SARS-CoV-2), the virus that causes coronavirus disease 2019 (Covid-19), has contributed to a surge in cases in India and has now been detected across the globe, including a notable increase in cases in the United Kingdom. The effectiveness of the BNT162b2 and ChAdOx1 nCoV-19 vaccines against this variant has been unclear,” researchers cite in an article published last month in The New England Journal of Medicine.
Just when everyone was feeling a little safer and removing their masks after the widespread distribution of the vaccine, this news has heightened anxiety levels once again. Kelly Harris, a personal grocery shopper in Steubenville, Ohio, was vaccinated in March. She felt she was “good to go” and didn’t have to worry about bringing anything home to her family. Her sense of relief has now turned to dread.
“I try to stay away from everybody and use self-checkout,” she said. “It has me pretty stressed out.”
Many workers share her sentiments, and yet, employers are expecting them to return to work – with or without a mask and social distancing measures in place. Tensions are rising and workers’ unions are already positioning themselves for what’s to come.
“I think we’re rushing to return to normal,” said Marc Perrone, the president of the United Food and Commercial Workers, which has over one million members employed in a variety of workplaces.
Even those vaccinated run a risk of being reinfected, meaning workplaces are not safe even if all have received the vaccine. “Coronavirus vaccines were never designed to perfectly protect people against all infections,” explained Dr. Eric Topol, founder of the Scripps Research Translational Institute in California.
A worker at an Amazon warehouse in Oregon, who did not want to be named, said there has been a gradual scaling back of safety features, like the removal of physical barriers between warehouse workers.
Kelly Nantel, an Amazon spokeswoman, confirmed the company had removed barriers in some parts of warehouses where workers don’t spend much time. She clarified, “We’re continuously evaluating the temporary measures we implemented in response to Covid-19 and making adjustments in alignment with public health authority guidance,” and added that the company would “begin ramping down our U.S. testing operations by July 30, 2021.”
REI, the outdoor equipment and apparel retailer, has recently rolled out harsh attendance policy that it had originally planned to put in place before the pandemic, according to workers who also did not want to be named. Under the policy, part-time employees who use more than their designated sick days away from their workplaces are subject to discipline up to job loss.
Halley Knigge, a spokeswoman for REI, said, the company “allowed part-time workers to accrue sick leave for the first time and that the disciplinary policy was not substantively new but merely reworded. The stores continue to restrict occupancy to no more than 50 percent capacity, as they have since June 2020.”
Karyn Johnson-Dorsey, a personal shopper from Riverside, California, said it had been increasingly difficult to maintain a safe distance from unmasked customers. “You have whole families who are picking out a pound of ground beef,” she said. “Children who are not vaccinated because of age are touching everything, not masked, either.”
On Tuesday, after the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention provided new guidance on masking, some employers said they would adjust their policies as warranted.
“We’d always defer to state and local ordinances on capacity and masking mandates,” said a spokeswoman for Albertsons, which also owns Safeway and Jewel-Osco. “We don’t have a national mandate on capacity at this time.”
This bring little solace to those who are actively working with this lack of guidance.