By The Washington Post · Rachel Weiner, Taylor Telford · NATIONAL, BUSINESS, HEALTH, SCIENCE-ENVIRONMENT
Americans who start returning to office jobs will find a substantially different environment than the one they left weeks ago, if their employers follow guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention on reopening safely during the coronavirus pandemic.
While restaurants, resorts and retail stores have started reopening, many businesses with employees who can more easily telework have said they plan to stay closed at least until Labor Day. But the economic devastation of the pandemic has hit white-collar workers, too, with law firms, management companies and other firms laying off or furloughing staff.
Some CDC recommendations would require investment in new equipment to improve ventilation and air filtration, and to attempt to kill germs with ultraviolet light. The guidelines call for rearranging furniture to keep workers six feet apart, and physical barriers to separate them. Trash cans that require lifting a lid should be replaced with no-touch options.
Other guidance would be a struggle for many companies to implement without moving into larger, more expensive spaces - especially to keep workers six feet apart, even on elevators.
The CDC recommendations say workers should be encouraged to drive alone rather than sharing rides or taking public transportation. Communal drinks and snacks should be replaced with single-use items. Work stations, keyboards, telephones, handrails, printers and copiers, drinking fountains, and doorknobs should be sanitized regularly. Meetings and group lunches should be outdoors if possible.
Some recommendations are stricter than what the CDC previously suggested. In early May, the agency told employers to "encourage workers to wear a cloth face covering at work if appropriate." Now, the CDC said "employees should wear a cloth face covering to cover their nose and mouth in all areas of the business." Visitors should also be asked to wear masks and stay six feet apart from employees. Employees with a sick family member were previously told to follow safety protocols; the CDC now said those workers should stay home.
Offices that have been closed for several months, the CDC warns, should also be checked for mold, rodents and stagnant water before reopening.
Rick Woldenberg, chief executive of the Vernon, Illinois-based toy company Learning Resources, said the guidelines were "kind of just a nice way of saying you can't go back to the office." His 300 employees moved into new headquarters March 3 and then to their homes a week later. The remodeling did not account for a global pandemic: There are few interior walls, and the windows don't open. Even if they could constantly ventilate and sanitize, he said, he thinks it would leave employees uncomfortable and on edge.
"Having to wipe everything down every five minutes is just a reminder you're in a dangerous place," he said.
He said he expects most of his team will keep working from home until it is clearer how risky certain behaviors are, such as touching shared surfaces.
"We don't have to be on the bleeding edge; we can wait and see how other people have figured it out," he said.
Columbia Sportswear is one such company.
"This is a rare instance where the government is so many steps behind the private sector, it's not even funny," said Peter Bragdon, the chief administrative officer and general counsel for the international clothing brand. "We benefit in part by being a global organization that's operating in countries where the public health issue has been managed competently."
He said only about a third of employees can safely return to the Portland, Oregon, headquarters under the guidelines. But, he said, the costs will still be high, and investing in changes as guidance shifts is a risk.
Concerns over changing regulations will be a problem across the business world, said Travis Vance, an attorney at Fisher Phillips who advises firms on workplace safety.
"A lot of companies have never had hazards that they knew of, so they didn't pay attention to OSHA regulations before," he said. "Now, every workplace is a hazardous environment."