In the nearly 18 months since the pandemic first forced companies to send their employees to work from home, the date companies have planned to bring workers back to offices has changed again and again. First it was January, a full year after the coronavirus first surfaced in China. January slipped to July, as tens of millions of people lined up across the country to be vaccinated.
But then the surge of vaccinations peaked, and the highly contagious Delta variant of the coronavirus drove another surge in cases. For many companies, September became the new July.
Now September is out as an option, and it’s anybody’s guess when workers will return to their offices in large numbers, Kellen Browning, Lauren Hirsch and Coral Murphy-Marcos report for The New York Times.
Companies have new variables to consider, including:
Mask mandates that have been dropped and ordered back.
Evidence that the effectiveness of vaccines, while still strong, may be waning.
Burned-out workers who are vaccinated at varying rates.
There are also the differing infection rates across the country and a shifting power dynamic between employers and employees.
“I’ve been in H.R. for 30 years, and this is probably the hardest crisis I’ve had to deal with,” said Laura Faith, the senior director of people experience and operations at Uber. “This really is about life or death and health and safety.”
In addition to Uber, companies including Google, Amazon, Apple and Starbucks have said they will postpone their return dates to next year. Executives say their rationale for the long delay is twofold: In addition to wanting to keep employees out of harm’s way, they are seeking an end to the roller coaster of anticipated return dates and further delays. The fits and starts make it difficult for employees to plan, and the hope is that a far-off return date will not need to be adjusted yet again.
Intel’s chief executive, Patrick Gelsinger, acknowledged in an interview that the new wave of Covid-19 cases had “definitely stretched things out.”
“It’s challenging for all of us,” he said. “We get our hopes up, we’re ready to return to our quote-unquote normal lives, and then we take a few steps back.”
The rise of the Delta variant of the coronavirus has disrupted back-to-office plans for many companies, while others have already ordered employees to be at their desks.
CVS will require its pharmacists to be fully vaccinated by Nov. 30, while others who interact with patients, and all corporate staff, have until Oct. 31. The company announced to employees that most of its office sites would reopen on Tuesday.
Google said in July that it would require employees who returned to the company’s offices to be vaccinated against the coronavirus. It said on Aug. 31 that it would push back its return-to-office date to Jan. 10, from mid-October.
Starbucks is “encouraging” employees to be vaccinated. The company pushed its back-to-office date to January 2022, from October.
A California bill would require warehouse employers like Amazon to disclose productivity quotas for workers and would prohibit any quota that prevents workers from taking state-mandated breaks or using the bathroom when needed, or that keeps employers from complying with health and safety laws.
The legislation has drawn intense opposition from business groups, which argue that it would lead to an explosion of costly litigation and that it punishes a whole industry for the perceived excesses of a single employer.
“They’re going after one company, but at the same time they’re pulling everyone else in the supply chain under this umbrella,” said Rachel Michelin, the president of the California Retailers Association, on whose board Amazon sits.
California plays an outsize role in the e-commerce and distribution industry, both because of its huge economy and status as a tech hub and because it is home to the ports through which much of Amazon’s imported inventory arrives. The Inland Empire region, east of Los Angeles, has one of the highest concentrations of Amazon fulfillment centers in the country.
Kelly Nantel, an Amazon spokeswoman, declined to comment on the bill but said in a statement that “performance targets are determined based on actual employee performance over a period of time” and that they take into account the employee’s experience as well as health and safety considerations.