The Omicron Variant: How Employers Should Respond

The emergence of the Omicron variant of Covid-19 is once again forcing employers to reconsider the measures they are taking to protect employees, customers, suppliers, and distributors. This article — an updated version of a piece published in July 2021 when the Delta variant was sweeping the United States — offers guidelines.

The emergence of the Omicron variant of Covid-19 has dimmed hopes that the pandemic will soon fade away and once again has employers pondering how they can fulfill their difficult obligations to keep their workforce safe and to meet their business needs.

The good news is that as the virus has evolved, employers have honed their strategies to keep infections in check. By continuing to be creative, flexible, and adaptive in their approaches, they can contain the threat now and handle other outbreaks if other variants arise — a significant possibility given the low levels of vaccinations in many parts of the world, including some areas of the United States. Here are some broad measures they can apply.

Encourage Vaccination

Vaccination remains the best way to prevent serious illness, hospitalization, or death from Covid-19, and those who are vaccinated are six times less likely to be infected, 12 times less likely to be hospitalized, and 14 times less likely to die of Covid-19.

In a survey of 543 U.S. employers conducted in November, we found that more than half (57%) plan to require Covid-19 vaccines for employees if the Occupational Health and Safety Administration’s (OSHA) Emergency Temporary Standard and the federal contractor executive order are upheld in the courts. Only 25% of employers would have vaccine mandates if these two rules are overturned.

It doesn’t appear that Covid vaccination mandates are having a large impact on recruitment or retention: Only about 13% of respondents said the mandates led to employee resignations, while the same proportion (13%) reported mandates helped with employee recruitment or retention.

Providing easy access to vaccinations is key to increasing their adoption among those who are not highly motivated. Employers should continue to promote vaccination through flexible scheduling and paid time off, and they should consider joining those companies that are now conducting worksite vaccinations.

Consider Local Transmission Rates in Return-to-the-Office Decisions

Twenty-seven percent of the companies responding to our November survey reported that all employees whose jobs can be performed remotely had already returned to the workplace, and 56% reported that some of these employees had returned.

We expect that many companies will now pause returning remote employees to the workplace until more is known about the transmissibility and severity of the Omicron variant and its ability to evade the immunity provided by vaccines and previous infections.

The risk of workplace Covid-19 transmission is highly correlated with the community infection rate. Businesses can feel comfortable about having their remote workers return to their facilities in communities where the current weekly infection rate is low (less than 10 per 100,000).

However, there are many communities with weekly infection rates that exceed 50 per 100,000 where the likelihood that an employee will bring Covid-19 into the workplace is very high. Companies can reduce this risk by delaying employees’ return or by keeping down the number of employees in the workplace through hybrid work and staggered schedules.

The immunocompromised — including those undergoing cancer treatment, taking immunosuppressive drugs, or who have had organ transplants — should consider continuing to work remotely until the rates of infection decline substantially.

Reduce Exposure through Social Distancing

Flexible schedules and remote work have helped create adequate social distancing. Moreover, employers are transitioning remote employees back to the workplace gradually or on a staggered basis to increase safety as they adopt new ways of working. Employers can use behavioral economics techniques to “nudge” employees to maintain social distancing at the workplace. If the capacity of a conference room should be two people, be sure there are only two chairs in it!

Improve Ventilation

Ventilation in a building impacts transmission and increasing the amount of air that’s exchanged indoors decreases the likelihood of infection in the workplace. Improving ventilation doesn’t always require expensive renovations; many workplaces can add more air exchanges and improve the filtration systems on existing air-handling systems, and some can open windows. However, employers can skip ultraviolet lights, given that there is little evidence that ultraviolet treatment of indoor air prevents Covid-19 transmission.

Decide When to Recommend or Require Masks

Masks provide protection against both being infected with Covid-19 and infecting others. Our November survey found that 90% of employers required indoor masks; most (58%) required masks regardless of vaccination status, and most (70%) reported mask mandates at all locations. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends wearing masks when indoors with others, whether vaccinated or not, if community transmission is high or substantial. In the workplace, some employers restrict unvaccinated employees from entering certain areas where mask-wearing is difficult such as cafeterias or gyms.

Some healthy vaccinated employees may choose to wear masks indoors during any local outbreaks. Employers can avoid complaints under the Americans with Disabilities Act about masking requirements by abiding by the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission’s guidelines.

Encourage Testing

Eighty-four percent of the employer respondents to our survey said they plan to offer regular testing, including some employers that have not implemented a vaccine mandate and do not plan to do so. Of the employers that plan to offer testing, 80% intend to do it at least weekly. Twenty-five percent of employers expected that employees would pay for the cost of testing where state law allows.

The leading choice for Covid-19 surveillance testing is antigen tests, which are modest in cost and provide results available in real time; however, securing a sufficient supply is still a challenge in many parts of the country. Employers can instruct employees to do the test under observation to meet OSHA guidelines and can arrange follow-up confirmatory tests for those who have no symptoms but are positive. All employees should be instructed not to come to the workplace if they feel ill.

Be Cautious about Reinstituting Travel

Most companies curtailed or eliminated business travel earlier in the pandemic, and many were reinstituting travel when we learned of the Omicron variant. The variant could increase risk of travel, and rapidly changing international rules increase the risk of quarantine or travel disruption.

More contagious variants mean that leaders should err on the side of caution in allowing employees to travel to places where risks of Covid-19 infection are high and instead should ask them to conduct business meetings by videoconference. Recognizing the cost and time savings and environmental benefits of reduced travel, leaders are likely to continue to hold down their travel and expense budgets for the foreseeable future.

Communicate Exposures

Many workplaces will experience Covid-19 cases over the coming months. Employers should communicate honestly about exposures in given facilities, while respecting the medical privacy of employees who have reported that they have Covid-19. Vaccinated employees who are exposed to Covid-19 should not be required to quarantine if asymptomatic.

Support Mental Health Care

Attending to employee mental health needs will be even more important in the coming months. Rates of depression and anxiety have surged during the pandemic, and the drug overdose death toll in the United States exceeded 100,000 from April 2020 till April 2021, a record annual level. Many are mourning the deaths of friends and loved ones.

Employers can continue offering access to virtual and digital mental health care, although they should take into account the fact that scientific evidence of the effectiveness of many digital mental health apps is still limited.

Stay Current on the Effectiveness of Interventions

Last, we recommend that businesses keep up to date on which interventions to limit the spread of Covid-19 are effective and which ones have limited value. For example, we found that most businesses have eliminated temperature screenings, which had proved to be ineffective in decreasing workplace transmission.

We also now know that normal cleaning is adequate to protect against Covid-19 infections in most instances, and disinfection can be reserved for high-touch, high-traffic surfaces and workplaces with a known Covid-19 case. Employers can create more bandwidth for effective pandemic or business initiatives by eliminating those which minimally increase safety.

Clinical recommendations are being updated frequently, too. Changes in booster, mask, travel and quarantine guidelines are posted here by the CDC.

Covid-19 has been a humanitarian tragedy and has upended business plans across the globe. Unfortunately, the pandemic is not going to end imminently. Consequently, employers and their workers must continue to remain nimble. As the local situation dictates, employers must remain vigilant and implement existing and new processes that are proven to keep employees, customers, and communities safe while meeting their organizations’ needs.