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Employer vaccine mandates set stage for return to office

COVID-19 mandates may be clearing the way to a return to the office, but employees may still have concerns about office air quality and cleaning standards.

Employer vaccine mandates may not be leading to a level of resignations that some feared. Early evidence suggests that when push comes to shove, all but a small percentage of workers will reject either a vaccination or routine COVID-19 testing.

Connecticut, for instance, is considering taking action as early as this Friday against employees who refuse both vaccinations and weekly COVID-19 testing. But at this point, only 2.2% or 671 of the state's 30,200 employees may be rejecting both options. And Connecticut officials said they believe the number will fall once workers complete submissions for the required vaccination paperwork.

In another example, United Airlines said as of Friday that only 232 of its employees -- out of 67,000 U.S. employees -- are seeking exemptions to its vaccine requirement, a spokeswoman said in an email. The airline's workforce is 99.7% vaccinated, the airline said.

"I think you'll find that more people claim that they will resign than actually resign," said J.P. Gownder, an analyst at Forrester Research. "Many of them eventually wind up getting vaccinated."

But not all firms have imposed employer vaccine mandates. Private employers may be holding out for Occupational Safety and Health Administration vaccination rules for firms. Last month, President Joe Biden set a national vaccine mandate for all businesses with 100 or more employees. Firms holding off on an employer vaccine mandate may also be awaiting the outcomes of legal challenges.

Firms that are more welcoming of unvaccinated workers face a different risk. "Those who do not mandate can also lose some of their employees," Gownder said. 

Some firms, such as Delta Air Lines, are using incentives, not employer vaccine mandates.

Attention shifts to office standards

The arrival of employer vaccine mandates casts a new light on the to return to offices, pre-empted by the arrival of the delta variant.

Last week in New York, industry and advocacy groups discussed steps to ensure clean offices. Increasingly, facilities managers have been working closely with HR managers on cleaning and health strategies as well as office design to account for the shift to hybrid and remote work.

Approximately 1.2 million New York City workers started working remotely once COVID-19 hit, said Kathryn Wylde, president and CEO at Partnership for New York City, a business advocacy group for employers in the city.

At the end of August, the partnership surveyed employers on their return-to-office plans. Respondents estimated that 40% of their workers would be back in the office by the end of September. But with the delta variant, "we're not sure that we hit the 40% rate yet," Wylde said.

The return to the office has been slow and repeatedly delayed by the recurring outbreaks and new strains of the virus.
Kathryn WyldePresident and CEO, Partnership for New York City

"The return to the office has been slow and repeatedly delayed by the recurring outbreaks and new strains of the virus, which is disappointing," she said at a virtual media briefing this week.

The Cleaning Coalition of America, an industry group that comprises firms that provide cleaning services, recently released a paper about pathogens of all types on surfaces, including the flu and the common cold.

Its paper said some of the most common spots for germs include microwave handles, water fountain buttons, refrigerator door handles, vending machine buttons, sink and faucet handles, and keyboards. The paper cited data that points to a significant economic impact from workplace disease transmission.

But the group isn't recommending surface cleaning to the exclusion of air filtration systems that help reduce the spread of COVID-19 and other germs. It sees a need for both. 

Air filtration systems

One independent expert, Philip Tierno, a professor of microbiology and pathology at New York University Grossman School of Medicine, recommended a combination of strategies to ensure a safe environment.

COVID-19 virus particles are less than five micrometers in diameters, and do not fall quickly when airborne, Tierno said.

He added that virus particles can "move about, according to the way air currents are flowing." He said the virus can also remain in the air for many minutes to hours and can be spread by HVAC systems. 

Another risk factor is shared restrooms. COVID-19 can reside in the intestines and can be aerosolized when flushing, Tierno said. 

Unsanitized doorknobs and elevator buttons can also cause cross contamination, "but that is a less significant factor for COVID than it is for ordinary cold viruses and even the flu," Tierno said. 

The HVAC system "is extremely important," Tierno said. 

He recommended companies apply a number of approaches to improve air quality, including the use of high-efficiency particulate air (HEPA) filters, which can eliminate 99.7% to 99.99% of particles. But, he added, not all systems can use HEPA filters because they can restrict airflow.

HEPA filters are also reactive, working only when air hits the filter. To address that problem, Tierno also recommended bipolar ionization systems, which deactivate airborne microbes by producing ions that kill the proteins on the surface.

Tierno said he believes offices should use multiple methods, such as HEPA filters and ultraviolet lights in HVAC systems that can kill viruses along with bipolar ionization and cleaning.

Patrick Thibodeau covers HCM and ERP technologies for TechTarget. He's worked for more than two decades as an enterprise IT reporter.

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