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Is It Safe to Go Back to the Office?

Experts say communication is key to navigating a return

spinner image a man in a mask applies hand sanitizer before returning to work

Since mid-March, when the coronavirus outbreak was declared a national emergency, employers across the nation have had to change how they do business. From the new safety practices designed to protect workers and customers of businesses like grocery stores to the work-from-home orders that many employers have mandated, doing your job during the pandemic has been anything but business as usual.

Watch: Navigating the New Normal of Going to the Office

But now that more companies are opening their offices once again, many older workers and people with underlying health conditions — who are more susceptible to severe complications from COVID-19 — are wondering whether it's safe to return. With guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), many companies are starting to implement new practices to prevent the spread of the coronavirus.

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Workplace safety experts say one key to protecting employees’ health will be open and ongoing communication between workers and their bosses.

"One of the things that I think older workers need to be aware of is that they should not hesitate to ask questions of their employers,” says Lawrence Sloan, CEO of the American Industrial Hygiene Association (AIHA), the organization for professions that focus on occupational health and safety. “If you are returning to work for the first time in months, I think all employees have the right to ask their employers about understanding what the new workplace policies are that are going to be put into place."

CDC guidelines for office buildings

What those policies might look like is starting to come into clearer focus. The CDC recently released new guidance for what office buildings might do to deter the spread of COVID-19 in the workplace. The office recommendations include:

• Temperature and symptom checks when employees arrive at work

• Desks that are at least 6 feet apart or separated by plastic dividers when that's not possible

• Limits on how many people may be in an elevator at one time

• Improving the airflow through the office, either by opening windows or modifying the air-conditioning/heating system

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• Closing off common areas to prevent workers from gathering

• Masks worn as much as possible

• Prohibiting handshakes, hugs and fist bumps, among other recommendations

Right now, these office guidelines are not mandatory across the nation, with each state and employer left to decide whether to implement them in part or whole.

"It's a real patchwork out there in the United States,” says Debbie Berkowitz, worker health and safety director for the National Employment Law Project, a nonprofit that advocates on behalf of workers. “But if you're going to stop the spread of COVID-19 in the community, you have to make sure you're mitigating the spread of the disease in the workplace. You don't want people to get it at work and then spread it back out into the community."

Some older workers worry

There is evidence to suggest that older workers are concerned about coming back into the office. Qualtrics, a company that helps employers measure their workers’ satisfaction, in late April found that 7 in 10 people 55 and older were concerned about the possibility of returning to work.

Complicating matters, not every older adult is in a job in which he or she can work from home. According to the Center for Retirement Research at Boston College, roughly 55 percent of older workers are not able to telecommute. “Given that low-paid workers are less likely to be in occupations where they can work remotely, the opening up of the economy means that they will face either the health risk of returning to work before the virus is under control or the economic risk of exhausting their resources,” says Anqi Chen, an assistant director at the Center for Retirement Research.

There's also the question of paid sick leave. Workers who can't afford to take time off if they're ill might pose health hazards to their coworkers and clients. According to the Pew Research Center, 24 percent of civilian workers in the U.S. did not get paid sick leave at their jobs before the pandemic. Federal legislation enacted in response to the COVID-19 outbreak does provide paid sick leave to more workers, but that legislation does not cover all employers and expires at the end of the year.

Open dialogue is critical

Employers will need to maintain a dialogue with older employees about how safe they feel in the office environment, experts say. Employers “recognize that they're going to have to really allay the concerns,” AIHA's Sloan says. “Workers, particularly those age 50 and over, should be very conversant with their employers.” (Learn more about workers’ rights during the pandemic.)

"It's important that employers must allow workers to express concerns, to raise concerns and then to address those concerns,” Berkowitz adds.

What those concerns ultimately may be will depend on how job duties and relationships may change as more people go back to work in office environments that have been reshaped by the pandemic. One thing that is certain is that employees of all ages will need to be more aware of the impact their decisions may have on their own health and that of their coworkers.

"Everybody's going to have a different level of comfort,” Sloan says. “So, you're going to see some people who are going to exercise additional caution when they're in the physical office space more than others. But at the very least, whatever guidelines the employer is recommending or requiring to be adopted, everybody should comply with the bare minimum."

Should You Go to Work if You Might Be Sick?

For people who earn hourly wages or don't normally have access to paid sick leave, the choice of whether to stay home if they have symptoms of or exposure to COVID-19 is not an easy one.

Here's the guidance from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to employers: “Actively encourage employees who have symptoms of COVID-19 or who have a sick family member at home with COVID-19 to notify their supervisor and stay home."

But taking time off from work might be difficult for people who don't get paid sick leave. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, nearly 33.6 million people didn't have access to paid sick leave through their jobs last year. Among workers who earned $13.80 per hour or less, only 51 percent could take paid sick leave.

Recognizing the risks of forcing so many people to choose between their income and the health of others during a pandemic, lawmakers enacted the Families First Coronavirus Response Act in March. That law requires more employers to provide paid sick leave and family medical leave to workers through Dec. 31.

In general, the Families First act requires employers to provide up to two weeks (80 hours) of paid sick leave at a worker's regular pay rate to those experiencing COVID-19 symptoms or self-quarantining. This law also requires employers to provide up to two weeks (80 hours) of leave at two-thirds of the worker's pay rate if the employee needs to take time off to provide caregiving for someone who is quarantined.

But companies with more than 500 employees are exempted from providing the Families First sick leave benefits (though many larger companies already offer paid sick leave). And, on the other end of the spectrum, small businesses with 50 employees or fewer also can seek exemptions if offering the benefit would “jeopardize the viability of the business.”

There are some signs that paid sick leave laws may be helping to slow the spread of the coronavirus. A new study from Georgia State University found that such laws did keep people from working while they were sick. “If paid sick leave helps stop people from attending work while sick and prevents the spread of disease as a result, this has important policy implications in today's fight to contain COVID-19,” says Michael Pesko, who cowrote the report.

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