Businesses are again considering office protocols as the more transmissible omicron variant causes a rise in COVID-19 cases.
For some, that may mean more mask-wearing, virtual meetings, remote work and perhaps a vaccine mandate.
At the Port of New Orleans, staff is allowed to work remotely if possible. Sanitizing, mask wearing and handwashing are encouraged, as are virtual meetings. In-person meetings must be socially distanced, said Jessica Ragusa, port spokesperson.
A robust contact tracing program has helped identify close contacts and alert those employees for testing or quarantine, she said.
“We have communicated clearly to employees to stay home if you are sick as well as to wash hands frequently and sanitize your workspace,” Ragusa said. “Communication to staff is important. Sharing our processes and practices helps everyone stay on the same page.”
At Adams and Reese, leaders note that the latest variant appears milder than others, and employees who test positive can return to work quicker than in the past. The CDC in late December shortened the recommended time for isolation to five days, followed by five days of mask wearing for people who are asymptomatic or without fever for 24 hours.
Vaccinations are not required at the New Orleans-based law firm. Gif Thornton, managing partner, said they are encouraged, and almost all of the partners and staff have been vaccinated. The firm’s human resources department continues to follow local, state and federal guidance for in-office work, he said, and COVID policies in place since March 2020 “continue to serve us well, even as we weather the omicron variant.”
The biggest change at larger companies would be a federal mandate on vaccines or weekly testing, now being considered by the U.S. Supreme Court. The Court’s conservative majority has appeared skeptical of the Biden administration’s authority to impose the requirements on companies with 100 or more workers. Justices began hearing arguments in the case Jan. 7. Businesses that contract with the federal government would also be under the vaccine-or-testing mandate.
The vast majority of New Orleans-area businesses, though, are smaller companies that can follow their own rules as long as they don’t conflict with local or state regulations, according to Edward Harold, regional managing partner at the local office of Fisher Phillips.
Louisiana and New Orleans are not currently under a mask mandate, although a vaccine mandate in the city that began last year remains in effect for patrons at bars, restaurants and other venues.
If a business wants to put a vaccine or mask mandate in place, or doesn’t feel that five days of isolation is enough after a positive COVID-19 test, they can create stricter policies and enforce those while keeping in mind medical and religious exemptions, Harold said.
“Right now it looks like employers are taking a look and deciding for themselves what’s best, and they are fee to do that in the absence of (government) requirements,” he said. “You are free as a private employer to be more restrictive and do what you think works best for your business.”
That’s what New Orleans digital marketing agency Online Optimism has done. The smaller company put a vaccine mandate in place for staff in October and allows employees to choose day-to-day whether to work remotely or in the office.
“We did it because that’s what the experts told us to do,” founder and CEO Flynn Zaiger said. “It’s been freeing since we made our new policy, as it works no matter what COVID-19 does. If COVID-19 magically disappears in a month, we’ll still have our offices to collaborate in and host events. If it takes a terrible turn and there’s another lockdown, our staff are all prepared to work from home.”
Masks are not required at the office because everyone is vaccinated, Zaiger said. Business trips are currently allowed but not required, and networking events have been attended mostly outdoors as of late.
“Since we have a rather large office (4,200 square feet) we can easily socially distance while giving everyone a desk,” Zaiger said. “We still scatter the lifetime supply of hand sanitizer we bought the second it was back on store shelves in early COVID throughout the office, so individuals can use it as needed.”
Editor Natalie Chandler contributed to this report.