Tech offices reopen with few mandates on how to respond to sick workers

  • Major tech companies like Apple and Facebook are starting to send some employees back to the office.
  • But public health experts warn that an office is an inherently risky environment for spreading COVID-19. especially as cases in much of the country, including in California, continue to rise.
  • How a workplace will handle COVID-19 in its ranks is often left up to the company. There is little mandate from federal or state governments in how companies should deal with and communicate infections to employees, though there are guidelines.
  • Federal and local health departments recommend employers notify workers who come in contact with an infected person and advise sick and potentially sick employees to stay home. There are no obligations to close offices or tell employees of a confirmed COVID-19 case among staff, should one happen.
  • With so much of the response left up to businesses, the question becomes: What will your company do if someone gets sick?
  • Melissa Perry, a public health researcher at George Washington University’s Milken Institute School of Public Health, advises employers to be flexible about reopening and to do so on a trial basis. “It makes no sense to get entrenched in the decision to return no matter what, because that’s putting people in greater risk,” she told Business Insider.
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When tech’s long-dormant offices begin to reopen their doors to employees, life will look significantly different. Gone will be the heaping self-serve buffets, the on-site massages, and the access to gyms and sleep pods. In their place will be boxed lunches, spaced-out desks, and temperature checks. 

Some companies, like Apple and Facebook, have already begun sending a limited number of employees back, allowing the rest of their workforces to continue working at home.

But with people planning to return to office buildings — where the virus can much more easily spread from person to person — it raises the question: What happens if an employee gets sick?

Right now, guidelines vary slightly by region for what an office has to do. At the moment, there are no mandates for employers to shut down, or even to tell employees that there’s been a confirmed COVID-19 case among their colleagues. But as offices begin to reopen in the coming months, it’s a question that every business will have to grapple with.

‘A very easy route of transmission’

Google New York City office

Google’s headquarters in New York City.

Alexi Rosenfeld/Getty Images

None of the major tech companies have plans to send all employees back to work right away — Twitter’s Jack Dorsey has gone as far as to say that employees can work from home forever. Other companies have said workers won’t be required back through the end of the year — in Facebook’s case, Mark Zuckerberg recently told employees that eventually, as many as half of the company’s total employees will likely work from home. Amazon isn’t requiring workers return to the office until at least October. 

Still, many major tech companies have already made public their plans for reopening. At Salesforce, the company wrote a 21-page handbook of reopening guidance. CEO Marc Benioff told The New York Times that Salesforce’s offices would be more “sterile” and “hospital-like” and that more light-hearted touches like trinkets on desks and “huge jars of gummy bears everywhere” would be eliminated. 

At Apple, which has been operating since May, the company is having employees work from the office only a few days per week and mandating temperature checks and providing optional COVID-19 tests. 

Almost across the board, tech firms are revamping their office designs, separating work stations and closing meeting rooms or other shared workspaces. While these changes mitigate the potential of spreading the coronavirus, they don’t eliminate it.

Melissa Perry, a public health researcher at George Washington University’s Milken Institute School of Public Health, points out that offices are inherently risky when it comes to spreading the virus.

“In the workplace, it only follows that if you’re working in close proximity and handling objects and interacting closely with each other, it’s a very easy route of transmission for germs, viruses, bacteria,” Perry told Business Insider.

The decision to reopen those riskier spaces, Perry said, should be influenced by what’s happening locally in terms of virus trends and transmission. In California, for example, the state has seen a recent surge in virus cases, particularly in Southern California. Last Tuesday, the state hit a record high of 9,500 recorded infections, the most on a single day since the start of the pandemic. On Monday, the governor said California would roll back reopening.

That surge in cases led Google, which had planned to start sending employees back July 6, to change its plans. Now, its US offices will stay closed until at least September 7. 

“If you’re in a hotspot state, it really sends a strong message that [reopening] is not in the best interest of your workplace and in the best interest of the health of the population of the state,” Perry said. 

Working in an office has already proven to be an easy way to spread the virus. In March, nearly half of all employees at a single call center in South Korea tested positive for COVID-19. A seating chart created by the South Korea Centers for Disease Control and Prevention showed just how easily the virus spread from person to person in the densely populated open-floor-plan office. 

That’s not to mention situations like elevators, which are often unavoidable in high-rise office buildings in cities like San Francisco, Seattle, and New York, where many tech companies have headquarters. Elevators could easily spread the virus, especially “if they are crowded and people ride in them for a long time, like a minute or more, several times a day,” Linsey Marr, an aerosol scientist at Virginia Tech, recently told Business Insider’s Hilary Brueck and Shira Feder.

“The virus needs people to transmit between,” Maria Van Kerkhove, the World Health Organization’s technical lead for COVID-19, said during a press conference in May. “If people are in close contact with one another and you have an infected person, it will transmit to another person through these respiratory droplets.”

But with coronavirus cases surging in some states and companies still planning to reopen, the question stops becoming if offices will reopen, and starts to become: What will companies do when offices reopen and someone gets sick?

Representatives for Google and Apple did not respond to multiple requests for comment on their reopening plans. Facebook declined to comment.

An Amazon spokesperson told Business Insider the employees who can work from home can do so until at least October 2.

“We are working hard and investing significant funds to keep those who choose to come to the office safe through physical distancing, deep cleaning, temperature checks, and the availability of face coverings and hand sanitizer,” the spokesperson said.

Guidelines vary by region, but if someone in your office gets sick, there’s no mandate to shut down — or to notify employees 

San Francisco coronavirus Delores Park

People gather inside painted circles on the grass meant to encourage social distancing at Dolores Park in San Francisco.

JOSH EDELSON/AFP via Getty Images

If a worker contracts COVID-19 once they’ve returned to the office, employers have to decide how to manage the situation. The Occupational Health and Safety Administration and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommend that employers alert anyone who may have come into contact with the infected person. But much of the responsibility of how to proceed lies with employers, who must determine who else to inform and how to tell them, what extra safety and cleaning measures to implement in the office, and whether they must shut down their offices completely — if at all.  

In places like the Bay Area, which was the first to issue stay-at-home orders in March, some office reopenings appear to be going forward as planned. Local officials have guidelines in place for offices, both in terms of changes to the physical spaces and how employers should communicate with the employees who return.

But even with these guidelines, a company’s mandate for how to react isn’t clear. Perry, the public health researcher, urges companies to be flexible with shutting down, but a lot of the decision is left up to company itself. 

Salesforce, for example, has come up with a response plan for what do if any employee tests positive for COVID-19. A company spokesperson told Business Insider that Salesforce would run a manual contact tracing program to determine who the infected person came in contact with, followed by a “hard closing”: Every employee in the building will be notified of the positive case and either part or all of the office will be shut down. Salesforce won’t allow any employees into the building until it cleans and disinfects the space. 

The spokesperson noted that even once the office reopens, employees will have to complete a daily wellness check in order to return to the office, and workers will still have the option to work remotely until the end of 2020. 

While Salesforce has opted to include an office shut-down in its plans, however, it’s not required to by its local health department. In San Francisco, where Salesforce is based, the Department of Public Health has issued guidelines for what employers should do if an employee gets sick. The department advises employers to ask anyone who came into close contact with a person diagnosed with COVID-19 within 48 hours of symptoms developing to stay home for the two weeks following. Others working in the office should monitor themselves for symptoms and the office should be cleaned and disinfected, the department says. 

The department also created a one-page advisory sheet that can be distributed to workers at an office where an employee tests positive.

In New York City, where many Bay Area-based tech companies have offices, there is also no mandate for offices to shut down if an employee tests positive for the virus. The city’s health department encourages employers to report a positive COVID-19 test to the city’s Test and Trace Corps and to alert employees who came into contact with the infected person that they may have been exposed to the virus.

New York City coronavirus Times Square

A quiet Times Square in New York City in July 2020.

Tayfun Coskun/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images

In King County, Washington, where Amazon is based, the health department also doesn’t require a reopened office to shut down after a positive COVID-19 test.

“In most cases, you do not need to shut down your facility,” the health department advises. “If it has been less than 7 days since the sick employee has been in the facility, close off any areas used for prolonged periods of time by the sick person.”

While healthcare and social service businesses should report cases to local officials, other type of businesses don’t need to unless they think the virus may be spreading through their workplace. In all cases, employers may not reveal the identity of the infected person under federal law. 

OSHA does not advise employers to close down if a worker becomes infected — instead, OSHA’s COVID-19 guidance for workplaces urges isolating a person who shows symptoms of the virus from other employees in a room with closed doors until that worker can be safely removed from the building. Employers should also provide masks to sick employees to help contain the spread of the virus, per OSHA. 

The CDC offers similar guidance, urging employers to isolate sick employees until they can be moved home or to a healthcare provider, but advising that it’s unnecessary to shut down. Workplaces should then try to increase air circulation by opening doors and windows and disinfect any areas the infected person might have used. 

Perry, the George Washington public health researcher, said she thinks the best course of action for employers is to reopen their offices on a trial basis, not a permanent one, because organizations need to be flexible about staying open in such a “rapidly evolving situation.” 

“It makes no sense to get entrenched in the decision to return no matter what, because that’s putting people in greater risk,” she said. 

“I’m just hopeful that the workplaces and the business leaders are being as mindful about the things that companies need to do, seeing their role in contributing to preventing further outbreak and further spread,” Perry said. “They have a real role to play here, as we all do.”

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