chapter 3

safety as a strategic imperative

Taking every available step to create a workplace where every worker feels safe, healthy and able to produce their best work isn't just the right thing to do — it's now table stakes. To attract and retain talent — and even to persuade workers to come back onsite — employers will not only have to make health and safety a top priority, they'll also have to make it a very public priority. Workers will need to see safety practices at work every day, and prospective hires will need to know their potential employer takes their well-being seriously.

pandemic-era protocols won't end when — or if — the pandemic does

In a near-term future where most workers will be onsite at least part of the time, remote work will no longer be the cure-all it was for so many during the height of the pandemic. That's likely why our survey found that nearly three out of four workers (72%) said their employers are implementing new health and safety protocols. Of those protocols, mask mandates (88%) were most important to workers, followed by social distancing and (63%) temperature checks (44%).

In other words, the workplace protections implemented during COVID-19 are likely here to stay. Employees not only value them, they're going to demand them — and in some states, they already are. In New York, for example, legislators recently passed a union-backed bill that would establish requirements for access to protective equipment, social distancing and handwashing on job sites. In Virginia, the state's "Emergency Standard" COVID-19 protections recently became the "Permanent Standard," requiring all businesses to implement protections based on a sliding scale of exposure risk.

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workers who felt unsafe at work amid COVID-19 were more than three times more likely to say they'd look for new jobs than those who said they felt safe.

Companies that understand that employees value these protections and then take appropriate action will benefit, while those that don't will struggle mightily to hire and retain talent. In fact, one study found that workers who felt unsafe at work amid COVID-19 were more than three times more likely to say they'd look for new jobs than those who said they felt safe. As one respondent to a Steelcase survey said: “I am trying to choose my days to be in the office. Certain days have more people present, and I am finding that they don’t always follow the rules. There gets to be a closeness that makes me feel uneasy … the more people, the more risk.”

It's no surprise, then, that industry leaders are not only making these protections a priority, they're also taking several additional steps. Companies like Monster, KPMG and others are now offering apps to help employees with things like meditation, sleep, education or online therapy. Wiley offers education and coaching to support financial well-being, and Monster links employees to an app to encourage healthy eating, exercise and participation in physical challenges. This is reflective of a broader trend toward viewing employee well-being as a strategic imperative rather than a feel-good play — and it won't be long before we'll be able to see whether or not it works.

Of course, safety doesn't just impact employee well-being — it can also lead to costly fines. To date, OSHA has received 5,271 COVID-19 whistleblower complaints and has issued more than $4 million in COVID-19-related citations. In short, workers won't just leave an unsafe workplace — they'll also alert the federal government.

legal concerns around vaccination are top of mind

With so much clearly at stake, companies have to take every precaution to protect their workers' health. So it's no surprise that the question every employer seems to be asking is: "Can we require vaccinations; and if so, should we?"

The answer to that question is complex and will likely vary based on the employer’s particular circumstances.

"According to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), employers in the U.S. can indeed require employees to be vaccinated against COVID-19, but employers need to be cautious on how vaccination mandates are implemented," said Barry Schroeder, Senior Counsel for employment and litigation at Randstad US. "Although the EEOC has given employers the ability to require COVID-19 vaccinations for employees who are working onsite, employers that take this position will need to be prepared to address the myriad ADA hurdles, additional compensation requirements, accommodation requests and potential employee morale issues that may arise as a result."

For example, current EEOC guidance states that employers that require COVID-19 vaccinations must be prepared to accommodate those employees with legitimate medical or religious objections to being vaccinated. This means employers are obligated to explore whether a change to the work environment or the method of working is available (without creating undue hardship on the employer) to enable employees who cannot be vaccinated to perform the essential functions of their job, such as asking them to work remotely or finding a place for them to work that's far removed from other onsite workers. Employers must also exercise additional caution when terminating or excluding unvaccinated employees from the workplace and should be reminded to review applicable state and local laws when taking employment action based on an employee’s vaccination status.

According to Schroeder, given the numerous challenges and practical implications associated with mandatory vaccination policies, many employers are opting to strongly encourage workers to get vaccinated, rather than requiring it outright.

"Obviously, employers want to take every precaution when it comes to employee health and safety, and even though requiring vaccinations may be the most impactful action they can take, it can also lead to risks and legal hurdles that may have significant costs for the business," Schroeder added. "In many cases, encouraging vaccination, rather than requiring, is the next best approach many employers have chosen to take."

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