What essential businesses can teach us

At some still largely unknowable date, it’s destined to happen. Employers nationwide will need to welcome back so-called non-essential workforces. No one expects that post-coronavirus transition will be easy, but it can be achieved, according to a new survey from Mercer. Mainly, it’s because those  employers can learn from experiences of employers of essential workers who have remained at workplaces throughout the pandemic.

Among the more notable findings, 45% of responding employers with essential workers have had issues with employees not coming to work because they are afraid of getting sick.  Not surprisingly, this problem is more widespread in industries like retail/wholesale (84%), manufacturing (64%) and healthcare (57%), where higher risk exposure is the norm.

“The fact that so many employers have reported issues with employees not coming to worksites due to fear of becoming ill underscores that the first priority is to develop a comprehensive plan to keep employees safe at work,” said David Zieg, Mercer’s Clinical Services leader. “The second priority is to clearly communicate this plan to employees so as to allay their fears.”

With that, Zieg says, the most important safety consideration, by far, is to maintain adequate distancing. While nearly all employers of essential workers have made changes to ensure employees keep the proper distance from co-workers and customers, 30% say they have had problems doing so.

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Also, overcoming the challenge of physical distancing may also mean fewer employees in a worksite at a given time. Sixty-three percent of respondents planning for return to worksites are considering “staggered returns,” with measures such as having employees whose last names start with A-M working on certain days and N-Z working other days. Other employers (44%) say they will create smaller work groups in order to limit the mixing of employees and groups in the workplace at the same time.

Interestingly, while 43% of respondents with essential workers say they have conducted COVID-19 screenings and assessments on-site, only about one-third (35%) of the respondents planning for return to work say they will conduct COVID-19 screening and assessments on-site, most commonly with temperature screenings (26%) and/or by administering a symptom questionnaire (20%).

Although antibody testing is receiving heightened attention, just 4% of all respondents say they are planning to conduct serology screening for antibodies. This low percentage may reflect concerns about the reliability of the tests as well as the fact that much is still unknown about immunity to COVID-19.  Just 3% say they will screen for the presence of the virus.

Nearly two-thirds of survey respondents (63%) planning for the return to the workplace say they will provide employees with masks. However, based on the experience of employers with essential workers, this could be challenging; more than one-third (37%) of respondents with essential workers reported that they have had difficulty finding enough masks to purchase.

“To be an effective strategy, everyone in a worksite needs to wear a mask to ensure that any person carrying the virus without being aware of it is wearing one. That’s why it’s concerning that employers report difficulties in purchasing masks for their essential workers,” Zieg says, adding that employers should understand that general-use facemasks that improve respiratory hygiene do not need to be surgical masks or N-95 masks (those should be reserved for healthcare workers). The CDC has noted cotton masks can be used for this purpose.

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“They should communicate to employees the steps they have taken to ensure their safety, but also acknowledge their apprehension, whether it is about safety, family obligations or other legitimate concerns,” she says.

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Tom Starner
Tom Starner is a freelance writer based in Philadelphia who has been covering the human resource space and all of its component processes for over two decades. He can be reached at [email protected].