How Can Employers Prepare For The “Omicron” COVID-19 Variant?

Last Updated on December 3, 2021

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) confirmed the first U.S. case in California on Dec. 1. But public health experts are still evaluating the potential severity of infection and efficacy of vaccines for this variant. The omicron variant has been labeled a “variant of concern” by the World Health Organization (WHO).

Now is the time for employers to review their coronavirus-related policies and remind employees of the continued importance of following workplace safety practices.

Prepare Your Workplace Now by Revisiting COVID-Related Policies

We have the luxury of experience, with this being our third variant to experience with COVID-19. While drawing on that experience, we encourage employers to communicate early with employees, as well as do the following:

To assist this effort, this article outlines eight workplace policies that employers may consider revisiting prior to reopening their businesses for in-person work. Reviewing policies within your employee handbook now can help better transition employees back into the workplace later. Consider the following policies:

1. Return-to-Work Policy

Some workplaces have stand-alone return-to-work policies that apply to employees temporarily unable to do their jobs due to injury or illness. These policies typically outline how an employee may still contribute to the organization while ill or injured. In other cases, return-to-work policies refer to the specifics of transitioning employees back to their regular positions or alternative arrangements. In the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, employers may consider revising return-to-work policies to include individuals who are unwilling or unable to return to in-person work due to COVID-19 fears.

2. Travel Policy

Some workplaces require travel for certain positions. During a pandemic, this can make travelers wary. That’s why some employers have adapted their travel policies to limit nonessential travel and specifying precautions that employees should observe while traveling. These policies often include COVID-19 tests, self-quarantining or other measures to ensure the safety of traveling employees.

3. Remote Work Policy

Remote work policies may have been a fringe consideration just a few years ago, but now they’re nearly everywhere. And, during the COVID-19 pandemic, they have been invaluable. That’s why employees and employers alike are looking for ways to retain these arrangements. To that end, employers may want to explore how they can adapt their current remote work policies to accommodate employees even after the COVID-19 pandemic ends. Remote work policies typically specify how employees may request remote arrangements and outline the steps in the approval process. Consider adapting policies to cover hybrid work situations where employees work some in-person hours and some remote-working hours. Employers interested in such arrangements may consider ways to balance scheduling flexibility with adequate staffing coverage.

4. Paid Time Off Policy

Paid time off (PTO) is one of the most popular employee benefits offerings. Sometimes employees need to take time away from work for personal obligations or to simply recharge. PTO is sometimes separate from vacation time, with different restrictions as to when employees can use it. For that reason, employers may choose to adapt their PTO policies to reflect the realities of the COVID-19 pandemic; this may include expanding applicable reasons to request PTO, changing how PTO is accrued or adjusting how much PTO may be used within a certain period. 

5. Vacation Policy

After a year of being cooped up at home, employees may be yearning for vacations. However, if everyone decides to take off at once, that could be crippling to a business. For that reason, employers may wish to review their vacation policies (if separate from PTO policies) to ensure adequate operational coverage at all times.

6. Sick Leave Policy

As with vacation time and PTO, sick leave is another way for employees to take time away from work if they need it. However, this type of leave is subject to specific state and federal employment laws. For instance, during the COVID-19 pandemic, some employees were afforded guaranteed time away from work under specific circumstances. That’s why it’s important for employers to review their sick leave policies to ensure compliance with applicable federal and state laws; this includes continuing to monitor official guidance as it’s released.

7. Mask Policy

Mask-wearing has been a contentious topic during the COVID-19 pandemic. With more employees getting vaccinated, some businesses don’t require that masks be worn by anyone—staff or customers. Other establishments are taking the opposite approach, even among vaccinated individuals. Deciding whether to require masks will come down to individual workplaces, but each decision will likely involve the following considerations:

  • Applicable state or federal laws
  • Federal/expert recommendations (nonbinding)
  • Employee attitudes
  • Density of COVID-19 cases in the area
  • Operational variables surrounding the organization

Additionally, employers with mask policies will need to consider to whom the policies apply (e.g., all staff and customers) and in which circumstances (e.g., when within 6 feet of another person).

8. Workplace COVID-19 Safeguards Policy

During the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, many workplaces adopted policies specifically aimed at reducing the spread of COVID-19. These included enforcing social distancing requirements, spacing out workstations, cleaning shared areas frequently and limiting building capacities. Even as the pandemic winds down, some employers may wish to continue these policies to provide enhanced safety and peace of mind to employees. In addition, some workplaces are introducing COVID-19 vaccination policies.

Note, this is a general information article. The law is constantly evolving, and government guidance will continue to affect all these policies moving forward. Employers should contact legal counsel when amending or drafting any workplace policy. If you’re overwhelmed with the policies for your workplace, an experienced HR professional, such as MyHRConcierge with special COVID-19 support.