Apr 21, 2020 - Health

Employers bear the brunt of the coronavirus reopening

Animated gif of a sign that reads "re-open" with the "re" flashing on and off
Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

Even if some states and the federal government begin encouraging people to go back to work, employers ultimately will make the decision about when to bring their workers back to the office, and what that looks like.

Why it matters: There’s no playbook for the kinds of decisions involved in reopening a workplace during a pandemic, which range from workplace travel policies to how to monitor employees for coronavirus symptoms.

The big picture: The Trump administration’s guidance for how to phase into normal life leaves a lot of key actions and decisions up to employers, and it's vague about the criteria for readiness.

  • For example, in all phases, employers are asked to “develop and implement appropriate policies” regarding social distancing, temperature checks, testing, isolating, contact tracing and sanitation.

What they’re saying: Drew Altman, president and CEO of the Kaiser Family Foundation and an Axios contributor, emailed me some thoughts:

  • Employers are very different. A meatpacking plant or an auto repair shop needs people physically there. Tech firms, or a KFF, far less so. They do not have to take a one size fits all approach."
  • The testing fiasco means employers don’t know who can come back to work. What does an employer do if someone gets sick and tests positive, send everyone home? Call the health department to do contact tracing? Do it themselves if, as will inevitably happen, the health department is slow or doesn’t show?"
  • Do you do temperature checks? Not everyone will have a fever if they are positive, but it may be a deterrent for people who are sick to stay home."
  • Endless small stuff. Distancing rules in the workplace. Sanitizing surfaces. Congregating. How to safely get coffee."
  • If you phase employees in, the internal politics of who goes first? Who is more essential?"
  • Different rules for different geographic locations ([KFF has] six)."
  • The capacity in smaller firms to figure all this out. How many firms even have HR?"

Yes, but: A lack of diagnostic tests is hampering employers’ ability to prepare.

  • “Without the tests, or without the ability to get results from tests, it just hampers everybody’s planning,” said Elizabeth Mitchell, CEO of the Pacific Business Group on Health, whose members are large employers like Walmart and Boeing.

The bottom line: “The consequences of leaving all the key decisions to states, cities and counties, and employers are enormous and the potential for a workplace catastrophe almost anywhere is real,” Altman writes.

Go deeper