Return-to-office plans carefully crafted by companies and law firms face new uncertainty from changing federal Covid-19 guidelines and the rapidly spreading Delta variant.
The Centers for Disease Control partially reversed its mask recommendations for fully vaccinated people Tuesday and now suggests that people who are fully vaccinated should wear masks indoors in Covid hotspots. The guidelines follow a surge in Covid cases caused by the Delta variant in as many as two-thirds of all U.S. counties.
“It’s similar to how it was during the height of Covid-19 when we felt like every week things were changing,” said Mary Kathryn Curry, shareholder with Polsinelli in Chicago. “It’s not a static situation.”
The uncertainty comes as some legal chiefs, such as Eric Grossman of Morgan Stanley, have all but required its outside counsel to work in-person, even as major law firms like Cooley have announced more relaxed guidelines.
Multiple general counsel declined to comment on their return-to-office policies because they said their plans and conditions around Covid-19 are still changing.
“As a legal department, we’re monitoring closely CDC guidelines, the rate of infections, and how the Delta variant is spreading in the U.S., but also the vaccination rates of our employees,” said Sonia Zeledón, Hershey Co.’s head of ethics, compliance, and data privacy. “Our plans haven’t changed, but we are monitoring things closely.”
Car sharing company Turo Inc.—for now—is moving forward with its post-Labor Day office return for vaccinated employees. “We’re moving full steam ahead, knowing that things could change at any moment,” the company’s chief legal officer, Michelle Fang, told Bloomberg Law.
Return to Uncertainty
The new uncertainty comes after employers have already been grappling for months with return-to-office decisions, including vaccination mandates, safety measures in the office, and masking and testing requirements.
“Most employers don’t have a return-to-office mandate until the fall or later,” Curry said. “Most employers are taking a gradual step by step approach because everything is so unknown right now.”
While the CDC is asking state and local officials to decide whether to fully reintroduce the mask rules for certain people, some states and counties have already enforced tighter mask restrictions and safety protocols.
“Obviously this pandemic has been fluid in terms of how companies should be adapting and changing their safety protocols,” said Adam Kemper, a partner at Kelley Kronenberg. “There are a lot of employers trying to figure out how to balance what they thought was an opportunity for restrictions to lift who are now realizing there will be workers who never become vaccinated.”
Hours after the CDC announced its revised mask recommendations for fully vaccinated people, President Joe Biden said that he is considering a vaccine mandate for all federal employees.
Earlier this week, the Department of Veterans Affairs became the first federal agency to mandate their front line healthcare workers receive Covid-19 vaccines or face possible termination.
For Turo, the car sharing company, requiring vaccines for an office return made the most sense. Turo relied on its outside employment counsel to confirm the legality of such a requirement, Fang said.
“What we’re seeing with the Delta variant, at least on the anecdotal level, is those that are vaccinated might get it but are not getting very sick, they’re not being hospitalized and being put on ventilators,” she said. “That’s why requiring the vaccination is so, so, so important.”
Cooley; Paul, Weiss, Rifkind, Wharton & Garrison; Sanford Heisler Sharp; and Davis Wright Tremaine are some of the only law firms to require vaccines for a return to office.
“Firms are still targeting Labor Day as return-to-office time,” said Jeffrey Lowe, a managing partner and global practice leader of recruiting firm Major, Lindsey & Africa’s law firm practice group. “Everyone is just hanging back for the remainder of the summer with that in mind,” he said.
Lida Rodriguez-Taseff, chief legal officer of Opa-locka Community Development Corp., said two of her outside firms have pushed back their return-to-office dates. Management and executive teams have known that extended work-from-home was a possibility, she said.
“It’s really more of a management issue than a fear issue,” Rodriguez-Taseff said. “How do we continue to protect the health of our employees and our clients and, at the same time, get our work done?”
Kemper, the Kelley Kronenberg partner, said the key is for firms and companies to remain open, adaptable, and flexible.
“Just because Covid-19 isn’t as deadly as it once was, that doesn’t mean we can take it any less seriously,” Kemper said. “A lot of people were trying to get that feeling back to pre-pandemic in the workplace. I don’t think we’re going to get there.”
-Meghan Tribe contributed to this report.