Due to the highly contagious Delta variant of COVID-19, infections and hospitalizations are again on the rise, even in regions with high vaccination rates. As a small business, how can you meet your obligation to provide a safe work environment while also protecting your customers—and your bottom line?
The Delta variant appears to be around twice as transmissible as the original SARS-CoV-2 strains. While this version of COVID-19 can infect people who have been vaccinated, infections, hospitalizations, and deaths are rising fastest in areas with the lowest rates of vaccination. In response, workplace safety guidelines from federal, state, and local authorities are rapidly changing, so employers will want to update their policies accordingly. The good news is that you likely already made accommodations in your workplace during the first spike in COVID-19 infections.
The risk of getting infected with COVID-19 at work correlates with the community’s infection rate. If your community’s current weekly infection rate is low (less than 10 per 100,000), a return to the workplace may make sense. However, in communities with weekly infection rates that exceed 50 per 100,000, the likelihood that an employee will bring COVID-19 into the workplace is very high. Check the Center for Disease Control and Prevention’s (CDC) map to see if your county is a high-transmission location.
Masks that fit over the nose and mouth protect both the person wearing the mask and the people around them. The CDC recommends that fully vaccinated people wear masks indoors in locations with high or substantial COVID-19 transmission rates. Those with any degree of weakened immunity, including those undergoing cancer treatment, taking immunosuppressive drugs, or who have had an organ transplant, should also continue to wear masks indoors. You may want to reinstitute mask requirements if your small business is in an affected area.
Companies can reduce the rate of COVID-19 transmission by limiting the number of employees in the workplace through hybrid work and staggered schedules. When employees are in the workplace, spread out workstations and limit the use of common areas. For example, if the capacity of your conference room with social distancing guidelines is 2 people, make sure the capacity is posted throughout the conference room and provide virtual options for meetings of more than 2 people.
Increasing the amount of air exchanged indoors decreases the likelihood of a COVID-19 infection in the workplace. While this sounds like an expensive project, many workplaces can add more air exchanges and improve the filtration systems on their existing air-handling systems. Or, simply open more windows when the weather cooperates.
COVID-19 antigen tests are now readily available, typically free, and results are available in real-time. You can ask employees to test themselves at home and then arrange for a follow-up test for those who have no symptoms but are positive. All employees should be instructed not to come to the workplace if they feel ill.
If you learn that some in your workplace tested positive for COVID-19, you should communicate honestly about the exposure while respecting the infected employee’s medical privacy. Contact tracing helps identify cases quickly to protect employees, their families, and their community. Contact tracing includes:
Older adults and people with certain medical conditions are at higher risk for severe illness from all forms of COVID-19. And, since some vaccinated people have experienced breakthrough infections, employees who live with people with health conditions or children who can’t get vaccinated may have safety concerns. Be prepared to field more requests to work from home, and have a plan to accommodate those requests, if possible.
Historically, vaccines have played a key role in eradicating several deadly diseases. In response to the highly infectious Delta variant, employers across the country have been weighing whether it makes sense to mandate vaccination for its workers. Mandates are most common in healthcare and education, but the U.S. Food and Drug Administration’s full approval of a COVID-19 vaccine will likely lead to mandates in other industries, experts say. Consider offering employees PTO for vaccination and side effects, or a small financial incentive, generally under $100.
As more data becomes available, guidance for small business owners is likely to change. For example, in spring 2020, employers were urged to check employees’ temperatures at the door to screen for the virus. Now, however, experts say temperature screening is an ineffective way to decrease workplace transmission.
In most cases, traditional workplace cleaning protocols are adequate to protect against COVID-19 infections. Focus high-level disinfection efforts on high-touch, high-traffic surfaces and workplaces with a known COVID-19 case.
Most companies grounded employees from international business travel earlier in the pandemic, and many curbed domestic travel as well. Because the Delta variant is more contagious, you may want employees to continue to conduct business meetings by videoconference instead of flying to high-risk areas. The silver lining is less travel will save your company time and money—while also giving the environment a much-needed break.
This pandemic has been a trying time for everyone. In fact, rates of depression and anxiety have spiked over the last 18 months. Encourage employees to use your company’s employee assistance plan (EAP) if you have one, or provide guidance about what mental health benefits are included in your workplace medical plan. And let employees know that it’s okay to take a mental health day if needed.
Employees will also need to take steps to stay safe at work. Encourage employees to:
Unfortunately, the end of the COVID-19 pandemic does not appear to be in sight—yet. The Delta variant has added another layer of uncertainty and fear. Small business owners must stay vigilant to maintain a safe work environment. By continuing to be creative and flexible, you can help reduce and contain outbreaks as they arise.
Thanks for reading! Please note that this content is intended for educational purposes only. As best practices change regularly, you should refer to your trusted advisor for specific counsel. If you’re a small business owner, learn more about workers’ compensation insurance or check your workers’ compensation rate in 3 minutes.