Q: My partner and I run a small company that the pandemic almost tanked. We were just getting back on our feet when the Delta variant surfaced.
Thursday morning, two employees came into my office with Centers for Disease Control and Prevention information that described the Delta variant as one of the most infectious respiratory diseases known.
Friday morning, six employees were clustered in the break room around the newspaper story about the 60-person COVID-19 outbreak in Cordova that shuttered a seafood processing plant and triggered a mask mandate for city workers. One of them was reading out loud the seafood plant’s CEO statement that half of their fully vaccinated employees tested positive for the virus and were paying the price for people who don’t wear masks. When the employees realized I was in the break room, everyone quieted. Then, the employee who had been reading asked in an angry voice, “So what are you and “Stan” going to do about this?”
My partner and I talked for an hour. We then issued an order that all employees needed to return to mask-wearing. We thought that made sense, but our email led one of our vaccinated employees to explode. He stood in his cubicle and said loud enough for the entire room to hear that it had been great to be free from masks for a couple of months and that if everyone would get vaccinated, no one would have to wear a mask.
One of the unvaccinated employees on the other side of the room shouted back, “what’s the problem, don’t you think your vaccinations protect you?” At that point, the vaccinated employee got up and yelled that it was the unvaccinated employees who put everyone and their families at risk. The two headed toward each other, and it took several other employees getting in between the shouters to quiet things down.
Did we do the wrong thing? What do we need to do?
You did the right thing by tightening safety precautions. Because the highly contagious Delta variant is now the dominant COVID-19 strain and has driven an uptick in COVID-19 infections, many employers are re-instituting the safety protocols they relaxed a few months ago. As just one example, Apple Inc. has pushed back its office re-opening from September to October and recommends its retail store workers wear masks.
As of July 26, 2021, only 48% of Alaskans have received one dose of vaccine, and 43% are fully vaccinated. This is below national statistics — 50% of the total U.S. population fully vaccinated. According to experts, the present vaccines appear effective, meaning that while vaccinated employees can get COVID-19, it won’t have the same deadly impact. Unvaccinated individuals, however, are at significant risk and can bring the infection into the workplace.
Some employers now require that all on-site employees, other than those with legitimate disability or religious exemptions, receive vaccinations. As one example, Delta Air Lines now requires all new hires to be vaccinated, although it allows current employees to make their own decisions.
Other employers don’t feel comfortable making vaccinations mandatory, fearing the potential for morale problems or lawsuits. The majority of employers have chosen a middle route and distribute information on the benefits of vaccination to employees. Some offer incentives to employees who get vaccinated. United Airlines announced it would give three extra days of vacation to flight attendants who received at least one vaccine dose by June.
Like mask-wearing, vaccinations has become highly politicized, leading to increased workplace tension between vaccinated and unvaccinated employees. Further, employees understandably want the pandemic over and resent anyone who makes the workplace less safe or more restrictive.
You and your partner need to intervene and stop potentially harassing behavior before it escalates and leads to violence or a hostile environment for those with legitimate religious or disability related exemptions. For example, you knew the CDC and media information had created angst. Instead of issuing an order by email, you could have pulled all employees into an “all hands” meetings and discussed the need for additional precautions, along with the need to respect each employee’s right to make choices.
You can, of course, still do this, starting with thanking the employees who calmed things down.