Business leaders discuss what a May 4 return to work might look like

Colorado will allow non-essential businesses to bring more employees back into the workplace come May 4, and Denver is lifting its shelter-in-place order on May 8.

It remains an open question of how many employers will take advantage of that, especially if remote arrangements are getting the job done. But those who do return will find a much stricter work environment than what they left behind in March.

“No one will feel comfortable coming into work until there is a cure or vaccine. An overwhelming number of employees will want to continue to work at home,” predicted Paul Washington, market director for JLL Denver, a commercial real estate firm, during a webinar hosted by the Denver Metro Chamber of Commerce Thursday afternoon.

Gov. Jared Polis and his administration will provide more detailed guidelines on reopening the economy next week during the next phase, which is called safer at home. Betsy Markey, executive director of the Colorado Office of Economic Development and International Trade, hinted at what some of the rules might look like during the webinar.

Occupancy will be limited to half of what it was before the pandemic struck. Workers must stay six-feet apart and any meetings must be limited to 10 or fewer people. Workplaces will need to have signs about good hygiene practices, constantly sanitize all high-touch areas, and maintain healthy air ventilation, practices that were becoming commonplace before the state’s shelter-in-place order came down.

Workers will notice some differences. More people will wear masks and will ask in muffled voices what happened to the water cooler. Some employers will monitor for symptoms of COVID-19, with temperature checks becoming the new norm.

“You should have a mask on anytime you are in an enclosed office space,” Markey advised.

The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission last month said employers aren’t violating a worker’s right by measuring body temperature. On Thursday, the commission issued guidelines that allow employers to test workers for COVID-19, overruling protections provided under the American with Disabilities Act. Any tests must be “job-related and consistent with business necessity.”

If a worker comes down with COVID-19, it could result in a period of self-quarantine for several other employees and require building sanitation, which can run $30,000 to $50,000 for a 25,000-square-foot facility, Washington said.

*The steps businesses take will go to instill customer confidence,” Markey said. “I know that this business is taking precautions.”

Just because half of workers can return to a job site doesn’t necessarily mean that many should, Suzanne Rivera, a partner at the management consulting firm McKinsey & Company in Denver, said. Employers will need to prioritize who really needs to come back and what trips really need to take place.

“Ask who really needs to be on-site and what travel is essential,” she said.

Older workers and those with health conditions face a greater risk if they come down with COVID-19 and should have priority for remote work arrangements. Parents may also prefer to stay at home, given that K-12 schools aren’t starting back in May and childcare options are difficult to find and expensive.

And workers who rely on transit to get to work also face the risk of greater exposure to the virus.

To the degree they can, employers are encouraged to allow workers who want to work remotely to continue to do so, the panelists said. And they should try to bring in as few people back as required, not as many as the rules allow.

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