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Returning to work is balancing act between safety and adapting to changes

Returning to work is balancing act between safety and adapting to changes

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Bonduelle COVID-19 Shot Clinic

Clair McFarlane, a frontline food and agriculture worker, receives her first COVID-19 vaccine April 1 at the Bonduelle vaccine clinic in Irwindale, Calif.

The transition back to the workplace in the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic may present unprecedented challenges for employee and employer alike.

In many instances, it won’t be as simple as putting your family’s picture or a potted plant back on the desk.

Workers could find their desks now in another room, another floor, another building, across town or another city because the employer chose during the pandemic to shrink its office footprint.

Both Truist Financial Corp. and Wells Fargo & Co. have commenced significant office downsizing initiatives, including in Winston-Salem for Truist.

Workers may wonder whether their employer will request or require a COVID-19 vaccination? Will the company offer an enticement or monetary incentive?

Could getting vaccinated lead to a promotion or getting hired?

Or, could passing on a vaccination keep you stuck in your job, if not demoted?

Is it just too soon to know if it is safe enough to go back to an office or other work environment?

When it comes to mandating COVID-19 vaccinations as a means of employment, hospitals and health care systems typically are the trend-setters.

For instance, mandatory flu shots became policy in 2013 for Novant Health Inc.’s employees and physicians system-wide.

Wake Forest Baptist Health has had a policy since 2009 that all employees, students, trainees and volunteers are required to get an annual immunization.

Last week, Novant said it does not have anything to share on mandating COVID-19 vaccinations, while Cone Health said “there are no plans” to require COVID-19 vaccinations.

Chamber responses

The N.C. Chamber said that “while COVID-19 has created an unprecedented reality, the mainstay of businesses across the state holds true — people are priority. The health and safety of people, both employees and customers, remains a lodestar for North Carolina employers.

“Most businesses already have an open channel of communication with their people that is built on a strong foundation of trust. Employers trust their people to protect one another, and people trust their employers to protect them.

“As North Carolina begins to contemplate the road back, that baseline of trust and an open line of communication will be the foundation for continued success.”

Greater Winston-Salem Inc. said that “our organization has offered information and webinar sessions on (return to work) topic to help inform our members.”

Prioritizing the health and safety of employees “so businesses can continue to operate efficiently” should be top priorities for 2021, said Mark Owens, Greater Winston-Salem’s president and chief executive.

“If everyone is working together to keep community spread under control, our businesses won’t have to worry about regressing to an earlier phase with more restrictions,” Owens said.

“It is important that our state and local elected officials do all they can to keep our businesses open and operating safely.”

Truist plans

Several prominent Winston-Salem corporate employers — Reynolds American Inc., Truist Financial Corp. and Wells Fargo & Co. — have either announced their return-to-work plans or having discussions with employees.

Truist had 53,693 full-time equivalent employees companywide as of Dec. 31. Cantey Alexander, Truist’s regional president for the Triad, said in December the bank has about 3,800 employees in the region.

Truist said about half of its overall workforce has been working from home during the pandemic.

That’s changing with the announcement of starting the transition back to the workplace on June 1.

“It will involve a phased approach that follows federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidance in all our facilities,” Truist said in a statement.

“While the transition will be tailored to the business needs and office spaces in each of our regions, these decisions have been and will continue to be guided by the most up-to-date guidance from health experts, including data trends in infection rates, and the safety and well-being of our teammates, clients and communities.”

Truist said the timing of the return to work was prompted in part by the increased availability of COVID-19 vaccines and financial service workers becoming eligible Wednesday in the Group Four essential workers category.

“Our current focus with teammates centers around raising awareness of the benefits of the vaccines to help them make an informed personal decision,” Truist said.

“We’re doing this through an educational effort to share the latest objective, science-based information, helping address common misconceptions and myths, and by bringing in well-regarded medical experts to discuss the vaccines and take questions from teammates.”

Truist is encouraging employees “to seek guidance from their doctors or trusted medical experts about their personal situations.”

Wells Fargo plans

Wells Fargo listed having 268,531 employees on Dec. 31. About 200,000 have been working from home during the pandemic.

The bank has about 2,900 local employees, part of the 3,600 in its 32-county Triad West region, and 25,100 in Charlotte.

Wells Fargo chief executive Charles Scharf told employees in a Tuesday memo that the plan is returning employees to the workplace beginning Sept. 6.

That represents a delay of another month from the previous guidance to employees.

However, certain U.S. business divisions or subgroups may return before Labor Day “on an opt-in basis.”

“Hopefully, this helps you plan for more than just the next 30 days as we approach the summer months, as well as the beginning of the 2021-22 school year,” Scharf wrote.

Scharf said employees working from home will continue to do so even if they have been fully vaccinated.

“We will follow the science in our decision-making, meaning we will pay close attention to COVID-19 case rates and vaccination rates, and we will return to a more normal model globally only when we believe it is safe to do so,” Scharf wrote.

“We are optimistic that the external environment will support a return in September, but our final decision will be based on the science.”

Scharf said Wells Fargo is leaning increasingly on the side of returning to the workplace because “we believe most of us benefit from being physically together.”

“We also understand that the boundary between personal time and work time has been blurred — often to the detriment of our personal well-being. This is not a Wells Fargo-specific issue, but one we want to ensure does not continue.

“Our work under way is to take these guiding principles and translate them into some guidelines for how we will return to the workplace — knowing that your experiences over the past year have been different from one another, and that a return to ‘normal’ won’t feel the same for everyone.”

Reynolds plans

Reynolds, the U.S. global subsidiary of British American Tobacco Plc, has about 2,500 employees in Forsyth County, primarily at its Tobaccoville manufacturing plant.

Reynolds said its return-to-work strategy has been rolling out for months.

“Our current return-to-office position remains: remote work/in-office plans are function-specific and intended to provide flexibility for those who want or need to come to the office; capacity at our Plaza Headquarters and BGTC research facility is 50%; properly worn face coverings are required in all Reynolds facilities, as are temperature checks; and those who can effectively work remotely should continue to feel comfortable doing so,” Reynolds said in a statement.

“Any changes to our pandemic-related protocols will depend on several factors, including the national deployment and effectiveness of the COVID vaccine, case trends, school re-openings and government mandates.”

The company said none of its operating companies are currently requiring any employee to be vaccinated against COVID-19.

“But we do encourage those who can and want to be vaccinated to do so,” according to the statement.

“Unless the law or certain circumstances surrounding this evolving pandemic dictate otherwise, the choice to be vaccinated is solely that of the employee.”

Reynolds said that “while not directly incentivizing employees to receive the vaccine, in partnership with and administered by Novant Health we are providing opportunities for N.C.-based production facility employees to receive the vaccine on-site as it becomes available.”

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@rcraverWSJ

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