At Work

Where big companies stand on delta variant and return to office plans

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Key Points
  • Covid cases have been rising in all 50 states as the more contagious delta variant spreads, particularly among unvaccinated communities.
  • A new CNBC flash survey of a select group of human resource executives at large companies, the majority of which employ over 10,000 workers, shows that new concerns are not yet upending all plans to return to workplaces.
  • Recent surveying from Gartner shows most firms encouraging vaccination for employees, but not mandating it, while the number of companies planning to reopen offices in Q3 has fallen.
Employees wear protective masks at a JLL office in Menlo Park, California, U.S., on Tuesday, Sept. 15, 2020.
David Paul Morris | Bloomberg | Getty Images

As the highly contagious Covid delta variant continues to spread throughout the country, many U.S.-based companies, including AppleAlphabetLyft and Uber have started announcing new vaccine mandates and delaying return-to-office plans altogether.

But the situation remains fluid, and companies remain divided on the timing of workplace reopening plans and the Covid policies that will be implemented.

A new CNBC flash survey of a limited number of human resource executives at large companies shows that for some, new Covid concerns are not yet upending plans to bring workers back to offices.

Nearly 40% say that the delta variant has not influenced their existing return to office plans, according to the survey of CNBC Workforce Executive Council (WEC) members. Several council members noted their return to office plans are not set to occur before September or October, and already are predicated on a new hybrid employment model.

"We are discussing various options, but at the moment, still sticking to a hybrid return in September," one council member said. Twenty-eight of the 85 members of the CNBC Workforce Executive Council (WEC) responded to the flash survey, which was conducted from July 28–July 30, 2021. The majority of respondents lead HR at organizations with more than 10,000 employees.

Still, a few executives surveyed said that the latest Covid concerns have caused their organization to put plans on pause. "We were not planning for any significant capacity until the fall," one council member told CNBC. "Delta is causing us to question that timeline."

BlackRock and Wells Fargo are among the latest large employers to push back fall reopening plans by a month. Wells Fargo said the first phase of its plan will now be in early October rather than early September, according to a Thursday memo from chief operating officer Scott Powell, and the company said further adjustments may be made. Amazon pushed back its plans to January 2022 for corporate staff.

Recent polling of HR leaders by research firm Gartner found that the percentage of companies saying they would reopen workplaces in Q3 2021 fell by more than half from when it asked in late April to July 28, when it most recently canvassed HR executives. But while 23% of firms indicated to Gartner in July that Covid variants caused a delay in workplace reopening plans (down from 54% in April) an equal 23% said Covid variants had no impact — 30% said they have still made no decision on workplace reopening.

Nearly one-third of companies responding to the CNBC Workforce Executive Council survey say that they're now only allowing vaccinated employees to return. In the Garter poll, 28% of HR leaders said the Covid variants had caused them to decrease the number of employees coming into workplaces.

Vaccine mandates in vogue

Covid cases have been rising in all 50 states, particularly among unvaccinated communities. Last week, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reversed course and recommended that fully vaccinated people begin wearing masks indoors again in places with high Covid transmission rates.

Jen Kates, a senior vice president at the Kaiser Family Foundation, recently told CNBC that the high level of hospitalizations and deaths among unvaccinated Americans may be convincing people on the fence to get the shots.

New York City is set to require proof of Covid-19 vaccination for a range of indoor activities beginning Aug. 16, with full enforcement beginning Sept. 13, which means residents and visitors are going to need to carry their proof of vaccination most of the time.

Walgreens Boots Alliance said Wednesday that the number of vaccines it has administered has surged by more than 30% in the past few weeks in certain states, including Alabama, Florida, Georgia and Kentucky. That number could rise as the Food and Drug Administration gives full approval, versus emergency use authorization, to the vaccines, which it aims to do for the Pfizer vaccine next month.

Encouraging vaccination for workers

Throughout the coronavirus pandemic, companies including Walmart, Target, American Airlines and McDonald's have encouraged employees to get the Covid vaccine through use of incentives like paid-time off and cash bonuses, and that is continuing. On Wednesday, asset management giant Vanguard said it would pay workers $1,000 if they get vaccinated.

Amid growing concerns about the fast spread of the delta variant, some big companies including Facebook, Google and Microsoft have made the decision to mandate vaccination for returning workers.

Covid vaccine maker Pfizer said on Wednesday it will require U.S. workers to get a vaccine or be tested weekly. Both Pfizer and Microsoft are among companies placing the same vaccination requirement on vendors.

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The requirement for proof of vaccination to enter premises has attracted some criticism with claims it will be discriminatory to the unvaccinated, while so-called vaccine passes or passports can also be tricky initiatives to put in place from a data protection and security perspective.

Among the top HR executives surveyed in CNBC's flash survey, nearly three-quarters say that they do not require proof of vaccination for their employees to return to the office.

The Gartner survey found a minority of companies adopting a vaccine mandate (8%) for employees before returning to the office, a finding that barely changed from June to July, but that is up from only 2% back in February. A vast majority (89%) are encouraging employees to get vaccinated but not requiring it.

A majority of respondents to the CNBC WEC survey said they would require employees to wear masks in physical office locations if a CDC mandate were put into effect in their region.

"We will require that unvaccinated employees wear masks," one council member told CNBC. "Masks will be optional for fully vaccinated employees, and we will continue to require weekly testing for all employees, vaccinated and unvaccinated."

Walmart has told its corporate staff and management-level employees that they must be vaccinated by October, but expects that shortly after Labor Day its headquarters staffing will be near the levels it was before the pandemic began, according to a company memo obtained by CNBC in late July. It also recently made the decision to require workers to wear masks in stores in counties deemed to be at high risk of Covid, and doubled the incentive for employees who get vaccinated.

The tight labor market and difficulty employers across industries are facing in retaining and attracting employees is a factor in Covid vaccine policies. "It's been a huge challenge to get our field vaccinated and we're very cautious due to the competitive labor environment," said one CNBC Workforce Executive Council member on the decision to not mandate vaccination. But the company's field/retail hourly team members have been provided additional education and incentives, on top of the four hours paid time off for each vaccination. 

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