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Rising Michigan COVID-19 cases bust return-to-work plans for businesses

8/11/21

Detroit Free Press

By Adrienne Roberts

Many Michigan employers had their eyes set on fall for when business would return to some semblance of normal. State mask requirements were lifted in June, vaccines are widely available and enhanced unemployment benefits are set to expire in less than a month.

But with COVID-19 cases once again on the rise in Michigan, and across much of the country, businesses are changing plans, such as implementing a vaccine mandate or delayinga mandatory return to the office, for employees and for customers.

Employers range widely in their approach.

All employees at Ford Motor Co., General Motors and Stellantis, the company that formed from the January merger of Fiat Chrysler Automobiles and Peugeot-maker PSA Group, were required to start wearing face masks again last week, a decision announced by the COVID-19 Joint Task Force, which is composed of leaders from the UAW, and the three automakers.

“It’s a real mixed bag right now,” said Emily Annand, who co-chairs the Lockton Michigan Talent and Culture Advisory Council, which includes executives from several companies.

The council met last week and discussed a variety of challenges employers face, including staffing and compensation challenges, and how return to office plans, vaccine mandates and face-covering requirements have changed in light of the delta variant.

The delta variant is the dominant strain of the coronavirus in the U.S. and is nearly twice as contagious as previous variants, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. There were 233 cases of the delta variant in 39 Michigan counties last week, according to the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services, but it’s difficult to tell how prevalent the strain is in Michigan because only a small number of test samples are being sequenced to determine whether they are variant cases.

There’s no one playbook companies are following as they navigate this moment in the pandemic. While there are some local, state and federal laws employers have to follow, and some industry-specific requirements, companies have few options, from reinstituting mask mandates to mandating employees get one of the COVID-19 vaccines.

“A lot of the requirements and policies really all stem from an organization’s core values and culture,” Annand said.

The good news, Annand said, is that the communications that go out to employees and the new policies likely don’t have to be created from scratch. The difficult part is, “we know what this means short term, but we still don’t know long term how to plan our lives based on what might be to come.”

Here’s how several local employers are navigating this moment in the pandemic:

Moving forward with long-established plans

When Michigan’s mask mandate ended in June, the president and CEO of Lathrup Village-based Michigan First Credit Union started working on a plan to prohibit masks in bank branches. While financial institutions adjusted to customers wearing masks during the pandemic, President and CEO Michael Poulos said security was a concern.

Poulos said there are multiple cameras at a branch of a bank or a credit union, and footage can later be used if a customer attempts to steal money. It’s more difficult to find out who that person is if they’re wearing a mask. He also said it’s standard practice to greet every customer as they come in the door, because if they feel they’ve been identified, they may not come back to attempt to commit a crime.

“We’re not comfortable with that,” he said about the requirement that anyone inside had to be masked. “No financial institution is probably comfortable with it. So we waited, and we accommodated everything. We did whatever we were supposed to do. We made mitigation steps in a few ways, but nothing that could get us back to the level of security we needed.”

After the state mask mandate was lifted, Poulos put in place a plan to prohibit masks beginning just after Labor Day.

“That’s why we set the time of Labor Day, to give people time to adjust,” he said. But then, the COVID situation worsened in Michigan and when an email was sent out last week notifying customers of the new policy, the credit union faced pushback from some clients.

“By (Labor Day), it might not be as bad,” he said. “We just don’t know.”

Poulos said if a statewide mask mandate went back into effect, this policy could change. But for now, the credit union is moving forward with the plan.

Reinstating safety protocols

Some other employers, though, are reinstating policies from earlier in the pandemic. Detroit-based DTE Energy is re-implementing mandatory mask wearing and social distancing while inside DTE facilities, plus conducting daily health screenings, Lisa Bolla, a spokesperson for DTE, said in an emailed statement. The changes are because of the rise in COVID-19 cases in the areas the utility serves.

Detroit-headquartered Ally Financial, meanwhile, is asking employees to consider wearing masks when at Ally facilities, and offering employees coming into the office access to rapid COVID-19 testing, Tim Gerstenberger, a spokesperson for Ally, said.

The company also Is extending its voluntary return-to-office pilot for vaccinated employees through Oct. 25 to address the surge in the delta variant, Jillian Palash, an Ally spokesperson, said.

Some companies, though, never loosened their safety protocols to begin with. Glenn Stevens Jr., executive director of the Detroit Regional Chamber’s MICHauto program, which advocates for the state’s automotive and mobility companies, said many automotive suppliers never changed their policies that were implemented at the start of the pandemic last year.

“There are some companies that are mandating masks again,” Stevens said. “But there are companies that never took those off. It’s not like they’re adjusting on the fly right now; they’re just tightening up protocols.”

Stevens said due to the fact that many automotive companies have operations in other countries, their safety protocols have stayed consistent throughout the pandemic.

Stopping short of a vaccine mandate

Where automotive companies are stopping short though, Stevens said, is mandating that employees get a vaccine. That’s consistent with what Annand is seeing. Although many hospital systems and colleges have mandated the vaccine, outside of those industries, she hasn’t seen much movement on this front in recent weeks.

Some companies instead are implementing requirements specific to those who aren’t vaccinated against COVID-19.

For example, Rocket Companies Inc. said last week it would require all of its unvaccinated employees to have weekly COVID-19 tests and wear masks when moving about the office, according to multiple news reports.

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