The Delta variant, now the dominant form of COVID-19 across the world, is plunging many areas back into lockdown. Business owners and office managers are trying to figure out how to keep office reopening plans on track. The prevailing sentiments seem to be that the Delta variant surge will dissipate as quickly as it formed, as it has in other nations. Nevertheless, five U.S. states have already passed their peak infection numbers, meaning the fourth wave could be the worst yet. Rising case numbers and hospitalizations are causing some of the nation’s biggest employers across several sectors to put plans on pause.
Apple, a global leader in the technology industry, is one of the earliest and largest companies to announce it will be delaying its return to the office as the Delta variant spikes across the United States. The Cupertino-based company will delay plans for at least a month, according to reports. Retail workers at Apple’s thousands of stores are being asked to wear masks again, even though the company formally dropped its mask mandate in June. Apple’s decision shows the company will continue to be a corporate leader when it comes to employee protection. Last year, Apple was one of the first companies to issue stay-at-home policies, causing many in the business world to take the pandemic threat more seriously. Apple followed up the decision by being one of the first to close retail locations. Apple’s upended workforce seemingly hasn’t slowed the company, the fourth quarter of 2020 was the most profitable quarter for the company ever, 29 percent higher than in 2019. Record sales have Apple sitting on nearly $200 billion in cash, accordion to public filings. With financials like Apple, deciding to keep staff safe is a much easier call.
Google is pushing back its return date to at least mid-October. In an email sent to Google’s 130,000 employees, CEO Sundar Pichai said that vaccinations will be required when offices do eventually reopen. “This extension will allow us time to ramp back into work while providing flexibility for those who need it. We’ll continue watching the data carefully and let you know at least 30 days in advance before transitioning into our full return to office plans,” Pichai wrote. Google isn’t waiting for legal clarity around vaccine requirements. Taking such a strong stance regarding vaccinations has had ripple effects, leading other employers to follow suit. Since Google’s announcement three weeks ago, dozens of major employers have announced similar policies. Desperate to get workers back at the office, corporate momentum against the unvaccinated is building quickly.
The business world operates at the pace of banking, giving banks a unique place at the center of corporate and business culture. Wells Fargo, America’s fourth-largest bank, announced it was pushing back its reopening a month to early in October, making it the biggest bank to delay reopening. Black Rock and US Bank also announced delays, but others like JP Morgan Chase and Goldman Sachs are undeterred by Delta. Wells Fargo will not require vaccinations, but they are encouraged. Currently, roughly 90 percent of the company’s 268,000 employees are vaccinated, according to the bank. “We will continue to monitor the situation and make further adjustments if required,” Wells Fargo CEO Scott Powell told employees. “Please take care of yourselves and your families.”
One of the biggest players in the world of media is also delaying its opening to October. ViacomCBS CEO Bob Bakish said anyone coming to the office before October 18 will need to be fully vaccinated, with the exception of certain union and production personnel. The company is still weighing the decisions to require vaccinations when it welcomes back employees. ViacomCBS is mandating mask wearing for all employees, regardless of vaccination status. The world of show business is heavily unionized, complicating the conversation around vaccine mandates. Both Netflix and Disney have been navigating similar issues. “We’re focused on getting this right, which means continuing to be deliberative in our approach as conditions evolve,” Bakish wrote.
Rideshare company Lyft pushed its return date all the way to February, a full six months. Lyft offices will remain open for any employee that prefers to come in, but they must be vaccinated. “We anticipate the Covid situation will remain fluid for the upcoming months,” Lyft wrote in its email to employees, “making it difficult for us to land a clear return date without a possibility of moving it again.” Uber is also delaying its return. The thousands of drivers who do the bulk of the work for both ride-sharing companies don’t have the option of coming into the office. Because most drivers technically operate as independent contractors under the ridesharing model, neither Lyft nor Uber likely has any legal standing to mandate vaccines, though both do mandate masks. Lyft and Uber may mandate vaccines anyway, which could push drivers away as ride-share requests spike. That just means more surge pricing and profit for the drivers that remain.
Like banks, insurance providers are a pillar of corporate culture. One of the largest, Travelers Cos, said it will delay its restart date by a month for its Hartford, CT office where the company employs more than 7,000 employees, its largest office. “In light of the uncertainty surrounding the Delta variant, we’ve decided to delay our formal return to the office plan by at least one month,” a spokesperson for Travelers told the Hartford Courant. Another Hartford-based insurance provider, Aetna, also announced delays to office reopening. Both companies will monitor guidance from state and federal officials as they push to bring workers back. Downtown Hartford will remain empty for a while longer.
Most companies who are delaying returns are favoring short pushbacks, signifying they expect the Delta variant to be a temporary problem. The UK took a similar tack when Delta started to spread across the country, pushing its nationwide reopening date back a month to July 19. Even after “Freedom Day,” offices in the UK have been slow to refill with most employers favoring hybrid models and flexibility.