Does It Make Sense to Reopen L.A. Offices Right Now?

”Guidelines don’t mean go,” says Gov. Newsom as L.A.-area COVID-19 cases swell

More businesses are starting to reopen, restaurants are suddenly full again (sometimes, it turns out, entirely too full), and you can even get a haircut if you really want to. But for professionals who have transitioned successfully to working remotely full time, there may be reason to pause before returning to the office while the pandemic continues to rage.

“Right now, global employers are scrambling to prepare their workplaces and work practices for a return to the office, but they know things are not going back to “normal,” not now, and probably not ever,” says Dr. Anita Kamouri of O.C.-based Iometrics.

In Los Angeles County, infection rates are rapidly climbing and conversations about “flattening the curve” are back where they were months ago, as models predict the current wave of patients could be just weeks away from overwhelming local hospital ICUs. On Monday, California Governor Gavin Newsom identified Los Angeles County as one of a group of counties exhibiting “concerning trends” when it comes to getting a handle on COVID-19.

Among those troubling trends, public health officials in the county now believe that the effective transmission rate of the virus is now increasing. That number–which represents how many people are infected by a single sick person–had dropped from 3.5 at its peak in March to below one during safer-at-home.

“We don’t know precisely yet how reopening and the recovery activities will affect transmission of COVID-19,” Dr. Christina Ghaly, director of health services for L.A. County, told the Los Angeles Times“We must all do everything we can to keep the [transmission rate] from continuing to increase.”

When Ghaly spoke to the press on June 10, she noted that data shows an increase in cases and potential demand for ICU beds was based on the best information at that time, but did not yet even account for additional escalation of the outbreak related to more recent commercial reopenings or public protests.

Nonetheless, some local workplaces are moving forward with bringing people back to the office, which might put some employees in a tricky position. Katherine Stone, a UCLA School of Law professor focused on labor and employment law, told the Los Angeles Times this week that the first step is figuring out what specific protocols your office is committing to put in place for your return.

“They should inquire what kind of precautions are in place, what kinds of protective equipment is in place, what kinds of sanitary activities are being taken, what kinds of protections for people in terms of distancing and to limit contacts with others,” she advises.

If the protocols don’t seem robust enough, or if your employer is not following through on the protections they promised to provide, it could be time to organize your coworkers–and, if necessary, appeal to county, state, or federal authorities.

“First [workers] have to ask the employer to improve the safety protections or provide the adequate protections, and then if the employer refused and they collectively decided not to come to work until the protections were in place, then they would have protection under the labor law,” Stone notes.

Adequately pandemic-proofing offices will be costly for many companies, particularly those with open-plan workspace layouts or cubicles, rather than personal offices. Modifications may include spacing work stations a minimum of six feet apart, installing physical “sneeze guard” dividers, and creating floor markings indicating adequate physical distance in corridors and common spaces. Additional protocols will have to be established for elevators, office lobbies, parking garages, and other spaces which may be shared not only by a single company, but by multiple companies, each adhering to their own policies.

For some, the investment in creating safe offices, combined with the increased liability risk (some legal scholars are warning corporate America to brace for a “huge explosion” in cases and class action suits from employees who become infected with COVID-19 at work) may not make economic sense right now.

“I’ve actually heard from many people in business that they’re actually finding that allowing their employees to telework might save them money,” Wendy Musell, an employment and civil rights law attorney, told the Times. 

Leading West Coast-based corporations including Twitter, Google, Microsoft, Amazon, Salesforce, Zillow, and PayPal are all among those who have announced expanded, longterm work-from-home plans, and more companies of all sizes are expected to follow the trend. Other businesses, however, remain reluctant to buy into the idea.

“One of the biggest holdbacks of remote work is trust–managers simply don’t trust their people to work untethered,” Kate Lister, president of consulting firm Global Workplace Analytics, wrote in a recent company blog post. “They’re used to managing by counting butts-in-seats, rather than by results. That’s not managing, that’s babysitting.”

Her firm estimates that 82 percent of American office workers would prefer to continue to work from home for the time being, even if they would like to return to a physical office at some safer point in the future. Their analysis finds that the average U.S. employer might save at least $11,000 per year, per employee who works remotely even half-time, and each employee could save between $2,500 and $4,000 of their own paycheck.

For companies that do want to go ahead with in-office work before reliable coronavirus therapeutics or vaccines are developed, Newsom encourages an approach of caution and flexibility. “We put up guidelines,” he said. “But guidelines don’t mean go.”

RELATED: DAILY TRACKER: Updates on L.A. County’s COVID-19 Cases

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