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What the omicron variant means for plans to start working in-person again


The vast majority of employers had planned to bring most workers back to the office around the new year. Then omicron - that new coronavirus variant is starting to crop up across the U.S. and NPR consumer health correspondent Yuki Noguchi joins us to explain how employers are reacting.

Yuki, what are you seeing?

YUKI NOGUCHI, BYLINE: Well, you know, not much is known yet about the risks this variant poses. It's early days, so employers are watching and waiting to see how big a threat it is before committing to big policy changes. But, of course, omicron is driving a stake in many holiday party plans. It was already dicey because cases of the previous delta variant were also on the rise. Johnny Taylor, the CEO of the Society for Human Resource Management, says they get lots of calls asking this.

JOHNNY TAYLOR: Do you think it would be wise to cancel holiday parties, the gatherings, because we don't know what we don't know? So we are seeing a trend toward employers saying, you know what? It's probably not the best idea, given that we don't know. None of us want to be known as the big spreader event of the year.

NOGUCHI: And this was supposed to be, Ari, a comeback year for the office holiday party. And the parties were also supposed to be kind of like an unofficial kickoff to the broader return to work office plans. The vast majority of employers with remote workers were planning to bring them back, as you mentioned, to the workplace around the new year.

SHAPIRO: So where do those plans stand now in light of all the uncertainty you're describing?

NOGUCHI: Yeah, so over 90% of employers have at least partially reopened their workplaces. And those people are not being sent home because it's too early to know what the threat is. But about a third of employers still have at least some people working remotely. And for them, a return to office has become kind of an open-ended question with an open-ended date. You know, if you think back, delta emerged and is now the dominant variant. Now we're talking about omicron, and there will be more Greek letter variants to come. So the reality of that cycle is sinking in. Jeff Levin-Scherz is population health leader at consultancy Willis Towers Watson and says this holding pattern could become our new normal.

JEFF LEVIN-SCHERZ: The longer this goes on, the more likely some of the changes that employers have made in reaction to the pandemic will become permanent changes to the workplace.

SHAPIRO: You know, Yuki, one unknown here is how effective the vaccines are against the omicron variant. Is this prompting employers to mandate vaccination?

NOGUCHI: Yes, although a minority have done so so far, and many others are, of course, waiting for the courts to weigh in. That's because the Biden administration's plan to require vaccination among employers with 100 or more workers is being challenged, so employers have to wait for the legal resolution on that. But actually, it does seem that with each new variant and each new wave of cases, support for employer vaccine mandates increases. Johnny Taylor at the human resources group told me he saw that with delta. Prior to that surge, the vast majority of American workers the group surveyed were opposed to employers requiring shots, and now that's changed.

TAYLOR: We have seen that tide turn, like, monumentally and it - let me tell you when it really did was delta. But when delta came down and we started seeing spikes again and places started closing again and people started losing their mobility again, employees started saying mandate it.

NOGUCHI: Demand for vaccines is high again, and the more people are vaccinated, of course, the fewer variants and the greater overall immunity. And that's when it really becomes safer to work together in person again.

SHAPIRO: NPR's Yuki Noguchi, thank you.

NOGUCHI: Thank you, Ari. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Yuki Noguchi is a correspondent on the Science Desk based out of NPR's headquarters in Washington, D.C. She started covering consumer health in the midst of the pandemic, reporting on everything from vaccination and racial inequities in access to health, to cancer care, obesity and mental health.