We’re all still learning what it means to “live with COVID.” Hospitalization rates have been declining since late July, and when schools opened this fall for in-person, mostly mask-free learning, it felt like a big step in the direction of normal. Most employers have felt confident enough to invite, or even require, employees to return to their worksites, and some have chosen to drop vaccine mandates in the process. At the same time, findings from a new Mercer survey of 701 employers show that many organizations are still feeling the effects of COVID.
COVID continues to impact business operations
Nearly half of large employers (500 or more employees) surveyed say that COVID-related absences and disabilities remain an issue for their organization. A third say that operations are affected by absences for acute illness, isolation, or quarantine. Leaves of absence related to long COVID (for symptoms such as fatigue, nerve pain, headache, balance issues and “brain fog”) are an issue for 14%; similar percentages report issues with accommodations and productivity losses.
How common is long COVID? A major study found that 6% of people had not recovered 6-18 months after COVID infection, while 42% reported only partial recovery. When symptoms linger for such extended periods of time, long COVID cases can accumulate even as the overall number of COVID infections declines. Asked to compare the prevalence of short-term disability leaves this year compared to last year, only 18% said the incidence rate had dropped. The majority (56%) said it was about the same and 26% said it had actually increased.
Almost exactly one year ago, a large Mercer poll found that 34% of employers required employees to be vaccinated to work on-site. The poll was taken just a few weeks after President Biden directed OSHA to issue regulations under which most employers would have to require workers either to get vaccinated or to provide negative COVID-19 test results at least weekly to work onsite. Notably, this attempt to speed the pace of vaccination was blocked by the courts before it could take effect.
Today, the picture is nearly the same: 32% of survey respondents have a vaccination requirement in place for at least some of their worksites, with 10% mandating vaccinations only where required by law. An additional 14% had a mandate but have dropped it. The largest employers (20,000 or more employees) are more likely to require vaccinations – 44% do so. Geographically, among employers of all sizes, vaccine requirements are most common in the Northeast (38%) and least common in the Midwest (12%).
Most of the large employers with a mandate in place require full vaccination but not booster shots (71%); 16% require one booster and 11% require two.
While the majority of employers do not require vaccinations, about two-thirds say they actively encourage employees to get vaccinations, most commonly with communications from leadership (39%); directing employees to vaccination sites (28%); or even administering vaccinations onsite (26%).
Preparing for a winter surge
As fall heads toward winter in the US, we’re hearing warnings of a COVID-19 surge. The new booster shot that targets Omicron variants could do much to dampen a winter surge. Now is a good time to double down on education and communication so that all employees are aware that COVID boosters are readily available and covered by insurance.
In addition, consider whether your PTO policies support a safe worksite. Safety protocols should be designed with the most vulnerable members of the workforce in mind, particularly those who are immune-compromised. This population has been estimated at 1% (3 million people). If they cannot be accommodated with remote work, they do need to know that they are in a safe workplace.
About half of the large employers surveyed (52%) provide additional paid time off for employees exposed to or recovering from COVID; however, just 22% provide leave under a separate PTO policy where not required to do so to comply with state/local mandates. COVID has stress-tested employer PTO programs, leading many to review and update their policies. As organizations adapt to “live with COVID,” PTO policies will need to evolve to meet employee needs and ensure a safe workplace. Particularly in today’s economic environment, with inflation creating financial stress for many, employees will appreciate a leave policy that enables them to take time away from work needed to recover from a COVID infection without exhausting other types of paid time off.
About the survey: Mercer’s 10-Minute Survey on 3 Big Issues was in the field through October 5. A report on the complete findings will be available in early November.
We recommend the CDC (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention) and WHO (World Health Organization) for current information, data and recommendations relating to COVID-19. Other reputable data sources include COVID Act Now (a university consortium) and IHME (Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation at the University of Washington). The Johns Hopkins Center for Healthcare Security COVID-19 Update is a good source for emerging research and analysis.