As many places in the US face another wave of COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations, employers now have several months of experience with considering and implementing different health and safety protocols—including whether or not to test employees. In a new survey, companies are currently citing cost as the biggest deterrent to testing employees for COVID-19. Availability, on the other hand, is not the problem it once was earlier during the pandemic. Many employers, in fact, are able to quickly obtain tests—that is, if they want to pay the price. Unfortunately, that price seems to outweigh the benefits in the eyes of many businesses.

Conducted this fall by Arizona State University and the World Economic Forum with responses from over 1,141 facilities worldwide, the survey found that only 17% of employers were testing employees. When it comes to small companies (less than 25 employees), that number falls down to 8%. Of those facilities testing workers, over half did so even for employees not showing symptoms, taking a more aggressive approach in line with previous data suggesting asymptomatic carriers may be just as contagious. Additionally, about 50% of employers testing do so on a weekly basis. However, those companies only testing employees if and when they present symptoms may not truly be getting the full benefit of their efforts.

When it comes to those facilities not testing any workers, 28% blamed the cost. In a close second, more than one in five employers (22%) cited complexity, suggesting confusion over the testing process. However, for the biggest companies (over 5,000 employees), complexity—not cost—was the top reason they did not test. Cost, of course, is less prohibitive for these employers with more resources. Only 16% felt the time needed to obtain results was an issue, with a similar percentage (15%) dealing with availability concerns.

These findings suggest that employers believe the overall risk is not worth the investment, especially if they also have a lack of clarity or understanding when it comes to the testing process and how it could benefit their facility. Earlier during the pandemic, employers may also have been worried about the legal consequences of workers getting ill; however, that seems less of a concern with the dismissal of a recent lawsuit against Amazon. On top of this, many employers might be feeling exhausted when cases in their area keep rising. Extra cleaning protocols, social distancing efforts, employee screening, and mask recommendations—while all helpful—can still leave people vulnerable to illness because they do not fully account for asymptomatic carriers nor the behavior of employees outside of work.

Vaccine Recommendations And Return-to-Work Policies

If testing employees remains to be too challenging for companies, employers may shift their focus towards employees’ vaccine status or proof of immunity now that there is news of promising vaccines on the horizon. One of the biggest considerations for companies will be whether or not to require inoculation for on-site employees, assuming there are no legal barriers involved. Earlier this year, a survey from the Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research showed that about half of Americans did not want to get a future COVID-19 vaccine; that number included both those who were undecided and those who were definitely opposed. Most cited concerns over safety, and others felt that the virus was not a big enough health threat to warrant vaccination. It’s unclear whether or not that sentiment has changed. Those who were previously on-the-fence about a vaccine might be more inclined now that cases are on the rise again and restrictions and lockdowns being reinstated. However, if a large percentage of workers refuse to get vaccinated, some companies might worry about losing workers who do not want to comply with a requirement.

A second complication for employers wanting to require a vaccine will be how they obtain proof that employees have been inoculated. If possible, employers may be able to get a certificate of immunization or a doctor’s note. If self-reporting is all that is needed, some employees may be dishonest, leading to a false level of confidence in the safety of in-person operations. Companies could also offer to provide the vaccination, either by covering the cost or by providing it on-site. However, concerns over cost and complexity—just like those with testing—may ultimately play a role in deterring employers from requiring or offering the vaccine.

Above all, employers need to understand the specific demographics and health needs of their employees, customer base, and community when making these decisions.

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