Concerns about a new Covid-19 variant are prompting some U.S. businesses to double down on vaccine mandates and to rethink hosting holiday festivities this month, while many others are taking a wait-and-see approach as they look to government agencies for more guidance.
Since the discovery of the Omicron coronavirus variant was disclosed last week, much about it remains unknown. Scientists are racing to determine how it differs from other variants in its spread and response to vaccines, treatments and past infections. The World Health Organization has declared Omicron a “variant of concern,” indicating it carries higher risks than other virus strains. Meanwhile, the U.S. has now found multiple cases of the Omicron variant. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is now recommending everyone 18 years old and older get a booster shot after completing a first course of Covid-19 vaccination.
Among the most pressing Omicron-related questions for companies is whether to proceed with holiday gatherings. Companies are asking whether they should change in-person holiday gatherings to virtual events, or cancel them altogether, with some considering giving gift certificates to employees instead, said
Johnny C. Taylor Jr.
, the president and chief executive officer of the Society for Human Resource Management. The association of HR professionals saw more than 500 inquiries about the new variant from its members between last Friday and Tuesday, he added.
Although the number of company holiday parties hadn’t yet returned to the pre-pandemic levels—and some were already refraining this year because of financial constraints—many are now contemplating the risks of hosting a corporate gathering, which could potentially turn into a super-spreader event, Mr. Taylor said. “In the wake of concerns, they just think it’s not worth the risk,” he added.
Oppenheimer & Co. is still deciding whether to host its holiday party this year, said
the broker-dealer’s chief compliance officer. But he said he has canceled the holiday gathering for the compliance department following the latest news.
The firm, which requires its employees and visitors in the office to be fully vaccinated, in October brought its workers back to the office using a hybrid model in which employees work from home some days and come into the offices on others, and has allowed its workers to travel and meet with clients if needed.
Mr. Taylor said SHRM, as an organization that also hosts conferences, is now deciding whether to cancel events in the first quarter of 2022 in light of the new risks and provisions in contracts. “It’s impacting our conference business; it is a real threat,” he said. But he is also hopeful that things will improve in the spring.
For some companies hesitant to require a Covid-19 vaccine and waiting for the court battle on the Biden administration’s vaccine mandate to play out, the emergence of Omicron is pushing many to require employees to get inoculated against the virus, Mr. Taylor said. And some of the companies that already require vaccines are now requiring employees to get booster shots, he added.
said it is encouraging everyone to get inoculated or receive booster shots and is now offering its employees the opportunity to get vaccinated at an on-site vaccination center, according to
the German auto maker’s chief compliance officer. He said the company has limited in-person activities to essential situations for operations and development projects, and has advised its German employees to work from home whenever possible amid a new wave of the virus in the country. Volkswagen also requires masks in the workplace, has canceled physical events and training courses and largely discontinued business trips, he said.
Others, such as money-transfer company
and financial technology business
PayPal Holdings Inc.,
say they are closely monitoring the evolving situation and taking in guidance from local authorities, but they haven’t yet made any changes to their existing policies. Some of these companies continue to offer flexibility on work arrangements or have most of their employees still working from home.
Meanwhile, Oppenheimer held a management meeting Monday morning to discuss the Omicron variant but hasn’t yet made any changes to its overall policies regarding the virus, awaiting more information and guidance from authorities such as the CDC and New York state, Mr. Siegel said.
“We think it’s too early to make a decision this second. The information is still coming in,” he said. “But we’re closely watching it.”
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