Even as the final business-related pandemic restrictions are lifted in Massachusetts, no clear consensus has emerged about whether workers should be required to get vaccinated to walk in the door or wear masks on the job.
One new measure of sentiment among businesses comes from the Newton-Needham Regional Chamber, which surveyed about 450 members last week about their back-to-work protocols. On face coverings, nearly one third of businesses, 29 percent, said they will mandate that employees wear them. A similar number will not, and one third remained undecided.
Meanwhile, 23 percent will require employees who return to the workplace to be vaccinated, while nearly 40 percent said they will not, with 30 percent undecided. On this issue, the size of the business makes a big difference: More than a third of businesses with fewer than 20 workers, including a number of restaurants, said they will require vaccinated employees in their workplaces, while only a handful of larger companies said they will do so.
The survey focused on the chamber’s core membership area in the suburbs west of Boston, covering a range of businesses including shops, technology firms, and insurance companies; most respondents are small businesses, although 15 percent of them employ more than 100 people. It provides an early snapshot of the approaches employers across the state, particularly smaller ones, are taking after mask, distancing, and occupancy rules ended for businesses over the weekend.
The indecision among respondents reflects the fact that many office workers aren’t back yet and probably won’t be until September. Plus, many employers thought they had far more time to prepare: The remaining restrictions weren’t supposed to be lifted until August, but then Governor Charlie Baker decided two weeks ago to move that date up to May 29.
“It was great the governor stepped up the announcement,” said Greg Reibman, the Newton-Needham chamber’s president. “But it did create whiplash for a lot of employers because they weren’t ready for it. They thought they had until August, or at least until June, to think about a lot of these policies. Then suddenly they had to think about these policies really quickly.”
Demian Wendrow, co-owner of the London Harness and Tumi luggage stores in Wellesley, is among those small-business owners caught in the middle. All seven of the shops’ workers are vaccinated, he said. But he said they’ll still pull up their masks if customers enter with masks or ask employees to wear them. He didn’t expect he would have to adjust so quickly. Before the state’s indoor mask requirement ended, it was much simpler: Everyone followed the same set of rules. Now, it’s a bit more complicated.
“From one store to the next, you will see different approaches,” Wendrow said. “Now we could have circumstances where a customer might not want to come in here because we’re wearing masks, or vice versa . . . Small businesses don’t like to be put in these situations.”
Similar situations are playing out in workplaces where customers don’t regularly interact in person with employees. For Needham-based Kaplansky Insurance, workers won’t need to be vaccinated to come into the office. However, those who are not inoculated will need to wear a mask, said Jennifer Soares, an assistant vice president. Kaplansky is requiring employees to show proof of vaccination, she said. So far, roughly 90 percent of the agency’s 86 employees have received shots, Soares said. The goal, she said, is to follow state and federal guidance on the issue, even if that guidance is not mandatory.
At Bulfinch Group, a financial services firm on Gould Street in Needham, president Seth Medalie said the decision was made to allow everyone to return to the office as of June 1 with no vaccination or mask mandates. However, he is encouraging employees to get vaccinated and encouraging those who have not done so to wear a face covering. Medalie opted not to mandate masks to avoid creating “two classes of people within the organization.”
“From what we read, the science was telling us those that were vaccinated were very well protected, whether or not they were around people who were vaccinated or not,” Medalie said.
The 150-person company is adopting a flexible, hybrid approach, with employees able to choose the days to come into the office or work remotely. However, he doesn’t expect to see most of his colleagues in the office until September — Medalie himself plans to go into the office three days a week.
But next door to Bulfinch at Bakers’ Best Catering, workers still need to wear masks. That’s because not all employees are vaccinated, human resources director Amy Traywick said, and some employees visit corporate clients or staff events where they interact with people outside of the company. Bakers’ Best management decided to “highly encourage” the staff to be vaccinated, she said.
There’s much more agreement on another topic: the financial outlook for 2021. The future looks bright for most chamber members, with 53 percent saying they are optimistic about the performance of their business this year, and only 3 percent expressing pessimism about the year ahead.
Count Traywick in the optimistic camp. The pandemic was brutal for catering businesses. While Bakers’ Best fared better than many, its current staff of about 80 is still less than half the size it was before COVID-19 hit. However, with event restrictions lifted and people trickling back to the office, orders are picking up.
“While it’s been a devastating year, we’re definitely seeing signs of hope,” Traywick said. “The phone’s ringing a lot more, e-mails are coming in, events are coming in, fast and furious. People are chomping at the bit to socialize again.”