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Masks? Cakes? Hugs? Answers to pressing back-to-office questions

As Long Islanders stream back to the office, pandemic questions linger:

Will masks be mandated? Should co-workers shake hands or (gasp!) hug? Will employers demand proof of vaccination? And when can we again nosh on cake to mark birthdays, holidays and every other occasion?

On June 15, Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo, citing the state’s vaccination progress (70% of adults with at least one shot), peeled back restrictions for offices and other venues.

But the devil is in the details.

Now employers will have to apply the new guidance and navigate some workplace minefields.

Long Island’s army of office workers largely remain off site compared to pre-pandemic days, but that is changing, said Frank Pusinelli, chief operating officer, operating assets at RXR Realty.

“Currently, we’re seeing occupancy rates of around 30% in Long Island,” he said of the company’s roughly 3.5-million-square-foot portfolio. “We expect those numbers to steadily increase throughout the summer, with the bulk of our tenants returning to the office post-Labor Day.”

What can you expect when you go back? spoke with attorneys, psychologists, academics and public health experts to find out.

Returning to the office could be jarring, said Jennifer Byrnes, co-owner of the Center for Cognitive and Dialectical Behavior Therapy in Lake Success.

She suggests preparing by harnessing a technique used by athletes.

Just as a basketball player imagines walking to the line and sinking a free throw, workers can visualize themselves back at the office.

“The idea is to imagine yourself doing well,” Byrnes said. “What’s it going to feel like to finally sit down at your desk? It’s like a daydream you have control over.”

When that day comes and we greet our colleagues, Byrnes said, it’s important to have a “mindfulness” moment and acknowledge the pandemic as a defining event.

“People have lost people; people have been sick,” she said. “It’s like Sept. 11 and after.”

Vaccines

Can my employer require vaccinations?

Yes, with a few exceptions, according to Domenique Camacho Moran, a partner who leads the labor and employment law practice at Farrell Fritz.

Employers must discuss accommodations with workers who have disabilities or sincerely held religious beliefs that prevent them from being vaccinated.

“Those accommodations might look like: continuing to wear a mask, continuing to social distance,” Moran said. “Perhaps to have a different work schedule.”

Companies may dismiss other workers who decline to get vaccinated, Moran said.

Can my employer ask if workers are vaccinated?

“Yes, and they can ask for proof of vaccination,” Moran said. “But employers have to keep that information confidential.”

Can I ask co-workers if they’re vaccinated? Do I have to respond if they ask me?

Many co-workers are initiating conversations about vaccination in an effort to make colleagues feel comfortable, which Moran said is OK.

“I don’t know that the questions are being asked in an interrogation-like way,” she said, adding that “nobody should feel compelled to answer.”

How do you recommend approaching conversations about vaccinations with those you suspect think differently than you?

Approach the topic the way you would treat discussions about religion or politics at work, Moran said.

“They’re not good conversation topics,” she said.

Can employers separate those who are vaccinated and those who are not? Should they?

No law specifically bars employers from discriminating against those who aren’t vaccinated, but Moran advises against separating such workers.

“The concern I have is that we’ll start to see claims of discrimination based on other protected categories … particularly those with disabilities or those who have sincerely held religious beliefs,” she said.

Instead, Moran suggests concerned employers enact strong masking and social distancing policies.

Masks

When and where should I expect to wear a mask?

Most workplaces are following state and U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines, which do not require people who are vaccinated to wear masks or socially distance, according to Moran.

“For those who have not been vaccinated, there is a strong recommendation that they continue to wear a mask,” Moran said, noting that “private businesses can continue to have their own view and their own mandates.”

What should I do if I’m one of the only ones wearing a mask, and I feel judged or ridiculed?

Most companies have policies that require colleagues to respect one another. If you feel ridiculed or harassed, “go to human resources,” Moran said.

What if I don’t feel comfortable wearing a mask, and it’s expected?

Masks are no different from any other uniform-related rules, Moran said.

“An employer can mandate a mask,” she said. “They can say that they can’t be graphic masks; they can’t have slogans.”

Workers who have a disability that prevents them from wearing a mask should discuss their situation with human resources, Moran said.

Can I be disciplined or fired for not wearing a mask?

Yes, Moran said.

Bathrooms

Should companies reopen bathrooms to full capacity?

With office capacity restrictions lifted in New York state, Long Island businesses may reopen without limits. But Jessica Holzer, professor of health sciences and program director for public health at the University of New Haven, advised that they should consider specifics of their office.

She recommends reopening bathrooms to full occupancy only if 85% or more of employees on site are vaccinated.

“It’s all about vaccination status and transmission rates,” she said.

If the vaccination rate is unknown, employers can exercise more caution, capping bathroom occupancy.

Should workers be concerned about airborne spread of the COVID-19 virus in bathrooms?

Holzer said she knows of no instances where contact tracing established bathroom transmission as the primary source of infection. The risk appears low and precautions such as mask wearing and vaccination will be sufficient, she said.

How should offices address employee concerns about bathrooms?

Providing toilet seats with lids to reduce droplet transmission, and allowing for single occupancy in bathrooms are strategies that might assuage employee concerns, Holzer said.

Will there be cake?

How should companies deal with kitchens and break rooms?

Companies where 85% of the workforce is vaccinated should feel free to reopen all spaces, including break rooms and kitchens, to full occupancy, Holzer advised, though companies can make their own assessments.

At offices that fall short of that threshold, unvaccinated workers should be discouraged from eating together indoors, she said. In communities with high transmission rates, unvaccinated workers should be barred from eating together indoors.

Outdoor eating for unvaccinated workers gets a green light.

Do vending machines and food services pose a threat?

“The machines and services are themselves fine,” Holzer said. “The concern is human behavior: congregating around them, staying to chat with someone, putting your mask down to drink and keeping it down as you share a brief break with a colleague.”

Those practices should be no problem in a workplace with 85% vaccination, but where those levels are not met, “masks should be strongly encouraged and lingering within 6 feet and talking without masks should be discouraged,” she said.

When can we have our office cakes again?

In offices with 85% vaccination levels, cut and serve cake as before the pandemic, Holzer said.

In offices with lower vaccination rates, gather outside and enlist a vaccinated cake cutter. “Everyone picks up their own cake from the table rather than having it delivered,” Holzer said.

In areas with high virus transmission: Get cupcakes, eat them outdoors, wear masks and maintain 6 feet between you and other revelers.

Screenings

Can my company require me to get COVID-19 tested?

Companies can require tests and prevent employees from returning to work until they get a negative result, Moran said.

Do employers need to offer time off to get tested, or pay for it?

No, but paid sick leave should cover anyone who needs to get tested because they’re symptomatic, according to Moran.

What can my employer require when it comes to health screenings, such as temperature checks, questionnaires or apps?

The U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission decided in March 2020 that companies could ask workers about symptoms and take temperatures because of the pandemic, Moran said.

“For the moment, that continues to be the case,” she said, noting that this type of conduct may once again be considered inappropriate. “As the infection rate continues to decline, we may see the EEOC roll back those guidelines.”

If I have privacy concerns, particularly about apps that track how many people are in certain locations, do I have to participate?

Apps have been widely used by employers and large landlords, but are not typically mandated, Moran said.

She believes most firms are moving away from screening now that the state no longer requires it.

“It’s an administrative burden,” Moran said.

Social distancing

What if I don’t want to be near unvaccinated co-workers?

Start by having a conversation with your manager or human resources, said Sy Islam, vice president of consulting at Talent Metrics, a management consulting firm based in Melville.

They may be able to place your desk farther from others or permit you to attend meetings virtually, Islam said.

You may also want to broach the topic with colleagues, which you should do by bringing up what worries you, Islam said.

“You can’t interrogate people about their vaccination status,” he said.

When is it safe to hug or shake hands?

Workers may have to make on-the-spot calculations about what’s safe, according to public health expert Holzer.

If you and a colleague are both fully vaccinated and have not spent time recently in a high transmission area, you may hug, Holzer said.

If you’re vaccinated, but your colleague is not (or you’re uncertain or they may have traveled to a hot spot), shake hands instead, she said.

Those who aren’t vaccinated should refrain from contact.

What if I’m uncomfortable with physical contact?

Be mindful that some vaccinated colleagues may still prefer space. Handshakes should not be expected, Islam said.

“If you’re concerned about it, I’d be clear and offer an elbow, perhaps, or a nod,” he said. “Clarify that you’re not comfortable yet — and it has nothing to do with your colleague.”

Can I approach someone at their desk or in the hallway? Should I expect people to approach me?

Consider what you’re comfortable with. When people have different approaches, remember that — above all — you’re in the office to work; talk through any issues, Islam said.

“Your goal in having these conversations isn’t to convince one another that you’re correct,” Islam said. “It’s to create a working arrangement.”

Hybrid schedules

How should I think about when to go to my workplace, if I have a say in the decision?

Coordinate with colleagues you want to see and establish a weekly routine, said Karen Sobel Lojeski, founder of Virtual Distance International, a Port Jefferson-based software and consulting firm that focuses on bridging distance created by technology in the workplace.

Employees should test out their new schedule before considering changes, she said.

“Continue that for a while, and when I say a while, at least a couple of months,” Lojeski said.

How should we run a meeting if some attendees are in the office and others are at home?

Have someone attending virtually lead the meeting, so those in the office are more likely to focus on the screen, and digital attendees feel included, Lojeski said.

Name a “context coordinator,” who scans and addresses any gaps between what colleagues are hearing or seeing. For instance, if one worker logs on after a colleague speaks in the office, the context coordinator should prompt the speaker to repeat what was missed.

Also appoint a moderator, who collects questions and comments.

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