Many businesses with remote employees are eyeing a return to the office in the coming weeks and months.
To help prepare workers and employers for a return to the new normal, Newsday, in partnership with the Long Island Association business group, hosted a town hall webinar Thursday to help answer viewer questions about the return to on-site work.
The livestreamed panel, moderated by Newsday economics reporter James T. Madore, was joined by Domenique Camacho Moran, labor and employment attorney at Farrell Fritz, Richard Humann, chief executive of H2M architects + engineers, and Jason Forte, senior vice president of leasing at office landlord RXR Realty. Here are some of the questions that were addressed; the panelists' responses have been edited for clarity.
I’ve been fully vaccinated, and I don’t want to sit next to others who aren’t. Can I request that my employer make an accommodation?
Moran: Vaccination status is medical information. Your employer can’t share that information with you. If you have concerns, start with an open dialogue with your employer.
How are employers with small offices handling the need to social distance?
Humann: Employers should check floor plans to see if they can maintain social distancing. If they can’t, implementing things like plexiglass barriers between work stations can help. Additionally, limiting occupancy in areas can be useful. For example, if a space can normally accommodate 20 people, we might say you shouldn’t have more than 8 people in that setting.
What are my responsibilities as a tenant in an office building to keep people safe? What are the landlord’s responsibilities?
Forte: From a landlord and tenant perspective, objectives and responsibilities are not all that dissimilar. Our objectives are to keep people safe when they come back to the office. There are provisions in leases that do require tenants to comply with local and state laws. So, with that, we think it's important for both landlords and tenants to continue to comply with all New York State and CDC guidelines.
How do you handle the issue of visitors in the office, like package drivers and lunch delivery workers?
Forte: That's incumbent upon each employer to handle individually. I don't think it's a one size fits all. For example, we've been following the protocol where the visitors have been checking in, but staying in the lobby areas and not circulating throughout the space.
Moran: New York State guidance for reopening offices remain in place. When you have visitors that come into the space, you should still be asking them the screening questions.
My employer said the governor has relieved office buildings of all restrictions and that there will be no social distancing protocols, health questions or mask requirements. Is this true?
Moran: The governor's adoption of the CDC guidelines allows for employers to decide that they are going to have a policy where masks and social distancing, for those who are vaccinated, are not required. For those who are unvaccinated, they should wear their mask in the workplace. It's a should, and the enforcement of that can rely on the honor system. Employers can ask to see proof of vaccination, but it's not required.
I had a partition that was six feet tall before the pandemic. Is that enough?
Humann: In general, the partitions should be sufficient to provide a barrier if you can't maintain a 6-foot social distance. Additionally, a great suggestion is to make sure that commonly used spaces, like coffee machines and cafeterias, are cleaned a couple of times a day.
How are employers handling common areas?
Forte: As a landlord, we are requiring people that are in common spaces to continue to social distance and wear masks. We still have the ability to require people to wear a mask when they enter the building as well as prescreen them and check their temperature.