Kevin Kelly, Emerald Packaging's chief executive officer, on the factory floor on March 24, 2020.
Kevin Kelly, Emerald Packaging’s chief executive, is asking his administrative employees to put in shifts on the factory floor to replace workers who are out sick because of COVID-19. (Russ Mitchell / Los Angeles Times)
COVID Today

Omicron plays havoc with return-to-office plans

As the new variant spreads, businesses across California are rethinking timelines for bringing workers back into the office and scrambling to cope with lost productivity.

If you’ve been working from home for going on two years, and your spouse bought you some new pants because your company was planning to reopen its offices in January or February — well, you’ll probably have to stand up to show them off on Zoom.

The fast-spreading, highly contagious COVID virus mutation dubbed Omicron isn’t just making people sick — it’s gumming up the plans for many companies that had hoped to reopen their offices for hybrid or full-time in-person work early in 2022.

Many of those plans were already looking iffy by September, when a rise in cases of the Delta COVID variant caused executives to review their optimistic plans.

Omicron appears to be less deadly with generally less severe symptoms than Delta. But it’s proving far more contagious. That’s causing companies to delay reopening plans, and in many cases, new dates aren’t being offered.

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Uber had planned to open all its offices on Jan. 10 with expectations many employees would return to work in person, but that plan is on indefinite delay. Many offices have remained open and will remain open for employees who choose to go in to work, said spokesperson Zahid Arab.

In a Dec. 2 memo, Uber told employees “if you’re comfortable going in, we encourage you to do so, but being in the office won’t be required until further notice.“ The ride-hailing giant is headquartered in San Francisco but also has offices in Southern California.

Uber’s top competitor, Lyft, announced plans to delay its general reopening plans by a year, from February 2022 to sometime in 2023. Offices will be open to those who want to attend in person, but workers won’t be required to come in through 2022. That’s only partly due to Omicron, said spokesperson Ashley Adams. “The primary driver was to provide team members with the flexibility they’d been asking for, for a number of reasons, including many that aren’t related to the pandemic,” she said.

Facebook still plans a general reopening of its offices on Jan. 31, although employees able to work remotely can apply to make it their default work arrangement.

Omicron hasn’t affected DoorDash’s plans much, either. Back in September, the food delivery company decided in September to no longer forecast a specific return-to-office date for corporate employees. Once the company’s sure of its plans, it will give workers 60 days notice, a spokesperson said.

Wells Fargo had planned Jan. 10 as return-to-work day, but the return has been delayed, said spokesperson Lori Beecher. She didn’t blame Omicron specifically but did note the “changing external environment.” Many Wells Fargo retail operations remain open, however, staffed with vaccinated employees.

Clorox, the consumer products company headquartered in Oakland, had begun refitting its offices to support hybrid work even before the COVID pandemic hit, but a general reopening has been on ice since then. The company is looking at April to throw the doors open but is reconsidering those plans and will present updated plans sometime in January, said spokesperson David Kellis.

Apple’s reopening plans are up in the air too. The company shifted its plans forward several times this year, first September, then October, then January, then February. Now, according to an employee memo from Chief Executive Tim Cook, the company will delay plans for mandatory hybrid work for many workers “to a date yet to be determined.”

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Many companies don’t have the luxury of employing vast armies of software workers who find it relatively easy to work productively from home. One is Emerald Packaging, located in Union City near San Francisco, a maker of bags and wraps for vegetables, snack foods and the like.

Kevin Kelly, the family-owned operation’s chief executive, says he is hoping the combination of Omicron’s increased transmissibility and milder illness will ultimately allow businesses like his to return to normal that much sooner.

In the meantime, he’s expecting many of his workers to catch the virus and be out sick, crimping production at a time when his company, like so many others, needs all the revenue it can get to offset rising costs.

So he’s asking his 30 office workers to put in shifts on the factory floor, training some on the simpler-to-run machines, to be ready in case factory workers get sick and are out for weeks at a time. Starting Jan. 5, they’ll spend four hours a day on the factory floor twice per week.

Although the company put strict masking and social distancing rules in place at the start of COVID, and has stuck with them, about 25 workers on the factory force of 250 are declining to be vaccinated. Kelly estimates 10 or 12 factory workers will be out at any given time, if Omicron continues to spread as rapidly as it has in recent weeks.

Shifting administrative workers from the denser office onto the spacious, open-air factory floor should create a safer environment for everyone, COVID-wise, Kelly said. “The effect will be to depopulate the office and keep production up.”

This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.