Omicron pulls workers back to eye of storm, as workplace outbreaks grow

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Restaurants, stores, schools and offices have been closing this past week, as coronavirus outbreaks seeded by the omicron variant pick up speed in many areas across the country, forcing difficult decisions about paychecks and health risks for workers at the height of the holiday season.

Closures have silenced bars, restaurants and entertainment venues in parts of New York City, Houston, Chicago, D.C. and the Bay Area after outbreaks or exposures among their staff, in an uncanny flashback to the earliest days of the pandemic.

Some Walmarts have begun shuttering for cleaning and sanitizing. Apple has closed stores in Texas, Maryland and Florida in recent weeks because of outbreaks. And countless schools, college campuses, medical offices and other workplaces have reported temporary closures due to confirmed coronavirus cases in recent days. Google searches for phrases such as “covid at work” are at their highest level since early September.

The outbreaks are a reminder of the risks that front line workers continue to face on the job, and the central role that workplaces can play in the transmission of the virus. And while a vaccine or testing requirement from the federal government is poised to start taking effect in January, the omicron variant is more transmissible than other strains, which has led to outbreaks with large numbers of workers testing positive, sometimes despite vaccines and even masking.

Workers, advocates and labor unions are warning that the government support that helped workers through previous chapters of the pandemic—mandatory sick pay, paid time off to care for family members and substantial unemployment benefits for those who lost jobs—will be in short supply this time around, nearly two years into the public health crisis.

“What we’re going to see is how few lessons we’ve learned,” said Rebecca Kolins Givan, a labor expert at Rutgers University. “Because of everything from insufficient access to testing, to not enough available child care, workers are going to struggle in the same ways as they’ve struggled in the previous surges. We haven’t seen solutions to all of the systemic problems that workers faced the last time around. So the problems will still be there.”

Love Lopez, 47, was sent home from her job at the front desk of a hotel in Temecula, Calif., this week after managers informed her that three of her co-workers had tested positive. It was the third staff outbreak at the hotel since August, when she began working there. By the end of Wednesday, that number had grown to six co-workers who tested positive, she said.

Lopez likes her job but said she worries that the safety protocols leave workers like her vulnerable. Staff are not required to be vaccinated, she said, and the hotel does a poor job enforcing its mask mandate for unvaccinated workers in the close quarters where staff gather when not in front of guests.

“When I go in the back, almost every single employee that is in the back, and it’s up to a dozen employees, they’re not wearing them at all,” she said.

The hotel gave her two hours of paid time to get tested on Wednesday and will pay her should she need to miss work because of a positive test result, which she is thankful for. But she was not paid for nine days off work that she had to take earlier this year after being exposed to a sick family member. A mother of four, she’s concerned about an upcoming omicron wave, though cases in Riverside County are only rising gradually at the moment.

“It’s starting to really, really worry me, because I’m really afraid to bring something home,” she said.

Comprehensive statistics about the number of closures across the country don’t exist at the moment, but there are strong indications that the hospitality industry is among the hardest hit so far.

In New York, service sector employee hours fell from 28.2 on average in November to 21.8 for the first three weeks of December, according to a new analysis by HR and payroll processor Gusto. Usually, hours worked steadily increase from November through December due to the busy holiday shopping and dining season, said Gusto economist Luke Pardue.

Recent data from restaurant reservation service OpenTable shows a steep drop in bookings from Dec. 19 to Dec. 20 in metro areas nationwide, with Monday bringing the fewest number of reservations since June. Overall, it’s been the worst two-week stretch for restaurants since May, according to the data.

Restaurant owner Aaron Steingold, 46, couldn’t speak to a reporter for this story because he’d lost his voice from COVID, even though he was vaccinated. He texted responses while muddling through chills, fatigue, aches and brain fog.

He closed Steingold’s of Chicago, a paean to the classic Jewish delis of New York’s Lower East Side, upon hearing of his manager’s first positive test last Wednesday. His plan was to reopen last Saturday, with that manager quarantined, but then Steingold and another staffer awoke with symptoms.

“We are losing a ton—roughly 40% of our busiest month of the year,” he typed. In addition to the loss of business, there’s the contents of the refrigerators, which had to be donated to food banks, and the hourly wages of those he had furloughed. The restaurant had recently relocated and then expanded, so he was counting on December to make up for some of his losses.

“We test regularly, and in 22 months had not had a single positive test in the business,” he texted.

Dennis Ngo, chef-owner of Di An Di, a Vietnamese restaurant in Brooklyn, decided to close his restaurant until Jan. 4.

Last Wednesday, he closed the place for two days after finding out a staff member had been exposed. After reopening for the weekend, business had dropped by 40%, he said.

For Ngo and many restaurant workers, one problem is the lack of access to rapid tests, with extensive waits at testing clinics.

“If testing were abundant, we could get answers immediately,” he said. “I would have hoped we’d be better prepared this time around,” he said.

Restaurant workers don’t tend to get sick pay. The Restaurant Opportunities Centers United, a worker advocacy organization based in New York, said that internal surveys had shown that some 10 percent of restaurant workers said earlier this year that they’d gone into work with covid-like symptoms for fear of missing work.

“One of the basic things that restaurant workers need immediately, and should have gotten from the start of it, was paid sick leave,” said Teofilo Reyes, chief program officer with the group. “The omicron wave is an indication that things are not getting better as we progress this year.”

Aaron Gregory Smith, executive director of the U.S. Bartenders’ Guild, said restaurants and bars are likely in for a rocky ride. “We need to be prepared for wild swings for the next six weeks,” he said.

T. Cole Newton, who owns two bars in New Orleans, said that a number of bars have closed this week—some for a few days so everyone can get tested, some for the rest of the year.

“I expect pretty much everyone will catch omicron,” he said, adding that he had to man one of his bars himself because a bartender was out to get tested.

Colleen Hughes, a bartender in Charlotte, said employees have begun to call in sick in the past couple of days, stretching the staff thin.

“We would close if we generally felt unsafe, but it’s difficult to make that judgment,” she said. “There would be 100 employees in this building that would lose their income and that’s kind of terrifying.”

Other industries have yet to feel a discernible impact from omicron. Betsy Booren, senior vice president of regulatory affairs for the trade group Consumer Brands Association, said that many food companies anticipate seeing the effects in January, after Americans have spent the holidays getting together with family and friends.

Still, there are some hopes the country has learned some critical lessons, and that vaccinations and booster shots will help insulate workplaces from worse crises.

Meat processing facilities saw months of closures and bottlenecks, resulting in shortfalls and price increases for consumers, in the pandemic’s earlier waves. According to a Tyson Foods official, the company operated at 30% of capacity at beef and pork plants last spring, as the company struggling to get face shields, masks and barriers between workstations and a vaccine mandate by Nov. 1.

With the new protocols still in place,Tyson has seen a decrease of more than 90 percent of coronavirus cases, since they announced the vaccine mandate, according to the Tyson official. And they have begun offering boosters at some facilities.

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