Survey: Employers rethinking return-to-work plans as COVID-19 surges

Employers have been forced to re-strategize around COVID-19 surges, a new survey shows. (Getty/E+/Orbon Alija)

The surge of COVID-19 cases caused by the delta variant has employers rethinking their plans for returning to work — and planning for business to stabilize later than expected, a new survey shows.

Most employers expected a stabilized business environment by the end of this year, but their confidence has declined from 65% to 57% over the past six months, according to new data from the National Alliance of Healthcare Purchaser Coalitions.

About 3 in 10 said they were now unsure of when the business environment may stabilize, the survey found.

More than half (55%) of the 142 employers surveyed said they were rethinking their return-to-work plans and pushing back timelines.

"The Delta variant has changed the game on employer efforts to return to normal and created even more uncertainty about the safety and sustainability of their COVID-19 strategies," said Michael Thompson, National Alliance president and CEO, in a statement.

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"Based on the survey responses, almost all have taken actions to educate, encourage and support vaccination but there is now a strong trend to differentiate the treatment of the vaccinated from the unvaccinated," Thompson said. "The Biden administration's new mandate will clearly accelerate a trend that was already underway and push others who were reticent to take a stronger stance with their workforce."

The survey bears out that interest in broader vaccine mandates is growing rapidly. In March 2021, just 8% of employers said they were willing to require vaccines for all employees. That number had climbed to 37% by August 2021.

In March, 10% said they supported mandates for high-exposure employees, which increased to 29% in August. In addition, 26% backed a vaccine mandate for work-related travel in March, a figure that grew to 40% in August.

The Biden administration recently released a series of vaccine mandates that could reach 100 million Americans, including the healthcare workforce.

Most employers said they are continuing to require COVID-19 safety measures, such as masking indoors, especially for workers who have not yet been vaccinated. The vast majority (90%) are requiring masking, and 46% said they are still working remotely.

Forty-four percent said they are covering testing at their expense, with 14% shifting the cost to employees. Just 16% said they are considering termination of employment for people who are not vaccinated, and 13% said they're considering premium surcharges.

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The pandemic is also forcing some employers to rethink their approach to benefits more broadly, according to the survey, with 80% saying they're concerned about the affordability of drugs and 73% concerned about hospital prices.

They view many health reforms on the table favorably; 95% said they support drug price regulation, and 80% said they back hospital rate regulation. Ninety percent were in favor of greater hospital price transparency, and 84% supported surprise billing legislation.

Nearly half (47%) viewed a Medicare public option favorably, according to the survey.

"While mitigating COVID-19 remains the number one priority, employers are also rethinking their broader health and wellbeing strategies," Thompson said. "The days of delegating and shifting responsibility to employees are yielding to greater employer advocacy and guidance for employees to improve health, equity and value."