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Looking forward: What to expect in the workplace in 2021

By November 20, 2020No Comments

Scientists across the globe have been working at “warp-speed” to create a SARS-CoV-2 vaccine and end the pandemic that has killed more than 250,000 and left millions unemployed in the United States.

The pandemic has upended virtually every aspect of employment, ushering in an era of remote work, putting massive strains on state unemployment systems, and perhaps permanently changing workplace safety standards.

The good news is that there is an end in sight — almost.

Vaccine manufacturers are reporting massive success and say that their products will soon be available.

The bad news is that it will likely take many months for widespread vaccination to occur, meaning that we’re still awhile out from any real sense of pre-pandemic normalcy.

Expect masks and remote working into 2021

Vaccines are expected to be rolled out as soon as the end of the year, and Dr. Anthony Fauci, the nation’s leading infectious disease expert, projected that Americans can expect to receive a COVID-19 vaccination as soon as April.

Vaccinations have been posited as the be-all-end-all of the COVID-19 pandemic; the vehicle that will drive the world out of pandemic-induced social and economic destruction and into a new world that is largely “normal,” complete with in-office work days, business trips, work parties, and crowded conference rooms.

But while front-line health care workers are expected to get their first dose by the end of the year, the general population won’t be getting vaccinated until sometime between April and July, according to Fauci.

If Fauci’s predictions are correct (and they typically are,) the United States will be about halfway through the year before widespread vaccination and “herd immunity” becomes a reality. That means that it will likely be awhile longer before we can kiss remote working and social distancing goodbye.

Even big pharma CEOs predict that mask and social distancing measures will continue well into 2021.

“I don’t see the therapeutics that we have — or the vaccines that are coming — as a silver bullet,” Merck CEO Kenneth Frazier told CNBC, explaining that safety measures will be around “for the foreseeable future.”

“I think that’s with us for a while, and I would say certainly well into 2021 we’ll still be trying to observe these public health measures.”

When work from home is not available, prepare to prioritize workplace safety

Millions of essential workers in the healthcare, retail, travel, food, public administration, and entertainment industries have not had the luxury of working from home.

To mitigate potential COVID-19 outbreaks in the workplace, 16 states have introduced workplace safety measures that require employers to train their workers on specific coronavirus safety protocol. Failure to comply with these measures can lead to substantial fines.

While most requirements include rudimentary measures like washing hands and social distancing, employers should prioritize workplace safety and ensure that they are abiding by specific measures in order to protect their employees and avoid being penalized.

The U.S. Department of Labor’s Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) has instructed employers across the nation to “provide workers with up-to-date education and training on COVID-19 risk factors and protective behaviors,” and is handing out millions of dollars in penalties to businesses who don’t comply.

Common COVID-19 related citations include:

  • Failure to provide a medical evaluation, a respirator fit test, or training on the proper use of a respirator or personal protective equipment
  • Failure to report an injury, illness or fatality
  • Failure to provide an appropriate respirator and/or other PPE when necessary to protect the health of employees
  • Store respirators and other PPE properly in a way to protect them from damage, contamination

OSHA has cited nearly 200 worksites for COVID-19 related violations since the pandemic began, and the Department of Labor is primed to rev up its workplace safety strategy under the Biden administration.

In 2021, we can expect OSHA to carry out more robust pandemic-safety enforcement and finalize a permanent infectious disease standard that will require high exposure workplaces to permanently implement infection control programs to protect their workers.

Looking forward

As 2021 approaches, the United States is in its most dangerous era of the pandemic thus far. States throughout the country are experiencing exponential growth in COVID-19 cases, and the pandemic is predicted to continue accelerating throughout the winter. While it’s clear the pandemic will follow us into 2021, employers and employees can look forward to a slow return to normalcy towards the second half of the year.


Lia Tabackman is a freelance journalist, copywriter, and social media strategist based in Richmond, Virginia. Her writing has appeared in the Washington Post, CBS 6 News, the Los Angeles Times, and Arlington Magazine, among others.

Image credit: Pat_Scrap

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