July 21st, 2020 | Peter Lehmann

New York Leads in COVID-19 Problems and Solutions

New York City

The coronavirus had the cataclysmic effect of literally driving people apart, emptying out office buildings, restaurants, and any place that people used to congregate. But at the same time, it’s had a unifying effect, reminding us just how interdependent we all are, globally and locally. In that spirit, on June 26, I participated in an online panel discussion assembled by architectural design firm CannonDesign entitled, “Round 2: New York, New Perspective, Making Way for a New Reality“.

The webinar brought together panelists from different sectors across New York City to share thoughts and discuss how the pandemic has affected hiring, construction, office space, and more. New York is grappling with most of the same coronavirus issues that touch employers and workers everywhere. But, in the country’s most densely populated city, those problems are often magnified, and sometimes they’re exacerbated by other factors, like New York’s industry mix and reliance on mass transit.

COVID-19: A Health Safety and Risk Management Challenge

The background check industry is well-positioned to help employers navigate the return-to-work process. At Sterling, we’ve always been in the business of helping employers maintain a safe environment and manage risk.

So it’s a natural extension of that mission to help employers address the myriad workplace challenges imposed by COVID-19. For Sterling clients, that support naturally includes background checks on new and returning workers. We also offer what I believe is one of the broadest sets of back-to-work solutions offered by background screening providers. Sterling can coordinate a flexible end-to-end COVID-19 health testing program while maintaining attention to compliance. Click here for more details.

Not only do employers need to create safe environments, but they need to make their employees feel safe. One of the first decisions that needs to be made is to determine which jobs will be done in the workplace, and which can be done remotely. Some jobs simply can’t be remote from the physical workplace, and many companies in New York require workers to be on-site for compliance reasons. For on-site employees, the type of workplace (office, factory, etc.) and the ability to socially distance while at work are major considerations for developing a health testing and monitoring program.

Scientist adding to scale

In many cases, COVID-19 testing also makes sense for remote workers, particularly those who continue to connect with customers or the community. Fortunately, there are good options for at-home sample collection, which is a fairly simple process. However, not all COVID-19 tests are equally reliable, so be sure you know what tests you’re getting and how they perform.

Elements we see as part of a strong testing program include:

  • High-quality tests
  • Access to new testing options as technology and understanding of the virus improves
  • Convenience of test-taking so that it’s seen as a benefit and not a burden
  • Comprehensive view for employers regarding who’s been tested and what the results were
  • Regular retesting, as COVID-19 viral tests offers only a snapshot in time on whether someone is infected.

Most Employers Still Formulating Back-to-Work Plans

As a background screening company, Sterling typically provides services to employers across all types of industries. One of my fellow panelists was John Pierce, SVP of Asset Services for Rockefeller Group. He was able to share the perspective of a commercial landlord. When it comes to physical safety of employees, building operators also bear some responsibility. John indicated that, so far, there’s been a very small uptick in tenants returning to their office space.

Yet, he said, none of his office tenants are having conversations about reducing the amount of space they lease. Tenants are taking a long-term view, and expect they’ll be returning to the workplace eventually. He was less confident that retail space will rebound as successfully as office space.

Another panelist was Les Hiscoe, CEO of Shawmut Design and Construction. When his firm surveyed employees to ask who wanted to return to the office, Lee relates that 30% indicated they wanted to come back. So Shawmut implemented a shift-based system that was inspired by The New York Times article entitled, “10-4: How to Reopen the Economy by Exploiting the Coronavirus’s Weak Spot.”

The titular weak spot is COVID-19’s “latent period—the three-day delay on average between the time a person is infected and the time he or she can infect others.” The theory is, by having people work in two-week cycles of four days in the office, then 10 days at home, it significantly minimizes the chance of getting infected and of spreading infection to others. Shawmut splits its employees into two groups that come in alternating weeks to further reduce the risk of spreading infection.

My overall view is that attitudes about remote work are changing. Sterling, for one, has embraced a work-from-anywhere approach for employees who can be effective working remotely. Particularly in New York City, where mass transit funnels people into tight spaces with recycled air, I expect working remotely is going to be continue to make sense for a meaningful portion of the workforce. In the webinar, we also touched on how getting kids back to school is going to affect how and when parents can return to the workplace or—in some cases—the workforce.

Even Pandemics Have Silver Linings

While nobody would wish for a pandemic, there are ways in which we can learn and benefit from what’s taking place as a result of the COVID-19 crisis. To that end, it has:

  • battle-tested corporate continuity plans and led to improvements that will make companies more resilient to the next natural disaster
  • encouraged dialogs between employers and employees on process improvements
  • forced employers to rethink assumptions about the relationship between office space and worker productivity
  • helped many workers discover new ways to blend their work and personal times and spaces in ways that offer greater flexibility and choice
  • reminded us how interconnected we all are, how much we value socializing in person, and how we can summon strength in the face of adversity.

You can find the full webinar, “Round 2: New York, New Perspective, Making Way for a New Reality”, on-demand here.

Learn more about Sterling’s COVID-19 health testing program.

This publication is for informational purposes only and nothing contained in it should be construed as legal advice. We expressly disclaim any warranty or responsibility for damages arising out this information. We encourage you to consult with legal counsel regarding your specific needs. We do not undertake any duty to update previously posted materials.