Boomer Opinion: How do we get back to business?

As we finally look toward the end of the coronavirus crisis, one of the next critical problems our society will face is getting back to business. That’s where entrepreneur Howard Tullman comes in. He is executive director of the Ed Kaplan Family Institute for Innovation and Tech Entrepreneurship at the Illinois Institute of Technology. And he’s been thinking about the problems… and the answers we need before it happens.

According to Gallup, about 58% of Americans have indicated that they plan to get vaccinated when one or more of the vaccines becomes available. This percentage will likely increase over the next few months, especially after we have a new president who isn’t a liar and a denier.

But it’s fair to assume that 30% or more of the population won’t be in any hurry to step up for the shot and that there’s zero likelihood that the vaccination procedure will ever be made mandatory at any level. If you think any kind of consistent state or national mask-wearing mandate is going to be difficult if not impossible to enforce, you can’t begin to imagine how challenging a mandatory vaccine would be.

Since first responders and many others (seniors, etc.) will be at the head of the line, a realistic estimate for relatively easy access to the necessary shot or shots is probably around May or June, which is roughly the current target that many companies have suggested for bringing groups of employees back to their offices. So, there’s going to be some time before the crunch and obviously a substantial number of people who now work from home don’t plan to ever be more than an occasional visitor again to their former offices.

But that doesn’t really get them off the hook in terms of what they need to do for both their own good and, more importantly, to help protect the business. Which might mean, your business.

If it does, then now’s the time to start thinking about how you’re going to insulate your business and your employees, vendors, essential service providers, and customers from the active anti-vaxers and other less overt refuseniks who may be in your midst. The one thing you can be absolutely certain of is that you’re not going to get much help, guidance or even direction from the government. I suppose in another life and time there might be a government that would insist that if you want to travel on a plane, you have to produce actual proof that you have been vaccinated in a timely fashion. But it’s never gonna happen in the U.S.— at least not for domestic trips.

And if it’s not going to happen for air travel, with the complete TSA infrastructure already in place, you can be sure that there won’t be any easy solution forthcoming for a place of business.

Crowded United Airlines gate at Dulles International Airport, pre-pandemic. Photo by David Henderson.

At best, it’s more likely that we may see some prohibitions about what employers cannot do rather than anything instructive in the way of rules and regulations to help deal with this utterly unforeseen and complicated situation. It’s a real chicken-and-egg problem because it’s going to be very difficult to assure employees that they’ll have a safe, clean, and secure work environment without taking active and continuing steps to make sure that unvaccinated and possibly contagious asymptomatic employees and visitors aren’t walking around the place.

I’m not sure that there’s any substantial advice on these questions because the situation is going to be so fluid and the political environment is already so highly charged that in every city and state there will be pronouncements, orders, sporadic enforcement, and generally rampant confusion from struggling politicians trying to placate competing and contrary constituencies.

Howard Tullman

Sadly, nothing we have experienced to date during the pandemic has led to any real consensus or understanding. At best we’ve learned that delay and obfuscation won’t help. We’ve also learned that it’s far more important to know all the questions and concerns than it is to pretend to have all the answers. Ultimately, it will fall on the owners and managers of each business to decide how best to approach the problems and to cope with the consequences.

So, what are some of the critical questions you might need to be considering? I’d start with these:

  1. WFH (work from home) has extended the workday well into the evening for so many workers because the whole team often can’t get together during regular 9-to-5 hours due to other commitments. What do I do about comp and overtime issues?
  2. If I’m running the business, can I require my employees to return to the office as of a certain date and time? What are my remedies for those who refuse? What if they claim that they are sick with the virus?
  3. Can I require my returning employees to be vaccinated before they return, assuming that I am willing to cover any costs? What are my remedies for those who refuse to be vaccinated, but state that they are willing to return to work?
  4. Will my current sick leave and personal day policies need to be changed or amended especially if there are third-party orders and directions with respect to these policies. An analogy here might be the suspension of evictions and of utility cutoffs that many cities have announced and adopted.
  5. What are my obligations and requirements regarding notification? Do I need to publish and distribute our vaccination policy? Do I need to advise all my returning employees of any other in-house employees who test positive, and when? Does a single positive test mean I need to return to some WFH formulation?

No easy questions. No simple answers. And we haven’t even addressed the issues with customers, clients, vendors, and essential outside providers.

We’re all in this together searching for a comprehensive solution and yet, at the moment, we’re all on our own and it’s every entrepreneur for themselves.

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Howard is author and co-author of several books, including his newest, “You Can’t Win a Race With Your Mouth: And 299 Other Expert Tips from a Lifelong Entrepreneur.”

1 Comment

  1. Howard;
    As usual, a thought-provoking conundrum. I remember reading a story about NYC, pictures of empty office towers, and the realization of management that they really didn’t need to pay the rent on those office spaces, large numbers of their employees could continue (and would prefer) to work from home. As far as vaccinations go, I can categorically state that every military and reserve/guard member without a valid doctor’s exemption will be required to receive the vaccine; family members highly recommended but won’t be mandatory. But most likely they will receive it. Might actually be mandatory before traveling to an overseas assignment with their active duty spouse, depending on country of assignment. Retirees will most likely line up for it too.

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