Workplace Safety in the Age of COVID-19

What do employees expect from employers?

By: SafeHome.org Research Published: February 2021

Expecting More from Employers During COVID-19

COVID-19 has left its mark on every business differently. Some have gone remote and plan to stay remote indefinitely, while others never left the office in the first place. But as restrictions waver across the nation and some offices return to business-as-usual, what standards are employers held to? 

Building on our earlier research into remote workers’ feelings about working from home and potentially returning to the office, we asked some questions—and found some answers—about what employees expect their employers to do prior to returning to the office. Have employees held their employers responsible for their safety during the COVID-19 pandemic? Do employees expect their employers to regularly sanitize the office, make social distancing accommodations, or provide time off? We surveyed 1,000 full- and part-time employees to gauge their expectations and determine which pandemic perks they want to stick around even after it’s safe to stop. Keep reading to see what they said.

What Employees Expect
What Employees Fear
Employers Doing Enough

The CDC assigns significant responsibility to employers: From encouraging sick employees to stay home to conducting daily health checks of employees, employers’ handling of the COVID-19 pandemic can mean the difference between slowing the spread and fueling the fire. With so much at stake, 93% of surveyed employees said it was important that their company took steps to address the health risks posed by COVID-19. Half of employees think employers are responsible for keeping the workplace safe, with less than 3% shifting that responsibility to employees. Of the necessary steps and safety measures, employees expected their employers to continue social distancing in the workplace and mask mandates until it’s safe to stop more than any other coronavirus-related policies.

However, it wasn’t just the immediate future employees were concerned about. Nearly half of employees expected their employer to regularly disinfect surfaces during the pandemic and forever after it has passed. Forty-one percent of employees also expected their employers to offer free sanitizer or disinfectant forever, while 39% expected their employer to keep the option to work remotely around well after COVID-19. While a surprising 8% of employees didn’t want their employer to require face coverings, 11% said it was a policy they hoped would stick around forever. 

Easing Employee Anxiety

Workplaces pose a great risk to employees in the time of COVID-19. Regardless of the office’s size, working in-office typically means coming into close contact with others for more than 15 minutes — an easy way to catch the virus. While there is no database tracking the number of COVID-19 cases caught and passed in the workplace, 20,000 Amazon employees contracting COVID at work is enough to scare any employee away from the office. But for those who are required to return, what safety failures make them most afraid?

An overwhelming majority felt at least a little unsafe across every health hazard listed. However, workplaces that failed to address employees coming to work despite having symptoms made employees feel the most unsafe. While just 9% said they would be totally fine with their employer ignoring the issue, 60% said they’d feel very unsafe if their employer didn’t address those with symptoms, while 20% and 12% said they would feel somewhat and a little unsafe, respectively. Employees also said workplaces that didn’t enforce face coverings or make room for social distancing would make them feel very unsafe.

Of course, employees’ safety sentiments differed depending on the industry they worked in. Tech workers tended to be more moderate than other industries in their anxiety about each health factor, over half on average having said they would feel just “a little” or “somewhat” unsafe across the board with regard to the various health risks. On the other hand, education workers were more polarized in their views on certain health risks—a whopping 72% of education workers were on either side of the spectrum of the face covering requirement policy, selecting either “very unsafe” or “not at all unsafe.” However, it wasn’t just industry — remote workers were also nearly twice as likely to report anxiety about the option to work remotely. Compared to only 23% of on-site workers, 41% of remote workers said they would feel very unsafe if their employer failed to offer remote work.

Meeting or Missing the Bar

Despite employees’ varying concerns and horror stories of thousands catching COVID-19 due to alleged employer negligence, employees are largely satisfied with their employers’ handling of the pandemic. While 69% of surveyed workers said their employers’ policy response to the coronavirus pandemic has made them feel safer, 73% said they trust their employer to look out for their well-being. A whopping 78% also believed their employer cares whether they contracted COVID-19, with tech workers reporting the highest happiness levels with their employers.

Regardless of the precautions taken and level of satisfaction with preparedness, employees still believed their employers could have done more. Forty-two percent of employees wished their employer had taken mask requirements more seriously, while 41% said the same of social distance requirements. Regularly disinfecting surfaces and upgrading ventilation were also common steps employees said they wish their employer handled better. Nevertheless, 14% of employees said their employer handled everything just right.

Health and Home Safety

Now, more than ever, your safety in the workplace is inextricably linked with your safety at home. Approaching an unprecedented pandemic is a unique and taxing challenge for business owners. While some employers struggle to find the right balance between employee safety and their bottom line, others are willing to sacrifice typical workforce aspects if it means maintaining their employees’ health. Despite some wishes for more serious facial covering and social distancing requirements, employers have successfully eased most employees’ anxieties by taking the proper precautions, providing the necessary equipment, and offering remote work. 

Methodology and Limitations

All data used in this study were gathered from a survey of 1,009 full- and part-time employees in the United States, excluding self-employed and furloughed individuals. Instances of demographic and categorical breakdown analysis such as highlighting responses of employees in particular industries were only performed on categorical sample sizes of over 100 respondents. Limitations of this study include an age skew toward younger and middle-aged individuals, especially Millennials and Gen X.

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