In New York City, “non-essential” offices were allowed to open again in June at limited capacity as cases spiked in other parts of the country. While the once frenetic business center of Midtown still remains largely deserted and, according to a recent survey, the majority of employees who have been working remotely don’t yet feel comfortable returning to the office, a few companies have started to mandate that they do. “It doesn’t feel nice,” Iveth Otero, an employee who was recently called back to her job at a textile company, told The New York Times. “But it’s what you have to do for your money.”
The general anxiety around office reopenings, which continue in fits and starts across the country, has propelled the rise of a new cottage industry of sorts. In the absence of a coherent federal response to the coronavirus—and particularly as the Trump administration and other Republicans push to send people back to work as quickly as possible—the private sector has delivered an array of what we are meant to believe are ready-made solutions for returning to the office in the middle of a pandemic.
Some are more or less common household or office items rebranded as tools in the fight against Covid-19. You can, for instance, now purchase a variety of “vital companions to protect against exposure and spread of Covid-19” from the company Go-SafeMate, which include a potholder-like piece of rubber that fits over doorknobs and a small set of tongs with which to pick up potentially contaminated objects. Another company currently advertises “corrugated partitions,” otherwise known as pieces of cardboard, as Covid-19 safety devices to be installed in offices. (“Corrugated board will assist with a safer return to the workplace or classroom as these partitions encourage social distancing and provide a physical, yet removable, barrier,” a press release for the product assures prospective buyers.) Employers can buy antimicrobial polymer wallpaper for offices, antimicrobial I.D. cards for use on cruises—which were early sites of the coronavirus outbreaks—and electronic wristbands for employees that vibrate whenever they come within six feet of others.
Then there are the companies selling Covid-era cleaning services, disinfecting tools, and technological solutions. The San Diego-based HYGIENICA announced that it had recently secured $1 million in seed round funding to support a new version of its proprietary sprayer, an “electro-atomizing” machine that’s worn like a backpack and used to blast away “99.99 percent of viruses, pathogens, and bacteria” on surfaces. A host of management apps intended to track workers’ health and even their movements has also sprung up in the vacuum of uncertainty. In June, for instance, the I.T. management firm SysAid released an app that promised to monitor workers’ locations and self-reported symptoms, including “alerting management to high-risk employees and automatically locking user accounts where needed.” Though billed as temporary safety measures, those types of monitoring apps have at least some potential to become permanent. As Jason Schultz, a professor of clinical law at New York University told The Wall Street Journal, “Employers don’t really have any incentives to remove surveillance once they install it.”
In many ways, the proliferation of office-reopening paraphernalia is just the natural extension of the kind of opportunism that first arose in the early days of the pandemic, when hucksters price-gouged hand sanitizer, peddled pseudoscientific wellness treatments, and pushed various at-home grooming, cooking, and exercise products. Not a few of the tools and services marketed to facilitate reopenings also fall under what The Atlantic’s Derek Thompson recently called “hygiene theater,” or ostentatious displays of disinfecting and scrubbing that ultimately fail to provide protection against airborne transmission of the coronavirus. Such measures, Thompson argues, are “risk-reduction rituals that make us feel safer but don’t actually do much to reduce risk—even as more dangerous activities are still allowed.”
When I spoke to David Michaels, an epidemiologist at George Washington University’s Milken Institute School of Public Health and the former assistant secretary of labor for the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, he agreed that some of the frenzy around extreme deep-cleaning as a solution for reopening offices was misplaced. “I think it’s reasonable to disinfect areas where people with known infections were present,” he said. “But the most important emphasis should be on controlling airborne exposure. We know from many studies at this point that exposure occurs not just from droplets but from aerosolized particles, which can travel more than six feet.”
As he noted, more effective mechanisms of reducing airborne transmission in offices are measures like indoor masking, maintaining distance, and increasing airflow; futuristic-looking germ-blasting devices designed for surfaces, in other words, can only go so far. “I think it’s very important to provide the option for workers to work remotely,” Michaels said. “Clearly, in many cases, they can work just as productively from home and certainly far more safely. Working at home also eliminates exposure on public transportation.”
Beyond the hollow spectacle of flashy deep cleaning, the rise of the office reopening industry also tacitly acknowledges the risk involved in summoning employees back to the office, even as it claims to mitigate it. In at least a few cases, efficacy might even be beside the point. One goal of a given company’s hygiene theater—and the services they enlist to undertake it—may simply be to reduce their legal liability around worker safety, and some parties now advertising office-reopening services have acknowledged as much. In New York, for instance, a former New York Police Department officer launched Deep Clean U.S., a cleaning and disinfecting service that bills itself as “the next best thing to a Covid-19 vaccine.” The company also offers workshops for employers dedicated to “preventing infections, reducing absenteeism, and decreasing corporate and personal liabilities.”
Corporate liability has also been on the minds of Senate Republicans, who recently introduced a bill to protect businesses from Covid-related lawsuits as part of their stimulus package proposal. Among other provisions, the bill would require workers attempting to take legal action against employers for unsafe workplaces to meet a higher standard of proof than usual, and it would also grant immunity from litigation to businesses that demonstrated the most minimal effort to comply with federal safety standards. According to Los Angeles Times business columnist Michael Hiltzik, the measure would even grease the wheels for employers to bring suits against workers pressing for safer conditions. “In plain English,” Hiltzik wrote, “the Republicans are proposing to eviscerate almost all workplace protections at the moment when the threat to workers’ health may be its highest in a century.”
That very lack of worker protections in the pandemic—more than a surfeit of evidence that offices can be made safe while the country continues to battle outbreaks—is precisely what propels the office reopening industry. And ultimately, making workplaces as safe as possible for employees in the wake of Covid-19 will require more than just compliance with reopening guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention or third-party services, no matter how stringent they might be. “People want to talk about masks and disinfectants and sneeze shields and so on. And those are important, but until we fix certain underlying issues, we’re going to continue having outbreaks, whether it’s this or whether it’s the flu,” Seema Yasmin, the director of Stanford University’s Health Communication Initiative, told me. “I do think it comes back to the lack of a safety net: Do we have systems in place that can curtail outbreaks because people know that they have good health insurance, that they can still get paid if they stay home sick from work and won’t be punished?”
In the end, then, legitimately safe office reopenings can’t occur without a host of other worker protections across the board as well as a significant boost in employees’ control over their own conditions. For instance, the United Federation of Teachers union, which represents New York public school teachers, has opposed the reopening of schools in the fall unless certain criteria are met, and on Friday, the mayor promised to reopen schools only if the city’s infection rate stayed below 3 percent. The union has also asked for additional safeguards for teachers and students: “We need randomized testing of school communities throughout the year and a vigorous contact tracing system that gives schools test results and a course of action with a 24-hour turnaround,” UFT president Michael Mulgrew said in a statement. On the West Coast, after pressure from workers and unions earlier this month, the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors approved a motion to establish worker-led “health councils” to monitor reopening plans. “Employees must be allowed to form public health councils without retaliation by their employer,” the board wrote.
As the American Prospect’s Harold Meyerson has noted, Los Angeles so far appears to be the only county to institute such a measure. But in the meantime, there’s at least one tried-and-true method of confronting one’s employer regarding working conditions when all else fails. Alison Green, a workplace advice columnist and the author of the book Ask a Manager, recently wrote that her inbox has been filled with questions from office workers worried about unsafe or unethical reopenings. In a recent column for The Cut, one reader wrote in to ask what to do about an erratic boss whose schemes for reopening were becoming increasingly haphazard. “Unionize,” answered Green. “Seriously.”