By Jon Swartz
Silicon Valley is rebooting its back-to-work plans, with stricter rules that require full vaccination, as well as pushing back the timeline for reopening or shutting down offices. In the process, the industry could influence other U.S. employers coping with a renewed spike in COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations caused by the delta variant of the coronavirus.
On Thursday, Uber Technologies Inc. /zigman2/quotes/211348248/composite UBER +2.53% joined Google parent Alphabet Inc. /zigman2/quotes/202490156/composite GOOGL +0.71% /zigman2/quotes/205453964/composite GOOG +0.57% and Facebook Inc. /zigman2/quotes/205064656/composite FB +2.02% , both of whom on Wednesday said they will make vaccines mandatory for U.S. employees who work in offices. Exceptions will be made for medical and other reasons. Google is also postponing a return to the office for most of its 144,000 workers until mid-October. Uber also delayed reopening its office to mid-October from September.
“This extension [of returning to the office Oct. 18 instead of the previous target date of Sept. 1] will allow us time to ramp back into work while providing flexibility for those who need it,” Alphabet Chief Executive Sundar Pichai wrote in an email to employees.
Hours later, Twitter Inc. /zigman2/quotes/203180645/composite TWTR +0.79% shuttered its San Francisco and New York offices again, barely two weeks after reopening. “We’re continuing to closely monitor local conditions and make necessary changes that prioritize the health and safety of our Tweeps,” a company spokesperson said.
At the same time, Apple Inc. /zigman2/quotes/202934861/composite AAPL +0.06% intends to mandate that employees and customers wear masks in more than half its U.S. retail stores regardless of their vaccination status , according to a memo sent to some of its workers Wednesday.
The about-face comes as major employers in the San Francisco Bay Area and the rest of the nation begin the slow journey back toward a semblance of pre-pandemic life. Ever-shifting health and safety protocols in California and beyond have created starkly different rules in offices as employees begin to trickle back.
A local bar-owner organization in San Francisco representing more than 300 establishments this week said it’s calling for bar customers to show proof of vaccination or a negative COVID test to enter bars .
Corporations must strike a balance between lingering COVID-19 concerns with their business plans and their workers’ desire for normalcy, as the delta variant spreads and changes the direction of the pandemic. The latest local guidance provides a little wiggle room: Eight San Francisco Bay Area counties on Friday recommended mask-wearing indoors regardless of vaccination status as a precautionary measure amid a surge in COVID-19 cases, but stayed just short of a mandate.
In recent weeks, the starkest decisions so far have come from the two companies whose employees have been the most vocal about misgivings in returning to their cavernous campuses. Apple has reportedly decided to push back a return to the office for its workers . Those employees won’t return to the office until at least October, according to a Bloomberg News report citing sources that published Tuesday. The iPhone maker is expected to give a month’s notice before telling its workers when they need to return, the sources said.
Apple did not respond to email seeking comment.
Earlier this month, Google was “strongly encouraging” all returning employees to “wear a mask inside Google property at all times, regardless of vaccination status, until further notice.” The email message late Sunday, reviewed by MarketWatch, comes a week after the company welcomed back employees on a voluntary basis to its California offices, including its Mountain View headquarters. The voluntary return is a test run before a full return in September. Google had no further comment when contacted.
Such are the dilemmas facing companies that must calculate business interests with the well-being of their employees. In the cases of Apple and Google, both have enormous real estate holdings that have gone largely unused for more than 17 months. Those contacted by MarketWatch said they were complying with Cal-OSHA guidelines, which seemingly change by the week, adding to the anxiety of a bewildered workforce and management.
The public health department for Santa Clara County — the Bay Area county home to Google and Apple — deferred MarketWatch’s questions to Santa Clara County Public Health . The county, in turn, said it has “provided public guidance to all residents and employers within our community on use of face coverings, available here https://covid19.sccgov.org/news-releases/pr-07-16-2021-bay-area-counties-recommend-masking-indoors-for-everyone . We will continue to issue guidance and recommendations to employers in our community, as we have done throughout the pandemic.”
Against ever-changing rules amid a surge in COVID-19 cases, tech companies — among the largest employers in the San Francisco Bay Area — are navigating as best they can.
Previously at Facebook, only employees who choose to provide proof that they are fully vaccinated will be eligible to opt-out of mask-wearing in offices, according to a spokeswoman. However, all employees have the option to continue wearing masks regardless of vaccination status. That changed on Wednesday, however, when the social-networking company updated its policy, requiring U.S. workers be vaccinated to return to the office.
Until it shut its doors, Twitter required proof of vaccination for employees who wished to return to the office. “While masks are not required, Tweeps are more than welcome to continue wearing one in the office,” a company spokesman told MarketWatch.
Similarly, Adobe Inc. /zigman2/quotes/200389143/composite ADBE -1.29% said fully vaccinated employees may voluntarily return to the company’s San Jose, Calif., office. “We will continue to monitor local conditions and guidance from the government and health experts to further assess our reopening plans in the Bay Area,” an Adobe spokeswoman told MarketWatch.
For now, Twilio Inc. /zigman2/quotes/205796518/composite TWLO -1.66% has “soft opened” Bay Area offices in Mountain View and San Francisco that do not require vaccinated employees to wear masks, a company spokeswoman said.
ServiceNow Inc. /zigman2/quotes/202729495/composite NOW +0.31% is following Cal-OSHA guidelines, which require unvaccinated employees to wear masks in the workplace and vaccinated employees to self-attest their vaccination status if they want to forgo wearing masks.
Of course, the easiest solution may be the work-at-home model — something that many startups are embracing. Coefficient, a Bay Area-based software-as-a-service company that connects spreadsheets to corporate systems internally at Uber Technologies Inc. UBER , Workday Inc. WDAY and Spotify Technology SPOT , has taken the path of least resistance: All of its dozen employees work remotely. It has no office.