With the highly contagious delta variant sending coronavirus cases soaring, many Seattle-area employers are rethinking everything from when to bring workers back to the office to whether masks or even vaccines should be mandated for employees. 

At organizations ranging from Amazon and Starbucks, to Ethan Stowell Restaurants and Rachel’s Ginger Beer, to the governments of King County and Seattle, decision makers have been reviewing pandemic rules and strategies after reports of rising case counts and new indoor mask-wearing recommendations from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Washington Gov. Jay Inslee.

Amazon, which has said it is monitoring the spread of the delta variant, has rolled back coronavirus safety measures in recent months. But the company isn’t ruling out a return to stricter precautions.

“If that means we have to wear masks again, even if vaccinated, that’s what we’ll do,” Amazon Chief Financial Officer Brian Olsavsky told analysts during a Thursday earnings call, two days after the CDC recommended that even fully vaccinated people should wear masks when in public indoor spaces in regions where counts are rising. Inslee issued a similar recommendation Wednesday.

Those local enterprises join a growing number of companies nationally, among them Uber, Walmart, Publix, and the New York Times, that are bringing back masking, delaying a return to the office or requiring employee vaccinations.

The shifts reflect recognition by health experts and businesses alike of the seriousness of the delta variant, which can be transmitted easily by vaccinated individuals.

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But the shift also comes with fears about the effect of the new policies on business recovery. And some employers expressed frustration that government officials only offered recommendations, leaving employers to make decisions on masks and vaccines that were likely to upset employees and customers.

“I wish they would make it a mandate, so I didn’t have to be the bad guy to my employees,” said Stowell, adding that his company decided Friday to require all of his roughly 250 employees to wear masks, even those who are fully vaccinated.

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Under existing state law, employers must verify employees’ vaccination status and require in-office masking for unvaccinated employees. On Wednesday, Inslee said that fully vaccinated Washingtonians should mask up in public indoor spaces in high-risk counties — but didn’t make it a requirement.

Many local employers, such as Zillow, already require employees to be masked in the office.

But others had taken advantage of the recent easing of state masking guidelines, and now were having to reconsider their mask-optional policies.

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At Starbucks, a source close to the company confirmed it was “currently evaluating whether to make changes” to its existing mask policy, which allows fully vaccinated workers and customers to go without masks in Starbucks stores, unless required by state or local law.

Weyerhaeuser spokesperson Karl Wirsing said vaccinated employees currently could be in its Pioneer Square office without masks, but acknowledged the company was “closely monitoring developments” around variants. “We may make changes to our safety protocols as the situation evolves.”

Likewise, Boeing, which now requires unvaccinated workers to wear masks and “physically distance” in the workplace, “continues to monitor the situation and will continue to evaluate guidance from public health agencies for potential updates to our COVID measures,” a spokesperson said.

Some labor groups were upset at the lack of a mask mandate, which they think is needed to protect workers and customers at public-facing workplaces, such as grocery stores, where risk of infection is high.

“Our ability as a community to keep COVID cases in check should not be up to what individual employers are willing to do to keep their workers and our community safe,” said Tom Geiger, a spokesperson for United Food and Commercial Workers Local 21, which represents Washington grocery workers at QFC, PCC and other stores and backs mask mandates for both employees and customers.

Indeed, some workers were upset that their employers had been relaxing policies on masking and other pandemic-related measures.

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Amazon has been rolling back coronavirus precautions in its warehouses for months, even as workers report that notifications of positive cases at their facilities continue to roll in. The Seattle-based retail giant, the second-largest employer in the nation, has allowed warehouse workers who attest that they are fully vaccinated to go maskless since mid-May. Last month Amazon halted its on-site coronavirus testing program.

A worker at Amazon’s multi-warehouse complex in Kent described arriving to “a mini culture shock” earlier this month: The company had stopped handing out masks and checking workers’ temperatures as they entered the building, and it scrapped social-distancing measures in the break room. The line to the time clock was “shoulder to shoulder,” said the worker, who asked not to be named because he is not authorized to speak to the media.

Amazon notifies workers when their colleagues test positive for coronavirus; at Kent, workers are receiving multiple notifications a week, said another Kent employee. Both workers said they were concerned about the possible spread of the infectious delta variant in the facility.

Employers seemed even more divided over the question of mandating vaccinations for employees who are in the workplace.

Under state and federal law, employers can require employees to be vaccinated as long as they allow exemptions for health or religious reasons, said Jason Rittereiser, an attorney and expert in COVID-related workplace regulations at HKM Employment Attorneys in Seattle.

But federal law gives employers leeway on whether to require vaccines — and that’s left “employers trying to navigate the decision as to whether or not they mandate vaccines for their workforce,” he said.

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Nationally, Disney said Friday it would require all salaried and non-union hourly employees in the U.S. who work on site to be fully vaccinated witin 60 days, The Associated Press reported. Walmart said it would mandate vaccination for its headquarters employees and for managers who traveled in the United States.

Locally, many have taken a voluntary approach.

Boeing, for example, doesn’t require vaccinations for in-person work, but does “encourage employees to inform themselves about the vaccines, consult with their healthcare providers as appropriate, and take the earliest opportunity to get vaccinated,” a spokesperson said.

Smaller firms, too, are reluctant to make the jab mandatory. Stowell says he probably won’t require a vaccine unless the government requires it — in part, he said, because 90% of his employees are vaccinated, and in the case of those who aren’t, “I can’t argue with their logic or their theories — it’s not my right to judge.”

At the Cherry Street Coffee House chain, Ali Ghambari has asked employees to get vaccinated, but won’t require vaccination until it’s “mandated by the state,” he said.

But other organizations are moving to vaccine requirements.

The Gates Foundation is “requiring COVID-19 vaccination for any in-person foundation and subsidiary business” following “a thorough analysis of public health guidance and legal requirements,” a spokesperson said. The mandate, which took effect July 7, “includes office access, travel, external events and meetings, and site visits,” and is being rolled out initially in the foundation’s U.S., U.K., and European offices.

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Seattle gaming company FlowPlay, which has brought back employees two days a week, is requiring in-office employees be vaccinated, while those who aren’t must continue to work remotely, says CEO Derrick Morton.

(At The Seattle Times, employees who are not vaccinated, or have not provided proof of vaccinations, are required to wear a mask at all times, but the company is “not planning to require employees to get vaccinated,” said company president and CFO Alan Fisco.)

Seattle and King County, which together employ about 27,000 people, are still deciding whether to require the vaccine. “We hope to soon announce consistent policies across local, county and state workers,” said Anthony Derrick, a spokesperson for Mayor Jenny Durkan.

Inslee said this week he too was still deciding whether to mandate the vaccine for state employees. “One way or another we do have to increase the rates of vaccination, so those will be under consideration,” the governor said.

About 60% of the Seattle’s 12,000 city employees have returned to in-person work, according to the mayor’s office. For others, Durkan supports a “hybrid model,” Derrick said.

About a third of King County’s 15,000 employees were required to work remotely through July 5 and most of those employees continue to work from home at least part of the week, said spokesperson Chase Gallagher. 

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“King County does not currently require employees to be vaccinated, but is evaluating options given increasing infection rates,” Gallagher said.

State workers are currently set to begin a phased return to the office Aug. 15, said Inslee spokesperson Mike Faulk.

Some worker advocates have been reluctant to back vaccine mandates, however. UFCW has previously favored vaccine incentives over mandates. Geiger said UFCW supports “everyone who can be vaccinated getting vaccinated” and regular testing for employees who have not had the vaccine.

Some employers also expressed concerns about vaccine requirements for customers.

Rachel Marshall, who owns Rachel’s Ginger Beer and local restaurants that employ 100 people, has been talking to staff since Wednesday about how they might feel if a customer vaccine mandate were in place.

While her foremost priority is protecting employees, she said, staff may find it difficult to enforce a vaccine requirement. “Are they trained to handle people who may or may not agree with them, who could get aggressive? That’s a big ask.”

Another scenario that worries Marshall is when vaccinated customers don’t have their vaccine cards on hand. Though some have equated it to not having their IDs with them, she doesn’t want to “alienate customers for life” because they don’t have their vaccine cards. “Quite frankly, this is not the hill I want to die on.”

Some employees supported vaccine mandates at their place of work.

Jon Stutzman, 41, a Seattle actor, said he would have “a lot of questions” if a show he was auditioning for didn’t require vaccines for cast and crew. Acting requires people to be in close proximity, he said, so he’s hoping “for an environment where it’s safe for actors to explore the material … without limitations.”

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More on the COVID-19 pandemic

Employers who are leaning toward vaccine mandates should also expect pushback from workers, legal experts say. Federal law allows employees to claim an exemption from vaccines due to pregnancy, health issues, disabilities or religious objections.

That means employers need to be prepared to make “reasonable accommodation” to those employees on a “case by case basis, where you might allow them to, for example, telework, or work socially distanced or work a modified shift — things of that nature,” said Jonathan Minear, a Seattle attorney at Jackson Lewis specializing in employment law.

Employers should also prepare for the opposite pushback — namely, that they didn’t do enough to keep the workplace safe with vaccine or mask mandates or other measures, says HKM’s Rittereiser.

If an employee contracts the coronavirus because a co-worker lied about being vaccinated, there’s a “potential argument they could make that they were dealing with an unsafe work environment,” Rittereiser said. “We’re really in unknown territory — but I can tell you it’s a problem.”