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Southwestern Pennsylvania businesses split on whether to return to office, require vaccines

Katie Blackley
90.5 WESA
As the coronavirus pandemic continues to unfold, more than half of Pittsburgh area businesses have yet to make long-term decisions about their workplace policies, according to a survey the Pennsylvania Economy League of Greater Pittsburgh conducted between Sept. 8 and Sept. 13.

Pittsburgh area businesses are all over the map in deciding if and when to order employees back to the workplace, a new survey finds. And the lack of consensus, the research shows, partly reflects an effort to make workers happy.

Roughly 110 companies completed the survey, which was administered earlier this month by the Pennsylvania Economy League of Greater Pittsburgh, an affiliate of the Allegheny Conference on Community Development.

Most employers polled were about evenly split between those that have returned full-time to the office, those that have workers come in three or four days a week, and those that allow them to choose when to stay home. Just 6% have decided to remain fully remote until the end of the year, according to the survey. A majority have not made long-term decisions about their workplace policies.

“Six months ago, we thought that in the fall we would have a better handle on the pandemic in terms of workplace arrangements and [have] more long-term policies in place,” said Vera Krekanova, the Conference’s chief strategy and research officer. “The survey confirms that we're not there yet. … It was very telling that there is no one way businesses deal with the ongoing pandemic.”

The continued disruption coincides with a spike in COVID-19 infections related to the delta variant. The highly contagious strain raises safety issues for employers.

Although 70 percent of businesses said the delta variant has not affected their reopening plans, firms with more than 1,000 workers were more likely to report that delta led them to postpone a full reopening. Many of them have continued with a limited in-office presence.

Krekanova said the inconsistency in businesses’ reopening plans is also driven by employers’ struggle to attract and retain talent in a tight labor market where workers are more willing than before the pandemic to quit dissatisfying jobs.

Pressure on the boss
Eight in every ten firms reported that they had job openings between July and September, the survey shows. And at every skill level, a large majority of businesses said they had difficulty with hiring.

The survey found that about a third of companies have experienced a drop in job applications in the last four months. Some employers cited a lack of qualified applicants, and some said that job candidates have demanded higher compensation and more flexible work arrangements.

“The talent shortages ... are definitely defining the businesses’ thinking around how we structure workplaces, how we structure our interactions, and how we go forward,” Krekanova said.

Some employees thrive on workplace interaction, or just want their old routines back, she noted. And she surmised that businesses may feel pressure from workers who say, "Allow me to be in the workplace. Allow me to function in a way I used to before.”

“Yet at the same time,” she continued, there’s likely an “equally sizable segment of talent that says, ‘I like the flexibility. I like working in my own home office or in my own living room. I like the fact that I don't have to fight the commute. I can attend to the needs of my broader family, better take care of my children.’”

Krekanova said that business leaders have sought to balance such preferences with other priorities such as face-to-face interaction with clients. And some executives, she said, worry that remote work has hurt innovation by deterring workplace conversations that facilitate the exchange of ideas and information.

“And so we might see, as this [pandemic] continues, that the issues of internal culture and internal innovation might start to factor into the [workplace] decisions a little bit more strongly, which is not to say that the current concerns [about the coronavirus] will disappear — I don't think they will,” Krekanova said.

Growing demand has added to the strain stemming from the pandemic. Close to 60% of employers reported an increase in demand over the summer, and more than half predicted the trend will persist through the end of the year.

Krekanova said that, without enough workers, some businesses can’t tap into the new demand.

Forty-five percent of businesses said they have raised their wages since May, with larger firms the most likely to increase pay. That figure has stabilized since the spring, when much of the economy began to reopen and demand for workers grew. In June, 43% of businesses said they had boosted wages, up from 22% in March.

Krekanova noted that, as labor became harder to find this spring and summer, some firms used higher pay to compete for workers. But “at some point,” she said, “a number of businesses lost the ability or the interest to engage in that. They had to sort of concede that they can't always win, [that] it's not a sustainable model necessarily.”

Perhaps further capturing that sentiment, the survey shows that today 45% of firms don’t plan to consider new recruiting practices. That's an increase since March and June, when the figure hovered just above 30%.

Shot in the dark

The survey also found mixed views among local businesses that are not subject to President Biden’s vaccine mandate on whether to require COVID-19 vaccinations for staff.

The president’s executive order applies only to companies with more than 100 workers. About half of local employers who fall below that threshold say they do not expect to require vaccines for their workforce, according to the survey.

By contrast, a third of employers with 100 or fewer workers say they will or are likely to mandate the shots for all of their employees. Other firms, meanwhile, said only some positions, such as those that require interaction with the public, will require vaccination.

Krekanova said firms generally support vaccination of the workforce, but she said some won’t require the shot because nearly all of their employees are already vaccinated. Others fear legal repercussions.

Only 10% worry that a vaccine requirement would make them less competitive in hiring. Other firms, meanwhile, contend that the policy appeals to workers by enhancing workplace safety, Krekanova said.

Businesses with more than 100 employees were similarly split on whether to require the shot before Biden announced his mandate Sept. 9. Although the survey lasted from Sept. 8 to Sept. 13, most firms submitted responses before Biden issued his order. About 40% of the 112 respondents employ more than 100 people.