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Employers Are Struggling As Workplaces Divided Over Vaccine And Mask Policies

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

In Florida, the pandemic continues to exact its price. New cases are rising, and a record number of COVID patients are hospitalized - more than 11,000. All this ramps up pressure on employers trying to keep workers safe. NPR's Yuki Noguchi reports on one firm's struggles.

YUKI NOGUCHI, BYLINE: George Boue works on a palm tree-lined street close to Fort Lauderdale's beaches, where COVID-19 transmission runs especially high.

GEORGE BOUE: Well, we're the epicenter.

NOGUCHI: Yet resistance to vaccination has also been relatively stiff. That is sowing division within the ranks of Stiles, where Boue is vice president of human resources. The company's 260 employees work in teams to design, construct and manage office buildings. Boue estimates 40% of the company's staff have yet to vaccinate.

BOUE: We've always had a very trusting culture. What's happening now is there's a level of distrust as to who's vaccinated, who's not. It has been really taxing just appeasing the two extreme groups of the overly concerned and the overly unconcerned.

NOGUCHI: Across the U.S., many employers are grappling with similar dynamics, trying to maintain safety in workplaces polarized over vaccination. So far, only a fraction have mandated vaccines. In Florida, Governor Ron DeSantis has banned businesses and government from requiring proof of COVID-19 vaccination. Boue doesn't think his company would have gone that route anyway. It's hard enough trying to recruit workers. Instead, he tries to urge vaccination in a way that won't alienate workers opposed to it. But that, too, isn't easy. For example, he recently surveyed employees to gauge how many would get their shots if the vaccinator came on site.

BOUE: I got a whopping three individuals.

NOGUCHI: He thinks some workers may be waiting until the vaccines win full approval from the Food and Drug Administration instead of just for emergency use. But...

BOUE: I do think there's a significant percentage that will get vaccinated no matter what. I don't think they could be convinced otherwise.

NOGUCHI: And so he says the emotionally charged divisions seen in the real world spill over into the workplace. The conflict isn't necessarily overt. Workers vent to managers or to him about their worries, like having asthma or an immunocompromised family member.

BOUE: It has been my toughest job in human resources ever.

NOGUCHI: Boue tells them it's OK to ask whether a colleague is vaccinated, but he knows from experience it can be extremely awkward.

BOUE: It's impacting a very critical glue within our culture. Those that are vaccinated, who feel they've taken all the precautions, feel resentful to the unvaccinated, especially the unvaccinated who don't wear a mask because that's the worst combination.

NOGUCHI: Managing masking policies alone has been a huge headache. Boue says the company's policy is to follow CDC guidelines.

BOUE: But the challenge is that this thing has changed constantly because the CDC issues new guidance, and we have to be quick on our feet.

NOGUCHI: Like last week, when the CDC renewed calls for universal masking indoors in regions where COVID transmission is high. Each time guidelines change, Boue sends out another email. The problem is the nuances aren't always clear. Like, does a vaccinated employee whose child was exposed at school still need to quarantine under the new rules?

BOUE: People refer to the guidelines that existed previously and say, well, what about this?

NOGUCHI: It's hard, he says, helping people navigate this ever-changing landscape. But George Boue says he realizes he's not alone. Employers worldwide are in the same boat.

Yuki Noguchi, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF FELBM'S "FUNICULAR") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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