Offices closing, cases rising: In Silicon Valley, it’s March 2020 all over again

"We'll reopen when it's right, but right now the world is changing too much."

Masked people sitting at a conference table

Tech companies are handling the delta variant in differing ways.

Photo: alvarez/Getty Images

It's still 2021, right? Because frankly, it's starting to feel like March 2020 all over again.

Google, Apple, Uber and Lyft have now all told employees they won't have to come back to the office before October as COVID-19 case counts continue to tick back up. Facebook, Google and Uber are now requiring workers to get vaccinated before coming to the office, and Twitter — also requiring vaccines — went so far as to shut down its reopened offices on Wednesday, and put future office reopenings on hold.

"It's very much the same reason that we sent everybody home in February 2020," Jennifer Christie, Twitter's chief human resources officer, told Protocol. "We'll reopen when it's right, but right now the world is changing too much."

Twitter had only been allowing vaccinated employees at its offices since reopening its San Francisco and New York sites at half-capacity earlier this month. But because even vaccinated people seem to be able to transmit the highly infectious delta variant, Twitter executives decided to shut down the company's offices this week in order to prevent co-workers from spreading the virus to each other and then bringing it home.

Employees seemed to be growing more concerned about the variant over the last week or so. After a strong turnout during the first week of reopening, attendance at Twitter's offices had dwindled, Christie said.

Although postponing return-to-office dates well into the fall or even next year has now become the norm — Roblox is yet another company delaying its reopening until January, the company told Protocol on Friday — Twitter is the first tech giant to backtrack and close its reopened offices.

(One outlier is Amazon, which said Thursday that it was still planning to reopen offices in September and would not impose a vaccine mandate.)

Twitter, by contrast, has no timeline for reopening its offices and expects to keep its vaccine mandate into the foreseeable future, Christie said.

The mandate might be easier to impose at remote-first Twitter than at companies like Google, which is adopting a hybrid work model that requires most employees to come to the office three days a week. Twitter, by contrast, allows its employees to work remotely by default.

"Coming into the office is a privilege, and if they want to come in, they're going to have to abide by the vaccination rules that we're putting in, because that's to protect everybody," Christie said. "We're letting them choose vaccination. We're letting them choose where they want to work."

Vaccine mandates apply to contractors, too

Both Google and Twitter told Protocol that their vaccine mandates would apply to their entire workforce, employees and contractors included. Facebook, too, said Wednesday that it would require "anyone coming to work at any of our U.S. campuses to be vaccinated."

So, what does that look like? Christie said that Twitter would be telling any organizations that staff the tech giant with contract workers that "these are the standards that we operate by, and if you're having people come into our offices, that's what we would expect."

It's unclear whether that could pose legal issues for Big Tech, where some companies employ armies of white-collar contract workers.

Rick Gerakitis, an Atlanta-based partner in the labor and employment practice of Troutman Pepper, said it's possible that by imposing a vaccine mandate on contract workers, companies could be seen as treating them like employees under rules like the ABC test established by California's Assembly Bill 5.

"How do we design a remote-work program in a way that actually is something that's manageable, but it also doesn't put them at risk of saying, 'You're now an employee,'" Gerakitis said. "'Because we set too many control factors that make you ... not have a level of independence that you should.'"

Christie said Twitter could make some exceptions for contractors depending on the type of work they're doing or when they're in the office.

"We take it on a case-by-case basis, but we still wouldn't do anything that would put our employees at risk," Christie said. "We work with them to make sure that it wouldn't put our vaccination policies — it wouldn't throw those out the window."

Return-to-office plans and the war for tech talent

Another issue companies face as they refine their return-to-office strategies is competing for talent. Sought-after engineers have choices in Silicon Valley, and if they don't like their employer's policy on vaccines, masks or hybrid work, they can leave.

Adam Kemper, a partner practicing labor and employment law at Kelley Kronenberg in Fort Lauderdale, noted that several large tech companies had made similar announcements in the span of a couple of days.

"It shows some alignment there," Kemper said. "Then, an employee can't just go work for the competitor that's having the same exact policy in place, if they're all doing the same thing."

There's still ample variation among how tech companies are approaching the return to the office. In addition to Amazon, the large companies that haven't announced vaccine mandates include Apple, Microsoft, SAP, Hewlett Packard Enterprise and Intel, among others.

But with Google, Facebook, Twitter, Lyft, Uber and others all requiring vaccines, it seems likely that other vaccine mandates will follow.

"At some point, we're going to have to have businesses play a role in this that will push it forward, and I think that will result in some organizations, if not many, requiring the vaccination," said Liz Joyce, a vice president on Gartner's HR advisory team. "If you look across what's been happening so far, encouraging vaccinations isn't sufficient."

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