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Editorial: New challenges in the workplace

Achieving a satisfying work-life balance has been a confounding problem of contemporary life, long before anyone heard of COVID-19. But when that virus swept through and threw both work and life completely out of whack, it left a changed landscape.

Especially in Hawaii, which suffered especially deep job losses with the shutdown of tourism, this Labor Day finds an exhausted workforce — from the rank-and-file staffers to the employers trying to bring operations back online.

Many of those laid off have long since returned, and more are likely to join them, now that the weekly $300 federal supplementation of unemployment insurance ended last week, and children have returned to school.

But going to work may look a little different, or even a lot. Time away has forced a kind of reset, and many workers, according to numerous studies, want something different.

In the initial lockdowns, more people were employed from home. Online communications proved to be a more viable option than anyone realized for office-based jobs. Many other workers suddenly tutoring kids through distance learning appreciated the family time. Some are not returning to service-industry jobs and are retraining.

How will work life change, as Hawaii looks with hope to the post-pandemic future? For many, there’s already a hybrid arrangement in the planning stages. For part of the time there could be a return to the office, perhaps a smaller one, with some remote work from home as well.

More immediately, employers are grappling with the prospect of implementing a vaccine mandate of some kind. Starting Sept. 13 on Oahu, those in particular public-facing categories — including restaurants, bars and gyms — will have to require vaccine cards or negative test results for both customers and employees, under an executive order issued by Mayor Rick Blangiardi.

This policy will be reviewed after 60 days, gauging its impact and COVID-19 spread in the community at that time. But even before that plan was announced last week, a number of business owners already had imposed vaccination mandates of their own.

They were less worried about being sued for such a policy once the Food and Drug Administration gave full approval to the Pfizer vaccine, making it comparable to other immunizations that have been required in various workplaces for decades.

This is just one of the many polarizing issues of the pandemic. The arrival of the highly infectious delta variant caused a frightening surge in infections and was one of the driving forces behind the policy shifts.

The hope is that confronting the skyrocketing case numbers will push more Hawaii residents past this point of contention. Simply put, employers need to protect those who come in their doors to do business, and to maintain a safe workplace for all their staff.

Businesses are coming together around this issue, so it’s reasonable to hope that the general public can, too.

“Many of our member companies are offering incentives and vaccines onsite, providing paid time off for employees to get vaccinated or taking their vaccine-eligible children to do so, and sharing fact-based information about the vaccines and COVID-19,” Michele Saito, who chairs the Hawaii Business Roundtable, wrote in an op-ed published Aug. 29 in the Honolulu Star-Advertiser.

That short-term change in the workplace environment is welcome in these challenging times.

Let’s hope that most workers will find an accommodation with their employers on this front, and take the opportunity of this reset to settle into a workplace that has adjusted to their changing needs.

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