If you’ve tried to get a COVID-19 test over the past few months, it may have felt like an ordeal. But what if your job offered you one?
Sacramento construction crews have had that option lately, and many other employers are exploring if they should be doing the same.
William Woodard’s electrical company, National High Voltage Services Inc, keeps power flowing to major Sacramento area institutions such as college campuses. So when COVID-19 shut down businesses months ago his crew kept going, with as many as 100 workers on some sites.
“There are a lot of precautions [we take] on those sites,” said Woodard, including face mask requirements, temperature checks, and filling out COVID-19 worksheets before coming on-site every day.
So when a construction trade association invited Woodard and his employees to get tested for an active infection or antibodies — to see if there’s been a prior exposure — Woodard jumped on the opportunity.
“A lot of people don’t even have symptoms, and potentially I could have had it,” Woodard said after he got a test at a makeshift testing site in North Highlands. “Considering my interactions, and the amount of people I was in contact with … I figured I’d come down here.”
The local chapter of the Associated Builders and Contractors set it up. Michele Daugherty, president and CEO of ABC Norcal, said the testing will help them understand if their on-the-job safety precautions have worked.
“If we were safe this whole time, is there opportunity for more people to get back to work?” said Daugherty.
This testing initiative — up to 400 construction workers in the Sacramento and Livermore area alone — is somewhat of an advocacy project to keep up the demand for construction work.
“If people aren’t working, then the economy is not working, if the economy is not working, then we are not building,” she said.
Daugherty says before COVID-19, builders had a nine-month work backlog, and she doesn‘t want that work to run out. She said test results will be given to county public health authorities.
“By ... being proactive, and helping our community to say, ‘Are we safe?’ ‘Here’s more data ...’ Anything we can do to help the county to get the information they need so they can open up more, we’re all in,” says Daugherty.
The idea of employers testing workers to get people on the job again is a very live discussion among employers right now, according to groups that represent them, such as the California Employers Association and the California Business Roundtable.
Large and small companies are looking into it, from dental offices to pet care and the beauty industry, they say.
“We have never had a clearer example of how our economic health is tied to our physical health,” says Elizabeth Mitchell, president and CEO of Pacific Business Group on Health, which represents large public and private employers.
Mitchell says a small share of her members are testing for active infections, but it’s too early for antibody testing.
“We think we’re just a little bit ahead of the science. We don’t know that it is reliable, we don’t know that an antibody test — regardless of the result — means that you can’t get COVID again. So we are tracking that very closely, and [employers] are very interested in using it as the science develops,” says Mitchell.
Johns Hopkins University immunologist Gigi Gronvall says some workplace testing could keep people safe, but employers should be careful about how they use the information.
“If they’re looking for, like, how they can create spaces that are more physically distant, or trying to put some public health measures into place, that’s one thing. It’s another thing if they’re trying to make hiring decisions, or firing decisions, or things that might be based on faulty information,” says Gronvall.
ABC NorCal says it’s not testing workers to see who should be back in the workforce and that only the individuals know their own results.
It’s still unclear if other industries will start testing workers, but Mitchell says tests would need to be quick and reliable.
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