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Offices are more than 50% filled for the first time since the pandemic started

New York(CNN) Nearly three years after the pandemic began, American offices are finally more than halfway filled again as workers have gradually returned to the office.

Office occupancy across 10 major US cities crossed 50.4% of pre-pandemic levels for the first time since early 2020, according to security swipe tracker Kastle Systems. That marks the first time occupancy has crossed the 50% mark since March 2020, when many offices sent workers home because of Covid.

Workers still aren't coming back to the office consistently or every day: Last week's data showed that Friday was the lowest day of occupancy and Tuesday was the highest. Kastle noted that all 10 cities that it tracks "have now reached occupancy rates above 40%."

Major companies have begun to crack down on employees who are reluctant to return. Disney is ordering corporate employees to return to offices four days a week beginning March 1. Starbucks (SBUX) also recently instituted a three-days-a-week office schedule.

Apple (AAPL) has also called for its corporate workers to be in the office at least three days a week, sparking tensions with some of its staffers. Snapchat's parent company recently asked workers to return to the office 80% of the time, or the equivalent of four days a week, beginning this month.

However, Amazon (AMZN) CEO Andy Jassy isn't looking to force the company's workers back into the office anytime soon, saying in September that it "doesn't have a plan to require people to come back."

Dozens of YouTube contractors are going on strike Friday to protest what they describe as unreasonable return-to-office policies that could force many of them to relocate from other states.

The protest involves more than 40 contractors for YouTube Music, according to the Alphabet Workers Union, which is backing the strike. The contractors work for a third-party company called Cognizant, and they are calling for the firm and YouTube-parent Google to revise the in-office policies to be more flexible.

The strike was first reported by Axios, which said the contractors voted to strike after receiving orders to report to an office in Austin starting on Monday. Google declined to comment.

According to the Alphabet Workers Union, roughly a quarter of the striking workers are based outside of Texas, and a majority of the contractors had been initially hired as remote workers.

"On average, YouTube music workers are paid $19 an hour and cannot afford the relocation, travel or childcare costs associated with in-person work," the group said on its Facebook page. "The upcoming return to office date threatens the livelihoods of workers who do not live in the Austin area."

With a global labor shortage and a stubbornly high number of job openings, forcing people back into the office could backfire. Leaders who require workers to be on site for more days than staffers prefer — and who threaten them with pay cuts or termination if they don't comply — may be creating a longer-term problem, workplace experts say.

Many leaders' arguments for coming in to work are now focused on the need to preserve company culture, collaboration and mentoring of younger workers.

Face time is important, but workplace research shows that neither culture nor collaboration are necessarily optimized just by having employees spend 40 hours a week in the same building. It also shows that when employees and teams are allowed to schedule their in-person versus remote time, it can boost engagement, morale and retention.

-- CNN's Jeanne Sahadi contributed to this report.

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