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With employees returning to work and companies reopening their doors to customers, employers are looking for ways to limit liability related to potential COVID-19 cases contracted in the workplace. To do so, many are considering waivers for not only their employees, but also for customers. Such waivers, however, are somewhat limited in their effectiveness and employers should consider the pros and cons before attempting to implement them. You may also want to consider an alternate strategy that may offer you some of the assurances you seek without many of the negatives associated with waivers.
No waiver or other attempt at limiting liability can replace the need to maintain a safe workplace. You should start by ensuring you are in strict compliance with local orders, state regulations, and guidance from government agencies like the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), and local health authorities.
What Are Waivers?
The term waiver has more than one meaning. In this context, employers may look to a waiver and releases of liability agreement consisting of a series of contractual provisions to mitigate certain risks of liability. Such an agreement not only includes a waiver clause, but also includes additional protective provisions like clauses for assumption of risks, covenants not to sue, and identification. If enforceable, they would eliminate liability for the risks discussed within.
Waiver agreements between employers and employees are traditionally disfavored due to the unequal bargaining power between them, as employers typically have superior bargaining power. In most states, such waivers do not apply to gross negligence or willful, intentional, or wanton conduct, as employers cannot waive such liability.
Employee waivers are even further limited due to workers’ compensation statutes, where states generally require medical expenses, lost wages, and rehabilitation costs be provided to employees injured in the course and scope of their employment. For work-related injuries, employees generally cannot waive their worker’s compensation claims. Although it may be difficult for employees to prove they contracted COVID-19 at work, some states (like California) have created a rebuttable presumption that workers who contract COVID-19 are presumed to have a workplace injury covered by the workers’ compensation system.
Waiver agreements with employees do not protect employers from OSHA complaints or enforcement action when a workplace is dangerous. However, the president recently signed an executive order directing federal agencies, like OSHA, to make exceptions for employers who attempt in good-faith to follow agency regulations during the COVID-19 pandemic, which may ease some concerns about agency actions.
Practically speaking, waivers may discourage employees from returning to work and hinder restarting operations as a result. They may also result in negative reactions and publicity concerns, as has occurred in several instances across the country already.
But due to the COVID-19 pandemic, it remains unclear whether courts and states will allow employers to enforce waiver agreements in this unprecedented time. Regardless of whether you decide to institute COVID-19 waivers to your returning workforce, you should develop return-to-work plans including steps to train employees on any exposure danger, how to eliminate those dangers, and best practices to stay safe.
Waivers for your customers may limit your company’s liability associated with COVID-19, but they may also hurt your business. Employers must carefully decide if the benefits of liability waivers for customers outweigh their drawbacks for their business. Some positives aspects of customer waivers include that they:
However, customer waivers have downsides too, as they:
Evaluating how a waiver will affect your business requires you to look at your industry, business, and geographic area, as well as how your customers or the public will react. Customers generally do not expect to sign a waiver before shopping or dining in a restaurant. But waivers are common in potentially dangerous activities, like extreme sports, where adding a COVID-19 clause may go unnoticed. Overall, customer waivers could impact businesses in more ways than simply mitigating their liability, so businesses must first consider potential unintended consequences.
Other Strategies: Notices And Questionnaires
Alternate routes to limiting liability may be more beneficial than waivers for many businesses. Businesses may avoid the potentially ominous effect of forcing customers to sign waivers by using questionnaires or notices.
A questionnaire asks entrants to the premises questions about whether they have any of the symptoms of COVID-19 or were exposed to it. A questionnaire could also communicate the employer’s reasonable actions to comply with government guidelines for sanitation, social distancing, mask wearing, and other efforts that the employer uses to keep their guests and employees safe. This strategy could allow the employer to show it took affirmative steps to exclude sick people from its workplace.
But businesses still need to consider how their customers will react to such a questionnaire. Implementing a questionnaire may deter some customers who find it an impediment or feel it invades their privacy, while others may feel safer coming to your business because you screen everyone who enters.
Notices provide a more streamlined approach, communicating the same information as a questionnaire about the business’ steps to keep its premises safe, without requiring the individual to physically sign away any perceived rights. Communicating the rules and restrictions without asking questions or for a signature, notices require fewer steps from employers and customers than waivers and questionnaires.
Either approach requires employers to provide a handout or post signage at all entrances to the building that broadcast safety information and reasonable actions and prohibit sick or exposed persons from entering the building. These strategies allow people to feel safer and accept the risks when they enter the workplace.
Choosing A Strategy
Waivers have limited but potentially valuable benefits if enforceable. Employers should weigh those benefits against the potential impact on their business and carefully consider all their options, such as questionnaires or notices that communicate information and allow guests to assume risk.
No strategy can eliminate a company’s obligation to take reasonable actions to protect its employees and customers. The CDC, OSHA, and state or local authorities publish guidelines and guidance that businesses should follow. Demonstrating you followed such guidance will be the best proof your company acted reasonably in responding to COVID-19 risks.
Whether an employer institutes employee or customer waivers, they should develop written plans to reopen that include training for their employees on these guidelines and that document their efforts to comply. Ignoring these guidelines will make workplaces less safe and potentially expose employers to civil suits and government enforcement actions.
What Should Employers Do?
As you begin the process of reopening, you should familiarize yourself with several alerts from a national labor law firm: 5 Steps To Reopen Your Workplace, According To CDC’s Latest Guidance. You should also keep handy the 4-Step Plan For Handling Confirmed COVID-19 Cases When Your Business Reopens in the event you learn of a positive case at your workplace. For a more thorough analysis of the many issues you may encounter from a labor and employment perspective, we recommend you review our FP BEYOND THE CURVE: Post-Pandemic Back-To-Business FAQs For Employers and our FP Resource Center For Employers.
Perhaps the most challenging aspect of encountering a suspected or confirmed case of COVID-19 among your employees as you reopen your business is identifying those employees who worked near the infected worker – and thus must also be quarantined. Luckily, there is a simple numerical sequence you can remember that will enable you to follow the CDC contact tracing guidelines for general businesses: 6-15-48.
You will need infected employees to identify others who worked within 6 feet of them, for 15 minutes or more, within the 48 hours prior to the sick individual showing symptoms, or later.
Remembering these three numbers will offer you an easy way to navigate the CDC’s often complex and confusing guidance.
Determine Who Worked Within 6 Feet Of The Infected Employee
The first step requires you to inquire with the infected employee about those who worked within close proximity of them. The CDC generally defines a direct exposure to COVID-19 as an individual who is a household member with an infected person, intimate partner with an infected person, or an individual who has had close contact (< 6 feet) for a prolonged period of time with an infected individual.
For Those Who Worked Within 6 Feet, Was It For 15 Minutes Or More?
Another challenge for employers during this pandemic has been the constantly changing guidance from government agencies on how to address various workplace topics. The CDC’s definition of “prolonged period of time” is no exception. The current CDC guidance on this issue states that “recommendations vary on the length of time of exposure, but 15 minutes of close exposure can be used as an operational definition.” Thus, after identifying the employees who worked within six feet of the individual worker, you should determine if any remained within that proximity of the sick employee for 15 minutes or more.
Was The Direct Exposure For A Prolonged Period Of Time During The 48 Hours Before The Infected Employee Exhibit Symptoms Or Later?
The CDC defines the key period of time for determining if an employee was exposed to an infected worker as the “period from 48 hours before symptoms onset until” the infected employee is cleared to discontinue self-isolation. For purposes of contact tracing, the key here is to look at the 48 hours before the sick employee had symptoms and was still working in the workplace. If a sick employee worked on Monday and Tuesday, started showing symptoms at 8:00 a.m. on Wednesday, and immediately left the workplace, you should look for employees working near them starting at 8:00 a.m. on Monday.
Ask The 6-15-48 Employees To Remain Home For At Least 14 Days
After following the above three steps, you have identified the 6-15-48 employees. Although asking the sick employee to identify these workers is likely the best contact tracing tool, you may want to check video surveillance to confirm the accuracy of the 6-15-48 employees the sick worker identifies.
Once identified, the CDC guidance for non-critical businesses provides that the 6-15-48 employees should take the following steps:
If your company is part of the nation’s critical infrastructure, you may follow different CDC guidelines in lieu of quarantining 6-15-48 employees who are asymptomatic. However, all companies can use the guidance above to identify exposed, or 6-15-48, workers.
As orders allowing businesses to reopen continue to be issued, you will face new legal and practical challenges in the workplace. Addressing confirmed COVID-19 cases in your workplace will unfortunately become reality for many employers. Now is the time to prepare for such an event. This a constantly evolving area, with new guidance being issued nearly every day.
As businesses gradually begin to ramp up and bring employees back to work, you may soon need to figure out what to do when employees who are receiving unemployment benefits refuse to return to work. After all, they may be reluctant or disincentivized to return to the job, especially if they can turn down your offer and still collect robust unemployment benefits.
As with all unemployment issues, the solution may differ from state to state – and employee to employee. But while the answers will vary depending on your workplace and individual employee circumstances, you can take steps now to put yourself in the best position to respond to such situations. We recommend an individualized 10-step plan of action to minimize your return-to-work headaches.
With the enactment of the CARES Act, employees qualifying for unemployment benefits are in line to receive an additional $600 benefit payment over and above the regular unemployment payment. This benefit is courtesy of the federal government program and continues through July 31, 2020. In many situations, however, the additional $600 benefit has created a disincentive for employees to return to work. This phenomenon has caused a dilemma for many employers (and employees) as businesses start to reopen.
At the lower end of the economic scale, many workers are receiving more from unemployment than they would earn from their regular wages. However, to remain eligible for unemployment benefits in all but a few circumstances, individuals who have been placed on a temporary layoff related to the COVID-19 pandemic must return to work if called back. And since most state unemployment agencies require or request that you notify them when you call an employee receiving unemployment back to work, the agency will likely deny ongoing benefits unless the employee can demonstrate good cause for refusing the offer.
The determination as to what constitutes good cause for the job refusal, however, will be viewed in light of the COVID-19 pandemic and will be subject to agency review. The U.S. Department of Labor and many states have emphasized that an unreasonable fear over the risk of contracting the virus in the workplace is not enough to constitute good cause, and state agencies will likely deny unemployment claims if this is the only reason offered.
Several states, however, including Washington, Colorado, Alaska, and Texas, have already adopted rules outlining when an employee’s refusal to return to work may rise to the level of good cause. These rules generally protect unemployment benefits for “high risk” or “vulnerable” employees, such as workers over 65 or with underlying medical conditions.
For example, Texas Governor Abbott has directed the Texas Workforce Commission to continue providing benefits even when the employee refuses an offer of suitable employment where (1) the employee is 65 or older or at higher risk for getting very sick from COVID-19; (2) the employee has a household member at high risk; (3) the employee or a household member has been diagnosed with COVID-19 (and not recovered); (4) the employee is under quarantine due to close contact or exposure to COVID-19; or (5) the employee has child care responsibilities and the school or daycare is closed (and employee has no available alternatives).
Given the complicated issues created by the COVID-19 pandemic, you should be careful to consider the best approach for your workplace and employees. A thoughtful and transparent return-to-work process will help ensure employee safety and boost morale. Here is a 10-point plan you should implement to ensure a smooth return-to-work for your organization.
What Else Should Employers Do?
As you begin the process of reopening, you may want to familiarize yourself with several alerts courtesy of Fisher Phillips LLP :
Employers may be required to take the temperatures of employees when businesses begin to reopen in the coming days and weeks following the expiration of many states’ stay-at-home orders. Screening for fevers is a task never previously undertaken by many companies. Given that many states will require or highly recommend this practice, now is the time for to consider what precautions and procedures to undertake to implement this safety measure.
You should consider these six issues when contemplating whether to take temperatures at your workplace:
What Should Employers Do?As you begin the process of reopening, you may want to familiarize yourself with several pieces of information:
Florida Governor Ron DeSantis just extended his Safer At Home Order for the State of Florida but announced his plan to gradually re-open the state pursuant to a new Order that will go into effect just after midnight (at 12:01 am) on the morning of May 4, 2020. The new Order initiates the first of three phases to re-open every county in Florida except for Miami-Dade, Broward and Palm Beach counties. Additionally, local governments in Florida will also be able to have more restrictive policies in place if they desire. What do Florida employers need to know?
Essential And Non-Essential Businesses Are Permitted To Operate Pursuant To CDC And OSHA Guidelines
The new Order permits all services and activities currently allowed under the previous Safer-at-Home Order. Any non-essential businesses that were not previously permitted to be open can reopen as long as they also follow CDC and OSHA guidelines. However, The Order contains the following industry specific restrictions:
Every business is required to continue to follow guidelines issued by the CDC and OSHA. These guidelines include:
The CDC also recommends that businesses only reopen after they have implemented safeguards for the ongoing monitoring of employees, including:
Senior Citizens And Individuals With Significant Underlying Medical Conditions
The Order strongly encourages individuals who are older than 65 and those with significant underlying medical conditions to stay at home. They should take all measures to limit the risk of exposure to COVID-19 such as wearing masks during face-to-face interactions. Additionally, the Order encourages individuals to avoid socializing in groups of more than 10.
Social Distancing And Other Guidelines
Additionally, all persons in Florida should practice social distancing, avoid nonessential travel, and adhere to guidelines from the CDC regarding isolation for 14 days following travel on a cruise or from any international destination and any area with significant presence of COVID-19. The Order also extends Governor DeSantis’ Orders regarding airport screening and isolation of individuals traveling to Florida. Notably, there is an exception for these orders for persons involved in military, emergency, health or infrastructure response or involved in commercial activity.
A violation of the Order is a second-degree misdemeanor which is punishable by imprisonment not to exceed 60 days, a fine not to exceed $500.00 or both.
What Does This Mean For Employers?
Employers with operations in Florida should review the CISA guidance and Miami-Dade County Emergency Order 07-20, and its amendments, to determine if they are deemed essential or non-essential.
Before reopening, you should have a thorough plan in place to establish a safe and healthy workplace and share that plan to provide employees peace of mind. You should also be prepared to address concerns from older employees and those with underlying significant health conditions regarding whether or not they must come in to work. You should also carefully assess the availability of telework for these employees.
As you begin the process of reopening, you should familiarize yourself with some useful info:
Besides continuing to follow recommendations issued by the state and local health departments, you can consider these 5 steps:
According to the CDC guidance, you should consider three questions when deciding whether to reopen:
CDC states you should only consider reopening if you can answer “yes” to all three questions.
Once you feel comfortable that your organization can satisfy the three preliminary questions, you should next adopt the CDC’s recommended safety actions. They include:
Next, before reopening, you should implement safeguards for the ongoing monitoring of employees. They include:
The final step before you reopen your doors involves preparing your location for the reentry of workers, customers, guests, and other visitors. The CDC has released guidance for cleaning and disinfecting public spaces, workplaces, businesses, schools, and homes. Review this guidance when implementing cleaning procedures at your facilities after shelter-in-place orders are lifted.