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During a special legislative session, Florida just passed a new law banning private employers from mandating COVID-19 vaccines unless several exemptions are offered to employees. The law, signed by the governor on 11/18/21, comes as OSHA’s national emergency temporary standard mandating vaccines is embroiled in legal challenges. What do Florida employers need to know about this new law, which takes effect immediately?
Who is Covered and What Does It Do?
The law applies to all private employers in Florida, regardless of size. It prohibits those employers from requiring employees to get vaccinated against COVID-19 unless various exemptions are offered.
What are the Exemptions?
Some of the exemptions in the new law will sound familiar to employers. Others are unique. If an employer receives a statement from an employee (as described below), they must allow the employee to opt-out of the vaccine mandate. The Department of Health will be creating template forms for each of these exemptions.
This includes for reasons of pregnancy or anticipated pregnancy. To receive a medical exemption, an employee must submit a signed statement by a physician or physician assistant that vaccination is not in the best interest of the employee. While not addressed in the legislation, we suspect that this exemption will function similarly to those provided for disabilities under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA).
An employee must present a statement that they decline the vaccine because of a “sincerely held religious belief.” Although that term is undefined, it likely refers to sincerely held religious beliefs as understood under federal lawA.
An employee must show “competent medical evidence” that they have immunity to COVID-19, which is documented by the results of laboratory testing on the employee. The law does not state what “immunity” is but directs the Department of Health to establish a standard for determining that immunity.
An employee must provide a statement indicating that they will comply with the employer’s requirement to submit to regular testing. Although “regular testing” is not defined, the law directs the Department of Health to adopt emergency rules specifying requirements for frequency of testing. Importantly, any testing must be at no-cost to the employee.
Because this exemption has no ties to existing federal law such as Title VII and the ADA, and the law does not address any “undue hardship” defense, it is likely that an employer cannot decline to pay for the testing if there is a charge the employee would otherwise incur.
An employee must present a statement that they agree to comply with the employer’s reasonable written requirement to use employer-provided personal protective equipment when around others. “Personal protective equipment” is not defined. It is unclear whether the use of the term would implicate OSHA regulations or CDC guidance on “personal protective equipment.”
But What About Federal Law?
The CMS Rule and Federal Contractor vaccine mandate requirements, which both require that covered staff be vaccinated and only allow for exemptions for medical conditions (ADA) and sincerely held religious beliefs (Title VII), should preempt this Florida law to the extent the laws directly conflict. The CMS Rule explicitly provides that it preempts state and local laws.
If OSHA’s ETS survives in the courts, it is likely that Florida’s new law will conflict with the OSHA ETS at least in so far as an employer (with 100 or more employees) might want to implement a mandatory vaccination policy instead of allowing employees to choose to be vaccinated or undergo weekly testing. However, the scope of that conflict is unknown and will depend on the final terms of the ETS if it survives.
How is the Law Going to be Enforced?
Florida’s vaccine mandate law will be enforced by the Department of Legal Affairs, in the Attorney General’s office. Employees can file complaints that an exemption was not offered or was improperly applied or denied, which will then be investigated. If the Department finds a violation, it must notify the employer of its determination and allow the employer the opportunity to cure the noncompliance. If the Department finds that an employee was improperly terminated and the employer does not restore the employee to their position with back pay, then the Department may fine the employer up to $50,000, depending on employer size and other factors. Employees who are wrongfully terminated may also be entitled to unemployment benefits. The Department of Legal Affairs will be issuing rules to further flesh out the complaint and investigation process.
What We Don’t Know Yet
There are many unanswered questions. For example, the new law does not address workers’ compensation claims and remains an open question whether an employee’s side effects to a mandated vaccine is covered by workers’ compensation.
What About Public Employers or Schools?
The legislature also passed statutes banning vaccine mandates for public employees and prohibiting any public educational institution or elected or appointed local official from imposing a COVID-19 vaccination mandate for any student. Unlike private sector employers, public sector employers are prohibited from mandating the vaccine — even if they offer the enumerated exemptions.
There are also provisions prohibiting public schools from requiring a student to wear a face mask, a face shield, or any other facial covering. Instead, such issues are left to the parent’s sole discretion. Further, the law prohibits public schools from barring any student or employee from school or school-sponsored activities or subjecting them to other disparate treatment based on an exposure to COVID-19, so long as the student or employee remains asymptomatic and has not received a positive test for COVID-19.
What Employers Can Do
Importantly, the law is not an outright prohibition on vaccine mandates. Private employers can still have a vaccine mandate, so long as you offer the various exemptions discussed above.
Neither does the law prohibit employers from “stacking” their COVID-19 prevention and mitigation efforts. Meaning, for example, you likely can still require both use of PPE and regular testing in order to protect its workforce. In other words, the statute is a ban on vaccine mandates without certain opt-out accommodations, but it is not a ban on your organization opting to require testing and/or continued use of PPE.
It is worth noting that this new law does not address employers’ immunity against COVID-19 claims. In March 2020, Florida passed a law granting businesses immunity from COVID-19 claims. Absent any more specific legislation, if an employer meets the standards of the immunity law (specifically, demonstrating good faith effort to comply with government-issued health guidance), the language of the immunity law is clear that the employer is immune from civil liability. This new law does not affect that.
You should also keep an eye out for the implementing rules to be issued by the various state agencies. According to the statute, such rulemaking must occur initially by filing emergency rules within 15 days after the effective date of the statute, followed by regular rulemaking thereafter. For the next 15 days (unless the Department of Health files its emergency rules earlier), employer COVID-19 vaccination mandates are deemed invalid under this statute.
This new law is yet another issue facing employers, who are increasingly confronting a myriad of conflicting orders at the state and federal levels. Unfortunately, the issue of COVID-19 vaccines in the workplace remains incredibly fluid and will surely continue to evolve through the holiday season. As always, we will continue to monitor the situation regarding employers’ vaccine mandates and provide updates as warranted.
The Department of Labor (DOL) has launched a new concentrated outreach initiative. For business owners, that means the DOL has promised to actively reach out via radio announcements, social media platforms and neighborhood posters informing employees of their rights under the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA).
You may now be thinking “What does that have to do with me? I pay my employees to work”. While this may be mostly true, often we (or our managers) inadvertently allow or encourage our employees to work off the clock. Before your internal defenses kick into high gear, let me provide a few examples of how this could occur:
Over the past year, business owners and managers have dedicated their time, energy and focus to keeping the essential business doors open or attempting to reopen and get employees back in the office. To allow employees to safely return to work, you have had to operate/reopen your business within CDC guidelines, transition your business to accommodate a remote workforce, follow OSHA’s recommendations, keep up with Federal Equal Employment Opportunity Laws related to the COVID-19 pandemic, as well as the interaction between the Americans with Disability Act (ADA), Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, and the Genetic Information Nondiscrimination Act (GINA). It is no wonder some of our focus on day-to-day compliance may have slipped.
My company’s mission is to be The Employer Advocate. Under the new administration, changes are happening at lightning speed and, as your advocate, we are here to help you navigate through changes as they occur. Administrators Advisory Group (AAG) is a benefits brokerage that works with small to mid-size businesses, specializing in human resources compliance. We work alongside your human resource team to keep you up to date with the latest workplace rules and regulations.
The Department of Labor (DOL) campaign is the first in our four-part series designed to let you know what changes have taken place that may affect your business. In the following weeks, we will cover changes regarding the Family First Coronavirus Response Act (FFCRA) as amended under the CARES Act, changes occurring within OSHA, and a new federal taskforce created whose goal is to unionize your employees.
While Wage & Hour rules have not changed, the informational outreach by the DOL has just begun. The biggest change comes in the form of visibility and accessibility of the information, beginning with the revamp of their website. The DOL has promised to proactively reach out to employees using radio public service announcements, national webinars, social media messages, and posters.
Reminding employers and employees alike that employees must be paid for ALL hours worked is the center of this outreach! Even if you don’t ask an employee to work overtime, even if it’s done remotely, and even if you aren’t aware (but should have been), the employee is entitled to be paid.
Wage & Hour rules can be one of the many landmines that employers have to navigate on a daily basis. With AAG on your side, we will help you ensure you are prepared in case the DOL shows up on your doorstep. Let us know if you have questions or would like to review some of your existing practices or policies.
The EEOC kicked off the unofficial start of summer with a bang by clearing the way for employers to offer their employees incentives to get the COVID-19 vaccine in new guidance released on the eve of the Memorial Day weekend. The May 28 updates to the agency’s COVID-19 Technical Assistance guidance now provides employers with two clear options, drawing a key distinction based on who administers the shot:
Regardless of which path you travel, there are still hoops to jump through if you want to provide vaccine incentives – providing accommodations, ensuring confidentiality, etc. – but you now have a clear direction to take to encourage your workers towards vaccination. What do you need to know about this critical update?
Why Was This Guidance Necessary?
Before we take a deeper dive into discussing the options and other considerations, some employers may be wondering why this guidance was even necessary. Couldn’t you just offer some cash or PTO or some other reward to induce employee behavior without concern about the legal ramifications?
The main sticking point troubling employers for months concerned wellness program rules. Historically, the EEOC has indicated it didn’t want employers to force employees to make medical-related decisions through the use of incentives. Until this latest guidance, the EEOC believed that too significant of an incentive could coerce employees to participate, thus leading to legal violations if employees are “forced” to disclose protected medical information to gain the incentive. Through rules, guidance, and federal litigation, the EEOC has taken steps to ensure that any employment decisions in this regard were genuinely voluntary.
Earlier this year, the EEOC issued a proposed rule expressly permitting only de minimis incentives as passing muster under participatory wellness programs. The proposed rule contained language referring to a permissible incentive as a “water bottle” or something of equivalent value. However, the Biden administration withdrew the proposed rule under a regulatory freeze typically seen when new leadership takes charge at the White House. The proposed rule is still pending review and it is unclear when or what form it may re-emerge. Against the backdrop of this uncertainty, employers have been attempting to navigate the thorny path of vaccine incentives, concerned that offering robust incentives could bring about a higher legal risk. At the urging of business groups seeking clarity on the matter, the EEOC finally heeded the call and provided the certainty that employers have been craving.
Option 1: Unlimited Incentives
Under the first option, you are seemingly permitted to provide unlimited incentives to your workforce so long as your employees voluntarily provide you with documentation or other confirmation they received the COVID-19 vaccine, and they received the vaccination on their own from a third-party provider that is not an “agent” of your organization. The EEOC describes such third parties as pharmacies, public health departments, or other health care providers in the community.
Option 2: Restricted Incentives
On the other hand, if employees are voluntarily vaccinated by you or your “agent,” you can offer only incentives that are “not so substantial as to be coercive.” Which leads to two questions: what is an “agent,” and how substantial is “substantial”?
Definition of “Agent” and How to Avoid This Designation
Definition of “Substantial” and How to Avoid Violations
Whichever path you take, there are several other considerations to keep in mind when offering vaccine incentives based on voluntary inoculations.
Some employees may have legitimate medical or religious reasons not to get vaccinated, and failure to provide them with the same types of incentives could lead to claims under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) or Title VII. You will need to consider offering alternative means by which an employee can earn an incentive if they cannot be vaccinated due to a disability or sincerely held religious belief. Alternative ways to earn the incentive might be watching a workplace COVID-19 safety video or reviewing CDC literature on mitigating the spread of COVID-19 in the workforce.
Once you gather information from employees about whether they have been vaccinated or not, you must maintain confidentiality. You should maintain the records as you would any other medical-related documentation (in a separate file, accessible to only those who need to know, etc.) and comply with all other state-specific privacy rules (such as in California).
While you can offer an incentive to employees to provide documentation or other confirmation from a third party not acting on your behalf that their family members have been vaccinated, the EEOC confirmed that you may not offer incentives to your employees in return for their family members getting vaccinated by your organization or your agent. This would be considered a violation of the Genetic Information Nondiscrimination Act (GINA) Title II health and genetic services provision. Asking pre-screening medical questions would lead to you receiving genetic information in the form of family medical history of the employee, and GINA regulations prohibit employers from providing incentives in exchange for genetic information. However, you can still offer an employee’s family member the opportunity to be vaccinated by your organization or your agent if you take certain steps to ensure GINA compliance.
Possible Incentives to Consider
If you are now considering what kind of incentives to offer your workforce in light of this new guidance, you might find comfort knowing that employers’ two most common incentive options include cash/gifts (38%) and paid time off (30%). This is according to an FP Flash Survey conducted earlier this year, which found that more than one in five employers were providing vaccine incentives. That number is bound to rise given that close to half of all respondents (43%) said they were unsure about whether to offer some form of incentive, many commenting that the then-current legal uncertainty fueled their hesitancy.
Now that the country is on course to see all adult Americans eligible for COVID-19 vaccination in a matter of days, and an increasing number of employees are returning to the workplace, vaccination status is likely to be an increasingly common topic over the coming weeks and months. Which leads to these inevitable questions: when and how can employers ask their workers whether they’ve been vaccinated without getting into hot water? Whether it’s an innocent question asked while trying to make conversation or an inquiry posed to determine whether someone can return to normal duties, you need to understand your legal rights and obligations regarding this serious topic. Missteps can easily lead to legal complications.
A Simple Vaccine Question is Okay, But Be Wary of Going Further
The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission has indicated in recent guidance that it is generally permissible for employers to ask employees about COVID-19 vaccination status. That’s because this simple question alone is not likely to elicit information from the employee about possible medical conditions, an inquiry that otherwise would invoke federal or state disability laws.
And in many cases, the answer to that question alone may be all you really need. If you don’t really need to know anything beyond a simple “yes” or “no” to the question of whether they have been vaccinated – and in most cases, you won’t – the EEOC suggests warning employees not to provide any other medical information in response to your question to make sure you don’t inadvertently receive more information than you want.
If you require proof of vaccination, you should ask the employee to provide documentation from the immunization source showing the date(s) the vaccine was administered. To avoid potential legal issues related to this process, you should affirmatively inform employees that they do not need to provide any additional medical or family history information. The documentation you receive should be treated as a confidential medical record.
But issues could arise if you venture further than asking this simple question. Asking follow-up questions could trigger obligations under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and the Genetic Information Nondiscrimination Act (GINA) depending on a variety of factors, so you need to tread cautiously if you take the questions any further.
Going Further with Your Inquiries
That’s not to say you can’t or shouldn’t ask anything further than eliciting a simply yes-or-no answer. There may be circumstances where it is advisable or even necessary to ask more. In those cases, the key considerations relate to the kinds of questions posed and the kinds of responses provided. These are the situations that raise potential legal issues that will likely require you to confer with your lawyer.
Questions about why the employee isn’t vaccinated
If you need information about why the employee has not yet been vaccinated, you might end up eliciting information about the employee’s medical status. Therefore, you can only pose such questions if they are “job-related and consistent with business necessity.” As the EEOC has said, you meet this standard if you have a reasonable belief, based on objective evidence, that an employee who is not vaccinated would pose a direct threat to the health or safety of themselves or others. This can be a challenging and complicated hurdle to clear. You should coordinate with legal counsel to determine whether you can meet this standard in your situation.
If you are treating workers differently based on vaccination status – for example, not allowing them to participate in certain work activities, work in certain locations, interact with the public or other employees, etc. – and you have confirmed with counsel that you have a valid justification for doing so, you may need to ask additional questions to assist with an interactive process. It may be that you need to provide reasonable accommodations to those workers unable to be vaccinated due to underlying medical conditions or sincerely held religious justifications. Each situation will require a case-by-case, fact-specific analysis, and you should be prepared to engage in substantive interactive process discussions related to any accommodation requests.
Questions about how the vaccination process went
If your managers are asking follow-up questions to find out how the employees fared after vaccination – especially after the second dose of Moderna and Pfizer vaccines – you need to recognize that this can be a slippery slope. Such questions could reveal information related to disability status (see above) that you would otherwise not want to know about. Caution your managers to tread carefully when asking such questions, even if their intent is innocent, and train them to know what to do if they receive information that should lead to human resources involvement.
Questions to help with an employee leave program
It is always permissible for your managers to ask about the medical status of an employee in order to help administer an employee leave program that includes absences for vaccine side effects, whether due to federal or state law or due to company policy. As with any such inquiries about medical status, however, make sure your managers know that they need to keep the information confidential to protect the privacy of any medical records received, and to only ask questions that lead them to gather the type of information necessary.
What Steps Should You Take Right Now?
Federal and state anti-discrimination agencies have issued guidance for employers that want to require workers to get a COVID-19 vaccine—but at least one lawsuit has claimed that employers can’t mandate a vaccine that is approved only for emergency use. While this argument might not hold up in court, employers should be aware of the risks associated with a vaccine mandate.
When employees refuse a vaccine, the employer should address their concerns and explain the reasons why the company has adopted a mandatory vaccination policy. An open dialogue and education will be key, as will following FDA updates in this regard and consulting with legal counsel.
There are many reasons why an employee may be unwilling to receive a COVID-19 vaccine, and employers may need to explore reasonable accommodations, particularly with employees who have disability-related and religious objections to being vaccinated.
Distribution of COVID-19 vaccines has been issued under the Food and Drug Administration’s (FDA’s) Emergency Use Authorization (EUA) rather than the FDA’s usual processes. But the FDA has said that the vaccine has met its “rigorous, scientific standards for safety, effectiveness and manufacturing quality” and that “its known and potential benefits clearly outweigh its known and potential risks.”
An employee who recently filed a lawsuit challenging an employer’s vaccine mandate argued that the EUA states that people must have “the option to accept or refuse administration of the [vaccine]” and be informed “of the consequence, if any, of refusing administration of the [vaccine] and of the alternatives to the [vaccine] that are available and of their benefits and risks.”
Although the employee in the case works in the public sector, many employment relationships in the private sector are at-will, which means either the employer or the worker can terminate the employment for any lawful reason. An employer that mandates a vaccine may argue the consequence of refusing a vaccine is being fired.
“Consensus in the legal community has been that, at least in the private sector, employers may require at-will employees to be vaccinated, subject to accommodations that may be required for medical or religious reasons,” said Kevin Troutman, an attorney with Fisher Phillips in Houston, and Richard Meneghello, an attorney with Fisher Phillips in Portland, Ore.
The U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) has issued guidance indicating that employers generally can mandate COVID-19 vaccinations. “The EEOC specifically addressed vaccinations that are authorized or approved by the FDA,” noted Anne-Marie Vercruysse Welch, an attorney with Clark Hill in Birmingham, Mich.
The California Department of Fair Employment and Housing (DFEH) also recently said that the Fair Employment and Housing Act (FEHA) generally allows employers to mandate vaccines that have been approved by the FDA. The DFEH specially noted that the FDA has authorized and recommended three COVID-19 vaccines—all of which have been authorized under an EUA.
But vaccine mandates may still be risky for employers. It is possible that employees who are terminated for refusing to receive a vaccine authorized by the FDA under an EUA could try to pursue claims for wrongful termination in violation of public policy. The viability of such claims will depend on applicable state law regarding a potential public policy exception to at-will employment and how courts—state and federal—construe the EUA wording.
The regulatory framework is still unclear and a number of states are considering legislation that would prohibit employers from requiring employees to receive a COVID-19 vaccine. If these bills become law, the uncertainty regarding the EUA issue will become moot in those states, at least as of the time the laws go into effect.
The EEOC issued guidance stating that employees may be exempt from employer vaccination mandates under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 (Title VII) and other workplace laws.
California’s guidance noted that the FEHA prohibits employers from discriminating against employees or job applicants based on a protected characteristic—such as age, race or sex—and requires employers to explore reasonable accommodations related to a worker’s disability or sincerely held religious beliefs.
“If an employee has a medical condition or sincerely held religious belief that would prevent them from being able to be vaccinated, their employer must go through the interactive process to determine if a reasonable accommodation is available,” Welch said. She recommended that employers have accommodation forms available to employees to begin the interactive process and document the steps the employer took to attempt to arrive at a reasonable accommodation.
Accommodations could take various forms, depending upon the employee’s job and setting. Employers may offer remote work, change the physical workspace, revise practices or provide a leave of absence. In each situation, the employer must determine whether an accommodation would enable the employee to safely perform the essential functions of their job.
Some employees might refuse to receive a vaccine for reasons that aren’t legally protected, such as a general distrust of vaccines. Employers need to be very thoughtful as they consider whether to mandate vaccines because employers may have to fire a material portion of their workforce who refuse to be vaccinated or allow some employees to ignore a company policy–which can lead to discrimination risks and employee morale issues.
“Most employers are encouraging vaccination rather than requiring it,” Welch observed.
Coburn recommended that employers focus on the following measures to encourage employees to receive a vaccination:
Employers that want to offer incentives should be mindful of wellness program limitations and offer alternative ways for employees who cannot get vaccinated to receive the incentives, Coburn noted.
Employers wanting to require workers to get a COVID-19 vaccination should be prepared to respond to workers’ concerns and make reasonable accommodations under federal and state law.
Mandating vaccinations could have benefits for employers and employees alike. Vaccinations will likely decrease the risk of spreading the virus in the workplace, reduce absenteeism, increase productivity and decrease employee health care costs. On the other hand, employees may react poorly to mandatory vaccination policies.
“Most employers are choosing to inform, educate and encourage their employees to consider the vaccine,” observed Katherine Dudley Helms, an attorney with Ogletree Deakins in Columbia, S.C. However, she noted, there may be industries where vaccination is critical and a mandatory approach makes sense.
“Even then, employees should be informed and educated as to why the business felt that approach was necessary,” she said. “If the employer has made the vaccine mandatory, it needs to be sure that it is ready to terminate or otherwise address employees who refuse and who are not entitled to a reasonable accommodation.”
Employers that require vaccinations may face discrimination claims if they deny accommodation requests based on medical or religious objections.
The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) issued guidance stating that employees may be exempt from employer vaccination mandates under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 (Title VII) and other workplace laws.
Under the ADA, an employer can have a workplace policy that includes “a requirement that an individual shall not pose a direct threat to the health or safety of individuals in the workplace.”
If a vaccination requirement screens out a worker with a disability, however, the employer must show that unvaccinated employees would pose a “direct threat” due to a “significant risk of substantial harm to the health or safety of the individual or others that cannot be eliminated or reduced by reasonable accommodation.”
If an employee who cannot be vaccinated poses a direct threat to the workplace, the employer must consider whether a reasonable accommodation can be made, such as allowing the employee to work remotely or take a leave of absence.
Title VII requires an employer to accommodate an employee’s sincerely held religious belief, practice or observance, unless it would cause an undue hardship on the business. Courts have said that an “undue hardship” is created by an accommodation that has more than a “de minimis,” or very small, cost or burden on the employer.
The definition of religion is broad and protects religious beliefs and practices that may be unfamiliar to the employer. Therefore, the employer “should ordinarily assume that an employee’s request for religious accommodation is based on a sincerely held religious belief,” according to the EEOC.
Helene Hechtkopf, an attorney with Hoguet Newman Regal & Kenney in New York City, said an employer will need to evaluate the employee’s job functions, whether there is an alternative job that the employee could do that would make vaccination less critical and how important it is to the employer’s operations that the employee be vaccinated.
Employers that mandate vaccines will have more issues to consider beyond providing reasonable accommodations. For instance, can an employer be held liable if a worker has an adverse reaction to the vaccine?
A severe allergic reaction to the vaccination is possible but rare, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
“If an employer mandates vaccines, there is likely coverage for injury or illness under the employer’s workers’ compensation policy, but employers should check with their carriers,” Hechtkopf said. “If an employer merely encourages employees to obtain a vaccine, coverage under workers’ compensation policies may not be available.”
Employers must also be careful about collecting medical information. “If an employer requires employees to provide proof that they have received a COVID-19 vaccination from a pharmacy or their own healthcare provider, the employer cannot mandate that the employee provide any medical information as part of the proof,” according to the CDC.
Additionally, Helms noted, a number of states are contemplating legislation that would prohibit businesses from making the COVID-19 vaccination mandatory. So employers will have to monitor the rules in each applicable location.
Employers that plan to require employees to get a vaccine should develop a written policy, Hechtkopf said.
If a significant portion of the workforce refuses to comply with a vaccine mandate, the employer will be put in the very difficult position of either adhering to the mandate and terminating the employees or deviating from the mandate for certain employees, noted Brett Coburn, an attorney with Alston & Bird in Atlanta. This can increase the risk of discrimination claims.
“Rather than implementing mandates that could lead to such difficult decisions, employers may wish to focus on steps they can take to encourage and incentivize employees to get vaccinated,” he said. For example, employers may want to:
Regardless of whether the policy is for mandatory or voluntary vaccinations, Helms said, employers should communicate clearly and often with the workforce as to why the company believes that vaccinations are important and let employees know that other COVID-19 precautions remain in place.
Employers now have clarification that they will be able mandate the COVID-19 vaccine among their workers in certain circumstances without running afoul of key federal anti-discrimination laws, according to updated guidance issued Wednesday by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. While there are numerous issues to consider before mandating that your employees get vaccinated, this guidance is the first official pronouncement on the subject from the employment law watchdog agency and provides an outline of various hurdles to overcome. Here are the top seven takeaways for employers from this critical development.
1. The EEOC indicates that employers can require their workers to get a COVID-19 vaccine in certain circumstances, even under the Emergency Use Authorization.
The agency’s updated FAQs do not unequivocally state that “employers can require the vaccine.” However, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) repeatedly answers questions discussing what actions employers can take in response to various circumstances after an employer has mandated the vaccine. This approach plainly suggests there must be circumstances where employers are legally permitted to require vaccine immunization of their workers without violating the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), Title VII, and other federal anti-discrimination laws. According to the EEOC, this is true even though the COVID-19 vaccine is only authorized under the FDA’s Emergency Use Authorization (EUA), rather than approved under the full and comprehensive FDA vaccine licensure process, known as a Biologics License Application or “BLA.”
To be clear, the only scenario described by the EEOC as a permissible basis to mandate vaccination under the ADA is when a worker poses a “direct threat” to themselves or others by their physical presence in the workplace without being immunized. This means mandating vaccines is only permitted if workers would pose “significant risk of substantial harm to the health or safety of the individual or others that cannot be eliminated or reduced by reasonable accommodation.” Therefore, if an employee is capable of fully performing their current job duties remotely without the potential spread of the virus to co-workers or work-related third parties, it does not appear that you can require that they get vaccinated.
2. Employers that require the COVID-19 vaccine must consider reasonable accommodations for employees with disabilities.
Notably, simply because your company chooses to mandate vaccine usage for those workers who may pose a direct threat to themselves or others does not mean you have complete freedom to require the vaccine for all such workers. If an individual cannot be vaccinated because of a disability, you need to determine whether you can provide a reasonable accommodation (absent undue hardship) that would eliminate or reduce the safety risk. You cannot automatically exclude them from the workplace or take any other negative action against them.
First and foremost, the EEOC recommends that those managers responsible for communicating with your employees about compliance with your vaccination requirement should know how to recognize an employee’s accommodation request. You should also train your managers about the process they should follow to refer accommodation requests through the proper channels for consideration. While the EEOC’s guidance does not mention this, you should strongly consider providing details about the accommodation request procedure in writing to all of your employees (whether in hard copy, electronically, or both).
Next, the EEOC indicates you should engage in a flexible, interactive process with any employee requesting an accommodation to identify options that do not constitute an undue hardship (significant difficulty or expense). This process should include determining whether it is necessary to obtain supporting documentation about the employee’s disability and considering the possible options for accommodation given the nature of the workforce and the employee’s position. Some things you should consider include the prevalence in the workplace of employees who already have received a COVID-19 vaccination, the amount of involvement with customers, and the rate of vaccination in your community, as well as the amount of contact with others whose vaccination status could be unknown. You should consult your Fisher Phillips’ attorney in developing a medical inquiry for an employee’s doctor or a protocol for responding to requests for accommodation more generally.
Finally, the EEOC reminds employers that it is unlawful to disclose that an employee is receiving a reasonable accommodation, just as it is a violation of federal law to retaliate against an employee for requesting an accommodation. Likewise, you should not reveal which employees have or have not been vaccinated.
3. Similarly, employers need to consider reasonable accommodations for employees who are unable to receive the vaccine for religious reasons.
The EEOC says you must provide a reasonable accommodation if an employee’s sincerely held religious belief, practice, or observance prevents them from receiving the vaccination – unless it would pose an undue hardship under Title VII. The definition of “undue hardship” is slightly different in the religious context compared to the disability context, as courts have defined it as simply “having more than a de minimis cost or burden” on an employer.
While you should ordinarily assume that an employee’s request for religious accommodation is based on a sincerely held religious belief, you would be justified in requesting additional supporting information if you have an objective basis for questioning either the religious nature or the sincerity of a particular belief, practice, or observance. The key word here is “objective.” This is a delicate area of the law and you should not unilaterally contact the employee’s place or worship seeking proof about their level of belief, or engage in any conduct that could raise potential discrimination issues. We recommend consulting with an attorney before making such a request to any of your employees.
4. Employers can require employees to show proof that they received a COVID-19 vaccination.
Assuming you can demonstrate that a mandatory vaccine is appropriate and that no accommodation requirements are in play, the EEOC indicates you can require workers to prove they have received the COVID-19 vaccine. The EEOC says that simply requesting proof of receipt of the vaccination is not likely to elicit information about a disability and, therefore, is not a disability-related inquiry.
However, subsequent questions, such as asking why an individual did not receive a vaccination, may elicit information about a disability and would be subject to the pertinent ADA standard that disability-related inquiries be “job-related and consistent with business necessity.” For this reason, if you require employees to provide proof that they have received a COVID-19 vaccination from a pharmacy or their own healthcare provider, you may want to warn the employee not to provide any medical information as part of the proof in order to avoid implicating the ADA. If you do receive medical information along with proof of vaccination, you should store the medical information in a confidential medical file consistent with ADA requirements.
5. The administration of a COVID-19 vaccine is not a “medical examination” for purposes of the ADA.
The EEOC confirmed that the act of administering the COVID-19 vaccine is not an ADA “medical examination.” Therefore, if you (or a third party with whom you contract to administer the vaccine) simply administer the vaccine to an employee, the EEOC does not consider you to be seeking information about an individual’s impairments or current health status – but see the next point about questionnaires relating to giving the vaccine.
6. Employers can pose pre-screening vaccination questions, so long as they comply with ADA requirements.
The EEOC’s FAQs offered some direction for employers who want to ask pre-screening vaccination questions as they administer the inoculation. The first thing employers need to know is that pre-screening vaccination questions may implicate the ADA’s provision on disability-related inquiries (defined as any such inquiries likely to elicit information about a disability). Therefore, if you administer the vaccine, you must show that any pre-screening questions are job-related and consistent with business necessity. To meet this standard, the EEOC says, you need to have a reasonable belief, based on objective evidence, that an employee who does not answer the questions and, therefore, does not receive a vaccination, will pose a direct threat to the health or safety of themselves or others.
The EEOC does explain that there are two circumstances in which these screening questions can be asked without needing to satisfy the “job-related and consistent with business necessity” requirement. First, you can offer the vaccination to employees on a voluntary basis (i.e. employees choose whether to be vaccinated), which means the employee’s decision to answer pre-screening, disability-related questions would also be voluntary. If an employee chooses not to answer these questions, you may decline to administer the vaccine to them but may not retaliate against, intimidate, or threaten them for refusing to answer the questions.
Second, if an employee receives an employer-required vaccination from a third party with whom your organization does not have a contract (such as a pharmacy or other healthcare provider), the ADA “job-related and consistent with business necessity” restrictions on disability-related inquiries would not apply.
Finally, regardless of whether you meet the “job-related and consistent with business necessity” standard, the ADA requires you to keep any employee medical information obtained in the course of the vaccination program confidential. On a related note, the agency reminds employers that any pre-screening questions that ask about genetic information, such as family members’ medical histories or immune systems of family members, may violate the Genetic Information Nondiscrimination Act (GINA). As the EEOC explicitly says that “it is not yet clear what screening checklists for contraindications will be provided with COVID-19 vaccinations,” this is an issue that employers should be aware of as we move closer to vaccines being provided to members of the general population.
To avoid these complications, the EEOC says that employers who want to ensure that employees have been vaccinated may want to request proof of vaccination instead of administering the vaccine themselves. However, to steer clear of unintended GINA violations, you may still want to warn the employee not to provide genetic information as part of the proof. If this warning is provided, the EEOC says any genetic information you receive in response to your request for proof of vaccination will be considered inadvertent and, therefore, not a GINA violation.
7. Employees may be confused about their ability to “refuse” the vaccine as a result of the EUA.
We expect that some employees may believe they have the right the “refuse” the vaccine even if mandated by their employer. That’s because of language in the EEOC’s updated guidance about the EUA that may cause confusion.
The EEOC notes that, for any vaccine issued under an Emergency Use Authorization, the FDA (and the vaccination provider) has an obligation to inform vaccine recipients about its potential benefits and risks, the extent to which such benefits and risks are unknown, whether any alternative products are available, and “that they have the option to accept or refuse the vaccine.” This language comes from the federal statute governing the EUA.
The FDA’s website (cited by the EEOC) says that the option to refuse is typically included in a “fact sheet” provided to the individual receiving the vaccine (or, alternatively, the party administering the vaccine can direct the individual to the weblink to view the fact sheet online). That fact sheet for the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine can be found here, and it explicitly says that “the recipient or their caregiver has the option to accept or refuse [the] Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 Vaccine.”
This directive seems to be targeted at whether an individual can be forced to take the vaccine by a government entity (as a New York lawmaker recently suggested), not whether an employer can condition an individual’s continued employment on taking the vaccine. After all, in at-will employment settings, an employee can always pursue alternative employment if they do not want to get vaccinated as a condition of their current job. Note that this analysis may be different in unionized settings governed by a collective bargaining agreement. If you are working with a union, you should consult with your Fisher Phillips counsel before proceeding with any mandatory vaccination plan.
Although the EEOC seems to permit mandating vaccinations of employees in certain circumstances, most employers should consider encouraging rather than mandating vaccinations due to potential related risks. Whether you simply encourage or mandate vaccinations, you should be prepared with at least a policy framework and a communications plan as wider availability of the vaccine draws closer.
Article courtesy of Fisher Phillips
Throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has issued constantly changing guidance for employers that many view as complex, confusing, and impractical. In its perplexing web of guidelines, the CDC recommends that companies take several actions to protect workers from contracting COVID-19, like self-isolating sick employees, quarantining exposed employees, screening employees for symptoms prior to work, and installing partitions to protect public-facing employees.
Given their complexity, some of these directives are often not fully understood by companies. Further complicating matters, many of the recommendations have never been previously undertaken by employers, leading to misapplication. Worst of all, other guidelines are simply not feasible for some employers, leaving them with the tough decision of not following the CDC directive in order to stay in business.
Unfortunately, ignoring or misunderstanding these confusing guidelines, like the four commonly misinterpreted guidance listed below, could lead to legal risks for your company.
1. Returning Exposed Employees To Work Too Early After A Negative Test
Of the innumerable companies that have sought our assistance during the COVID-19 pandemic, the most common misunderstanding of CDC guidance we see involves returning to work employees who have been directly exposed to COVID-19 too early following a negative test. Employers falling under the CDC’s general business guidance (not critical infrastructure employers) should quarantine employees for 14 days since their last direct exposure to a confirmed or suspected COVID-19 case, defined as being within 6 feet of the infected person, for 15 minutes or more, within the 48 hours prior to the sick individual showing symptoms, until the infected person is released from self-isolation (“6-15-48”).
Critically, the 14-day quarantine period cannot be cut short by a negative test due to the lengthy incubation period of COVID-19. This is an often-misunderstood CDC guideline, which even the agency has recognized:
Note that recommendations for discontinuing isolation in persons known to be infected with SARS-CoV-2 could, in some circumstances, appear to conflict with recommendations on when to discontinue quarantine for persons known to have been exposed to SARS-CoV-2. CDC recommends 14 days of quarantine after exposure based on the time it takes to develop illness if infected. Thus, it is possible that a person known to be infected could leave isolation earlier than a person who is quarantined because of the possibility they are infected.
Thus, an exposed employee cannot return to work during the 14-day quarantine period following a negative COVID-19 test received on, for example, day three, seven, or 12 of that period. Returning exposed employees too early due to a negative test could lead to preventable COVID-19 infections if co-workers are exposed to individuals who should be quarantined and develop the virus after a negative test.
2. Miscalculating The Appropriate Quarantine Period For Those Exposed To An Infected Household Member
Along those same lines, employers often misunderstand CDC guidance when calculating the length of the quarantine period for a worker who has been exposed to an infected spouse or household member. The key here is that the 14-day quarantine period does not begin until the last day the employee was directly exposed, using the 6-15-48 analysis above, to the spouse or household member prior to the infected person being released from self-isolation. Thus, if the employee is directly exposed to the spouse or household member on days one through 10, the quarantine period does not begin until day 10.
Accordingly, the worker may ultimately miss 24 days of work, instead of 14, if directly exposed to the spouse or household member every day until the spouse is released from self-isolation. The CDC addresses this confusing guidance here, noting that the exposed employee should stay home until 14 days have elapsed after the last exposure.
3. Not Notifying Employees Of A Confirmed COVID-19 Case In Your Workplace
The Fisher Phillips COVID-19 litigation tracker has been following closely the number of lawsuits filed with COVID-19-related claims. The prevalence of claims relating to an employer’s failure to notify employees of a confirmed case of COVID-19 in the workplace is a troubling trend. Throughout the pandemic, transparency by employers has been a critical tool in maintaining positive employee morale. Failure to do so can lead to negative consequences, including not only lawsuits, but Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) complaints and employees refusing to work, as well.
Although it may not be clear to some employers, the CDC recommends not only informing directly exposed employees (6-15-48) of a confirmed COVID-19 case in the workplace, but also to inform other “employees of their possible exposure to COVID-19 in the workplace but maintain confidentiality as required by the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA).” The CDC defines “possible exposure” to COVID-19 as those who do not meet the 6-15-48 parameters. Thus, when a confirmed COVID-19 case occurs in your workplace, remember to inform those employees who worked near the infected worker (e.g., the same hallway, area, or corridor), even though they weren’t directly exposed.
4. Incorrectly Believing That Wearing Face Coverings Trumps The 6-15-48 Analysis
When analyzing whether an employee has been exposed to an infected co-worker, employers often misconstrue the impact of wearing face coverings to prevent the spread of the virus. Although the CDC recommends wearing masks to slow the spread of COVID-19, whether employees are wearing masks while directly exposed (6-15-48) to an infected person does not change that analysis. The determination of whether someone should be quarantined for 14 days does not change if the individuals at issue are wearing masks, another point of confusion specifically clarified by the CDC:
Note: This is irrespective of whether the person with COVID-19 or the contact was wearing a mask or whether the contact was wearing respiratory personal protective equipment (PPE).
To ensure the safety of your workers, remember to quarantine all employees who meet the 6-15-48 analysis, even if they were wearing a face covering while exposed.
Legal Risks For Not Following CDC Guidelines
Although CDC guidance is not a law or regulation, such guidelines can be construed by OSHA and the courts as the legal standard that defines what actions a company should take to protect its workers during this unprecedented time. In fact, the Assistant Secretary for the U.S. Department of Labor has already indicated that OSHA could rely upon the general duty clause, which the agency can enforce in the absence of a standard on point, to enforce the CDC’s guidelines for employers on COVID-19.
If your company fails to follow a CDC guideline, it could receive a citation under OSHA’s general duty clause and, if classified as willful (e.g., reckless disregard for, or deliberate indifference towards, employee safety), the maximum penalty for each citation would be $134,937. Keep in mind that state OSHA plans, not regulated by the federal government, can adopt emergency COVID-19 regulations, which have the same impact as any other OSHA regulation, and enforce those against employers who fail to comply with them. Virginia recently became the first state adopt such a regulation, which includes notification requirements that vary from those of the CDC.
Although it is an evolving area of the law, claimants’ counsel will argue to courts that the violation of a CDC guideline is evidence of negligence, willfulness, or intent on behalf of the employer. Plaintiffs’ counsel will assert that the CDC guideline has established the level of care or duty owed to an employee or other claimant, and that the duty was breached by the company.
This argument will be made regardless of the jurisdiction, venue, or type of claim, including workers’ compensation claims, claims filed directly by an employee seeking recovery above and beyond workers’ compensation benefits, and those filed by third-parties (e.g. visitors, employee spouses) against companies. To protect your company from such claims, remember to follow these steps to minimize your exposure.
Employers cannot permit employees to use PTO or other paid leave prior to using unpaid FMLA leave for an FMLA qualifying condition, according to a new Department of Labor Opinion Letter. The Opinion Letter also provides that employers cannot designate more than 12 weeks of leave per year as FMLA (or 26 weeks per year if leave qualifies as FMLA military caregiver leave).
Under the FMLA, covered employers must provide eligible employees up to 12 weeks of unpaid, job and benefit-protected leave per year for qualifying medical or family reasons (or up to 26 weeks per year for qualifying military caregiver leave). The Opinion Letter addresses the situation where an employee anticipates a leave of absence for an FMLA-qualifying reason and the employee wants to take off more than the 12 weeks allotted under the FMLA by using other available paid leave policies (such as vacation, sick pay, PTO, etc.) at their disposal. Under this scenario, the employee notifies the employer that he or she plans to exhaust an available paid leave policy first for an FMLA-qualifying reason, and then after that time has run out, he or she desires to take the 12 weeks of FMLA leave.
In “Alice in Wonderland,” the Queen of Hearts once proclaimed, “Why, sometimes I’ve believed as many as six impossible things before breakfast.” This appears to be the rallying cry of many plaintiffs across the country when they file administrative charges and lawsuits. They continue to name individual supervisors and human resources directors as individual defendants despite case law that generally holds individuals cannot be found liable under some of the most common federal employment discrimination laws: Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), and the Age Discrimination in Employment Act (ADEA).
Unfortunately, the clear language in case law supporting the dismissal of individuals has not prevented plaintiffs from bringing claims under these statutes. A federal court judge in Oregon recently outlined this costly and questionable practice in his dismissal opinion in a case involving Starbucks, stating:
[Plaintiff’s] attorneys regularly file suit in state court for violations of these [discrimination] statutes against individual employees, knowing that they likely will be defended and indemnified by the employer, for the ostensible purpose of educating and deterring them from unlawful behavior. This court fails to see any need to file a lawsuit to deter such unlawful behavior. Even if employees are not sued individually, their employer surely will take appropriate action to deter any future behavior. [Plaintiff’s] attorneys also admitted that as a matter of course they sue employees prior to engaging in discovery and obtaining any evidence as to how complicit the employees may have been in the alleged discrimination or retaliation. Instead, they appear to presume that any employee who questions the plaintiff’s work performance should be sued.
Being named in a lawsuit puts individuals in a terrible position of having to personally defend themselves. Even if they are able to eventually get dismissed from the complaint, they do not come out unscathed—they often get stuck paying defense costs and are usually subjected to the invasive discovery process.
This shotgun approach to employment litigation establishes that plaintiff take the Cheshire Cat’s words to heart, in pursuit of money: “If you don’t know where you are going, any road can take you there.”
Federal And State Laws That Permit Individual Liability
The frightening aspect of this trend is that those roads do sometimes lead plaintiffs to a place where they can recover from supervisors, managers, and HR directors. At the state level, New Jersey, New York, Massachusetts, Connecticut, Ohio, Oregon, Pennsylvania, and Washington are among the states that allow plaintiffs to bring claims against individuals under the theory that they “aided and abetted” discrimination or harassment. And California allows plaintiffs to bring claims against individuals for harassment. Likewise, many states allow plaintiffs to bring claims against individuals who “retaliate” against them for engaging in protected activity. These types of laws will continue to sweep across the country as the states that have enacted them are generally at the forefront of employee rights.
At the federal level, individuals are regularly found personally liable for violations of the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA), the Family Medical Leave Act (FMLA), Section 1981 of the Civil Rights Act, the Uniformed Services Employment and Reemployment Rights Act (USERRA), the Employee Retirement Income Security Act (ERISA), and the Immigration Reform and Control Act (IRCA).
For instance, a 2017 case out of the Eastern District of Pennsylvania recently held that an HR director may be individually liable for FMLA and wage violations. In Edelman v. Source Healthcare Analytics, LLC, the court determined that there is individual liability under the statute because it defines an “employer” to include “any person who acts, directly or indirectly, in the interest of an employer to any of the employees of such employer.” The court next found the HR director acted in the interest of the employer when she terminated plaintiff.
The court reasoned that the HR director is subject to personal liability under the FMLA because she exerted control over plaintiff’s specific leave and because she terminated her. Using this same reasoning, it appears that the court would have likely reached this same conclusion if it was a manager, or perhaps even a general counsel, who advised the plaintiff of her FMLA rights and subsequently terminated the plaintiff’s employment.
An even more recent case out of the Eastern District of Pennsylvania denied a defendant’s request to have a race discrimination claim against the individual supervisor dismissed. In a 2018 case against a trucking company, the plaintiff made four different attempts to sue a former supervisor. The fourth time was the charm, as the court recently concluded that the plaintiff pled the bare minimum for his race discrimination claim to survive against the supervisor under § 1981.
Interestingly, the only allegation relating to possible race-based discrimination was plaintiff’s allegation that the supervisor ordered him “to go home early” and “leave work until his next scheduled shift.” The supervisor allegedly made this demand upon learning about plaintiff’s report to another employee of disparate treatment between Caucasian and African-American employees.
This case should serve as a cautionary tale to all HR directors, managers, and supervisors as there were no other allegations of race-based discrimination against the individual supervisor. In fact, there were no allegations that the supervisor had any involvement in the decision to terminate the plaintiff. Further, there were no allegations that the supervisor played a role in the union’s investigation and hearing. The court simply concluded the supervisor’s decision to send the plaintiff home was enough to survive a motion to dismiss.
Managers, HR directors, and supervisors should heed the Queen of Hearts’ recommendations when considering what steps to take to protect themselves and their company: “It takes all the running you can do, to keep in the same place. If you want to get somewhere else, you must run at least twice as fast as that!”
To better protect yourself and the company, you should ensure your employee handbook accurately reflects the ever-changing laws related to protected classes and all forms of harassment. Second, you should schedule annual harassment and discrimination trainings with managers and non-managers. These trainings will act as a defense in the event of a discrimination or harassment lawsuit. Also, the trainings will put employees on notice that they may be personally liable for violations of both state and federal employment statutes.
Finally, there must be an emphasis, from the top down, to take responsibility for the company’s workplace culture. Remaining complacent exposes both companies and individuals to a disgruntled employee exclaiming “off with their heads!”
Article Courtesy of Fisher & Phillips