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Should Employers Rescind Their Mask Mandates? A Pros and Cons List to Consider Before Dropping Your Pandemic Policies

March 14 - Posted at 12:31 PM Tagged: , , , , , ,

As expected, state and local mask requirements continue to be lifted following the CDC’s loosening of its masking recommendations last month. As of today, only 10 states require masks – and many of those requirements apply only in certain limited settings, such as in the healthcare context, shelters, residential care facilities, and schools. The lifting of these governmental mask mandates raises the question of whether employers should continue to require masks in the workplace as a matter of internal policy. There’s no “one size fits all” answer to this question. Rather, each business should weigh the pros and cons of requiring masks in their workplace and decide what’s best for their particular locations and circumstances. 

What Does the Law Say?

Importantly, the CDC still recommends that masks be worn in places of high transmission. As of today, that covers only about 15% of the country and that number has been decreasing.  Employers who don’t follow the recommendations of the CDC (and applicable state and local health departments) do so at their own peril. That’s because OSHA or a state OSHA agency can – and often does – cite employers under the “General Duty Clause,” using the failure to follow recommended safety measures (i.e. CDC recommendations) as the basis for the alleged violation.

The General Duty Clause of the OSH Act broadly requires that employers provide a work environment that is “free from recognized hazards that are causing or are likely to cause death or serious physical harm.” This clause has served as OSHA’s COVID-19 workhorse, as the agency has not successfully issued new specific pandemic-related standards applicable to most employers but repeatedly cited employers under the General Duty Clause for failures related to masking.

While OSHA looks to CDC recommendations in issuing its own guidance documents for employers related to COVID-19 and workplace safety, it has not yet updated them to reflect the CDC’s recent relaxation of masking recommendations.

It is therefore prudent for employers to continue to require masks, regardless of vaccination status, in places of high transmission and to continue to track the CDC Date on Community Transmission Levels to make sure your workplaces are not in a place of high transmission. In places of “medium” or “low” transmission, the CDC does not currently recommend masks (except in areas designated as “medium,” where it recommends that those who are immunocompromised or at high risk for severe illness should confer with their doctor about whether to wear a mask). That means in these areas it is up for the employers to decide what to do.

Finally, before brainstorming about possible next steps, make sure you understand the lay of the land in your own state. 

Pros and Cons of Lifting Mask Requirements

Once you understand the lay of the land, you’re ready to consider the various pros and cons associated with removing mask requirements at your business.

Pros:

  • Many employees are ready to stop wearing masks and have begun doing so when not at work.
  • As other employers lift their mask mandates, not doing so could hurt efforts to attract and retain talent. In today’s competitive labor market, this is a particularly relevant concern.
  • Mask mandates are difficult to enforce, especially if the requirement is based on vaccination status.
  • Mask mandates may create resentment from and between employees, especially if based on vaccination status.

Cons:

  • As noted, it is prudent to keep masks in place at least in areas of high transmission. For national employers, this may mean different policies in different locations which can create logistical and communication issues.
  • Recognize that you could open yourself up to an OSHA inspection (which you can track here) or a General Duty Clause citation if you drop your mask mandate too quickly or in an inopportune setting.
  • While COVID-19 cases have been decreasing steadily, this was also the case in mid-2021. While we hope not to endure another dramatic spike in cases (reminiscent of the Delta and Omicron variants), one certainly could arise. So employers who lift their mask mandates need to accept the risk that they may have to reinstate them at some point (at least in some areas). As we’ve seen with stay-at-home recommendations, for example, putting the genie back in the bottle is not easy.
  • While not everyone agrees on the degree of protection, masks clearly help in preventing transmission of COVID-19. As such, not requiring masks increases the chances of employees getting the virus, which could place stress on your workforce (and, in some locations, require you to provide paid leave).

 

What Businesses and Employers Should Do as CDC Loosens COVID-19 Mask Guidelines

March 01 - Posted at 9:00 AM Tagged: , , , , , ,

As most states lift their mask mandates, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) announced Friday (2/25/22),  that the agency has adopted new metrics for determining whether to recommend face coverings – a shift that will result in most Americans no longer being advised to wear masks in indoor public settings. By moving away from looking solely at the number of COVID-19 cases in a given area but instead taking into account local hospitalizations and hospital capacity, the updated metrics will create room for businesses and employers to revisit their own approaches to masking policies. What should you know about these changes before making a decision for your organization?

What Changed?

The CDC’s previous guidelines recommended that fully vaccinated individuals residing in communities of substantial or “high” transmission wear a mask in indoor public settings. Given that the standards solely examined the positivity rate of COVID-19 cases in a community, roughly 95% of counties in the United States met the definition of substantial or high transmission.

The metrics used to determine whether to recommend masks will now take a more holistic view of the risk COVID-19 to a community. The number of COVID-19 cases will still but considered, but hospitalizations and local hospital capacity will also be taken into account. 

The CDC adopted “COVID-19 Community Levels” of “Low,” “Medium,” and “High” to help communities decide what recommendations and requirements to put in place. The CDC has provided a “COVID-19 County Check” tool to find the community level in a particular county and the prevention steps recommended for that county.

  • Under the updated guidance, only those living in areas of “High” COVID-19 community levels are encouraged to wear a mask indoors in public, regardless of vaccination status. As of the CDC’s announcement, only 37% of counties in the U.S. fall into this category.
  • In areas designated “Medium,” the CDC recommends that individuals who are immunocompromised or at high risk for severe illness should talk to their healthcare provider about whether to wear a mask or not. But all others in these areas – amounting to nearly 40% of U.S. counties – are no longer advised to wear a mask in these areas.
  • In areas designated “Low,” the CDC leaves the decision of whether to wear a mask or not up to each person individually, based on personal preference and personal level of risk. 23% of counties are currently classified at the low-risk level.

Given the highly transmissible but less severe nature of the omicron variant, masks will no longer be recommended for the vast majority of Americans, including those who remain unvaccinated.

What Should Employers and Businesses Do?          

The CDC’s new guidance provides important considerations for employers who have been considering rescinding their masking policies. Even though CDC guidance is not directly binding on employers, it is critically important. That’s because while OSHA has not yet expressly adopted the most recent CDC guidance, OSHA’s guidance repeatedly refers to CDC guidance.

Employers should review their local and state masking requirements and continue to comply with those requirements. For employers in areas where a mask mandate is no longer in place, they should review the CDC’s latest guidance and utilize the COVID-19 County Check tool to make an informed decision regarding their mask policy.   

Employers who lift their mask mandate should make sure that employees who continue to voluntarily wear a mask do not face illegal mistreatment at the hands of supervisors or coworkers. Make sure your employees know that retaliation, discrimination, and harassment will not be tolerated, and include this prohibition in written policies distributed to all workers.

Supreme Court Blocks Vaccine Mandate for Large Employers

January 13 - Posted at 4:02 PM Tagged: , , , , , ,
Today (1/13/2022), the Supreme Court blocked the Biden administration from enforcing its sweeping vaccine-or-test requirements for large private companies, but allowed similar requirements to stand for medical facilities that take Medicare or Medicaid payments.

The rulings came three days after the OSHA’s ETS measure took effect. While this comes as a huge relief to large employers, it doesn’t not mean employers (large or small) can let their safety procedures fall. As a reminder, under OSHA general duty clause employers must maintain a workplace “free from recognized hazards that are causing or likely to cause death or serious physical harm”. OSHA can and will continue to issue citations as deemed appropriate under the general duty clause. 

Please be sure to keep your COVID policy up to date, education employees on the steps they can take to protect themselves at work and home, and continue to follow CDC guidelines. 

You may still wish to determine the vaccine status of your staff. Having this information at your fingertips, will assist with safety planning, structuring work assignments and to be able to promptly conduct contact tracing and inform employees of their quarantine requirements. 

Please let us know if you have questions or need help building or updating your proactive COVID plan of action and policy.  

CDC’s New Shorter Quarantine Period is Welcome News for Those Who Got COVID for Christmas

December 28 - Posted at 7:41 AM Tagged: , , , , , ,

The CDC announced on December 27th that it is updating its quarantine and isolation guidance. For people with COVID-19, the isolation period was reduced from ten days to five days as long as the individual has no symptoms or their symptoms are resolving after five days. Importantly, the revised isolation guidance does not recommend an individual have a negative COVID-19 test before ending their isolation period after day 5.

For people who have been exposed through close contact with someone infected with COVID-19, whether an individual is recommended to quarantine is no longer dependent on vaccination status alone.  Rather, whether quarantine is recommended now also depends on whether an individual has received a booster and how long it has been since an individual completed their vaccination series.  For people who are unvaccinated or received their second mRNA dose (Pfizer or Moderna) more than 6 months ago or the J&J vaccine more than 2 months ago, and have not received a booster shot, the CDC now recommends quarantine for 5 days, followed by 5 days of masking. For people who have received their booster shot or who have recently completed their primary vaccine series, the CDC does not recommend such individuals quarantine following an exposure, but the CDC does recommend they wear a mask around others for 10 days.

The CDC also recommends that everyone who has been exposed to COVID-19, regardless of vaccination status, be tested on day 5 following the exposure if possible. Finally, everyone who either has COVID-19 or was exposed to someone with COVID-19 should wear a well-fitted mask for a full 10 days.

Employers should review their COVID-19 policies and protocols, communicate any changes to their employees and be prepared to answer employees’ questions. Employers are reminded to consider states and local health authorities which may have different guidelines.

Sixth Circuit Dissolves Stay of OSHA COVID-19 Vaccine ETS

December 20 - Posted at 10:41 AM Tagged: , , , , , , ,

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit has lifted the Fifth Circuit’s stay of the Occupational Safety and Health Administration’s (OSHA) Emergency Temporary Standard (ETS) on COVID-19 vaccination and testing for employers with at least 100 employees. 

Multiple parties, including 27 states, have filed emergency motions with the U.S. Supreme Court to block the ETS.

In an opinion authored by Judge Jane B. Stanch, a three-judge panel determined in a 2-1 vote that, in light of the continued spread of COVID-19 variants, OSHA “must be able to respond to dangers as they evolve.” Judge Stanch was appointed to the bench by President Barack Obama. She was joined by Judge Julia Smith Gibbons, an appointee of President George W. Bush. Judge Joan Larsen, an appointee of President Donald Trump, dissented, noting employees are exposed to COVID-19 even while not working and OSHA had not established there was “grave danger” in the workplace or the ETS requirements would correct that.

OSHA quickly announced that it will not issue citations for noncompliance before January 10, 2022. The agency also stated it will exercise its discretion and not issue citations for noncompliance with testing requirements under the ETS before February 9, 2022, if an employer is exercising reasonable, good faith efforts to come into compliance with the standard.

The ETS includes face covering requirements, a written policy, collection of proof of vaccination, creation of a vaccination status roster, removal of COVID-19 positive or untested employees from the workplace, maintenance of employee medical records, and certain employee communications about the employer’s policies and vaccine information from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Covered employers will need to decide whether to adopt a mandatory vaccination policy, subject to reasonable accommodations and required exemptions, or a vaccination or weekly test policy. Covered employers implementing a mandatory vaccination plan still must comply with all other requirements, such as weekly testing for employees who are excused from the mandate as a reasonable accommodation.

None of the 22 approved State Plans covering private employers have taken steps to enact an ETS, but they are required to notify OSHA of their intentions to do so within 15 days of promulgation of the standard, and to act within 30 days. In addition, California’s Cal/OSHA has approved revisions to the state’s existing COVID-19 emergency temporary standard. It is unclear whether it will take further action now with respect to the OSHA ETS. It is also unclear whether the Fifth Circuit stay that was in effect until December 17 tolls the deadlines for OSHA State plan adoption deadlines. The ETS has immediate effect in the other 29 states and territories, albeit with the new enforcement delays.

Employers in states and localities that prohibit or restrict vaccination or face covering requirements must be mindful of state and local laws, ordinances, and executive orders that might limit the employer’s ability to require vaccination or otherwise conflict with ETS requirements, particularly if an employer opts for the ETS’s mandatory vaccination policy. While the Sixth Circuit lifted the stay, it has yet to decide the case on the merits, including arguments over whether the ETS overrides state or local laws due to federal preemption. Significantly, Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, Iowa, Kansas, Montana, North Dakota, Tennessee, Texas, Utah, and West Virginia have enacted measures that would restrict or impact vaccination requirements. Some of these states are OSHA State Plans and some are actually federal OSHA jurisdictions, creating additional compliance confusion.

Several petitioners have already appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court to stay enforcement of the ETS, emphasizing the irreparable harm they will suffer in having to implement the ETS and providing supporting witness declarations. They continue to argue irreparable harm based on labor shortages, the unavailability of tests and unintended (and ironic) consequences of laying off vaccinated workers to financially support compliance. In addition to the challengers’ concerns about the economic viability of their businesses, they argue their likelihood of success in enjoining the standard on the merits and balance of equities weigh in favor of a stay.

Emergency appeals, such as the request for a stay of a ruling by a Circuit Court, go directly to a justice assigned to that Circuit — in this case, to Justice Brett Kavanaugh, who is assigned to the Sixth Circuit. The assigned justice may distribute the application to the full court to consider or decide the request on their own. Just a few months ago, Justice Amy Coney Barrett rejected an emergency request made by a group of Indiana University students seeking to block enforcement of the school’s vaccine mandate after the Seventh Circuit refused to enjoin the mandate. Justice Barrett did not refer the emergency application to the full Supreme Court and did not provide an explanation in the denial of the petitioners’ request.

If you have questions or need assistance on the OSHA ETS, please reach out to AAG for guidance. 

Same Old Situation for Employers? Top 10 Takeaways as OSHA Updates COVID-19 Workplace Guidance

August 16 - Posted at 2:22 PM Tagged: , , , , , , ,

In response to the surge of delta variant cases across the country, federal workplace safety officials just issued updated guidance to help employers and workers identify current COVID-19 risks for unvaccinated or otherwise at-risk workers – making many employers feel like they are in the same ol’ situation they were in just a few months ago. The Occupational Safety and Health Administration’s (OSHA’s) updated guidance, released on August 13, revises its June 2021 guidance applicable to those not covered by OSHA’s COVID-19 Emergency Temporary Standard (ETS) for healthcare workplaces and adheres to updated Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) coronavirus guidance issued last month. What are the top 10 takeaways employers need to know about with respect to OSHA’s most recent guidance?

OSHA’s Updated Recommendations

As most are aware by now, the CDC updated its recommendations for fully vaccinated individuals to reduce their risk of becoming infected with the delta variant and potentially spreading it to others. The CDC’s guidance addresses mask wearing in public indoor settings; choosing to wear masks regardless of the potential level of transmission (particularly if individuals are at risk or have someone in their household who is at increased risk of severe disease or not fully vaccinated); and revised testing recommendations for known exposures.

In its revised guidance, OSHA has essentially adopted analogous recommendations for employers. To follow this guidance, you should implement multi-layered interventions to protect unvaccinated and otherwise at-risk workers and mitigate the spread of COVID-19. In light of OSHA’s recent guidance, it is clear the agency is focused at facilitating higher vaccination rates via imposing new standards on employers.

Top 10 Employer Takeaways

Here are the top 10 takeaways from OSHA’s new guidance.

      1. Employers should implement methods to facilitate and encourage employee vaccination. OSHA recommends providing employees with paid time off to get vaccinated and paid time off to recover from any ill side effects of the vaccine. Employers are also encouraged to work with local public health authorities to provide vaccinations in the workplace for unvaccinated workers. Finally, OSHA suggests employers consider adopting policies requiring workers to get vaccinated or undergo regular COVID-19 testing – in addition to mask wearing and physical distancing – if they remain unvaccinated.
      2. Employers should instruct infected workers, unvaccinated workers who have had close contact with a positive COVID-19 case, and all workers with COVID-19 symptoms to stay home from work. As recommended by the CDC, fully vaccinated individuals who have a known COVID-19 exposure should get tested three to five days after the exposure event and wear a mask in public indoor settings for 14 days (or until they receive a negative test result). Individuals who are not fully vaccinated should be tested immediately, and if negative, tested again in five to seven days after their last exposure (or immediately if symptoms develop). OSHA expects all absentee policies to be non-punitive and that employers will promptly eliminate policies that might encourage workers to come to work sick.
      3. Employers should implement physical distancing in all common areas where unvaccinated and otherwise at-risk workers may be present. OSHA believes a “key way” to protect workers is to require physical distancing in the workplace – generally this means at least six feet. However, as workplace conditions may require employees to work close to one another and/or customers for extended periods of time, employers may consider limiting the number of unvaccinated or otherwise at-risk employees in one place at any given time. For example, employers might implement flexible schedules, allow remote/telework, rotate/stagger shifts, deliver services remotely (e.g., phone, video, or web), etc.

        At sites where unvaccinated or otherwise at-risk workers cannot physically distance, transparent shields (or other like barriers) may be considered. These types of barriers should block face-to-face pathways between individuals to prevent direct transmission of respiratory droplets. Any openings should be placed at the bottom, made as small as possible, and the height should consider the employee’s posture while working (i.e., sitting or standing). Ventilation, fire safety, and other safety considerations should be incorporated when designing and installing barriers.

      4. Unless their work task requires a respirator or other PPE, employers should provide workers no-cost face coverings or surgical masks as appropriate. OSHA’s guidance mirrors that of the CDC by recommending even fully vaccinated individuals wear masks in public indoor settings, noting that fully vaccinated people may desire to wear masks in public indoor settings regardless of community level of transmission. OSHA reiterates that workers should wear a face covering that covers both the nose and mouth to contain the wearer’s respiratory droplets and to help protect others and potentially themselves.

        Face coverings should be made of at least two layers of a tightly woven breathable fabric, such as cotton, and should not have exhalation valves or vents. They should fit snugly over the nose, mouth, and chin with no large gaps on the outside of the face. Workers who are outdoors may opt not to wear face coverings unless they are at risk. Regardless, employers should support employees who continue to wear a face covering, especially when working closely with others. If an employer determines PPE is necessary to protect unvaccinated and otherwise at-risk workers from exposure to COVID-19, the employer must provide PPE per the relevant OSHA PPE standards.

      5. Employers should educate and train workers on their COVID-19 policies and procedures using accessible formats and in languages they understand. Employers should train managers on how to implement their COVID-19 policies. These policies should be communicated clearly, frequently, and using multiple methods to promote a safe and healthy workplace. OSHA suggests that communications should be in plain language that unvaccinated and otherwise at-risk workers understand (including non-English languages, and American Sign Language or other accessible communication methods, if applicable) and in a manner accessible to individuals with disabilities. 

        Training should include basic facts about COVID-19, including how it is spread and the importance of physical distancing (including remote work), ventilation, vaccination, use of face coverings, hand hygiene, and workplace policies and procedures to protect workers from COVID-19 hazards. In addition, employers should implement a means of tracking which (and when) workers receive this information.

      6. Employers should suggest or require unvaccinated customers, visitors, or guests to wear face coverings in public-facing workplaces, such as retail establishments. All customers, visitors, or guests should wear face coverings in public, indoor settings in areas of substantial or high transmission. This could include posting a notice or otherwise suggesting or requiring individuals wear face coverings, even if no longer required by your jurisdiction.

      7. Employers should maintain workplace ventilation systems. As COVID-19 spreads more easily indoors, improving and maintaining ventilation systems is a key engineering control. Such a maintenance program can be used as part of a layered strategy to reduce the concentration of viral particles in indoor air (and consequently reduce the risk of transmission to unvaccinated and otherwise at-risk workers in particular). A well-maintained ventilation system is essential in any indoor workplace setting, and when working properly, ventilation is a primary control measure to limit the spread of COVID-19.

        Specific recommendations can be located within the American Society of Heating, Refrigerating and Air-Conditioning Engineers (ASHRAE) Guidance for Building Operations and Industrial Settings during the COVID-19 Pandemic. Key measures include ensuring HVAC systems are operating in accordance with the manufacturer’s specifications, conducting regularly scheduled inspections and maintenance, maximizing the amount of outside air supplied, installing air filters with a Minimum Efficiency Reporting Value (MERV) 13 or higher where feasible. Buildings without HVAC systems should maximize natural ventilation by opening windows or doors, when conditions allow (if that does not pose a safety risk) and consider using portable air cleaners with High Efficiency Particulate Air (HEPA) filters in spaces with high occupancy or limited ventilation.

      8. Employers should perform routine cleaning and disinfection. This is especially important if someone who has been in the facility within 24 hours is suspected of having COVID-19 or is a confirmed COVID-19 case. In those situations, OSHA recommends following the CDC’s cleaning and disinfection recommendations.

      9. Employers must record and report workplace COVID-19 infections and deaths: Under OSHA’s recordkeeping standard, employers are required to record work-related cases of COVID-19 illness on OSHA’s Form 300 logs if the following requirements are met: (1) the case is a confirmed case of COVID-19; (2) the case is work-related; and (3) the case involves one or more relevant recording criteria (e.g., medical treatment, days away from work). Likewise, employers must follow the requirements when reporting work-related COVID-19 fatalities and hospitalizations.

      10. Employers should implement protections from retaliation and set up anonymous methods for workers to raise concerns about COVID-19-related hazards. Employers should ensure workers know whom to contact with questions and/or concerns about workplace safety and health, and that there are prohibitions against retaliation for raising workplace safety and health concerns or engaging in other protected occupational safety and health activities. This could be accomplished by using an employee hotline or other method for workers to voice concerns anonymously.

Conclusion

The guidance also reminds employers to follow all other applicable mandatory OSHA standards. These mandatory OSHA standards include requirements for PPE, respiratory protection, sanitation, protection from bloodborne pathogens, and OSHA’s requirements for employee access to medical and exposure records.

CDC Reverses Course and Recommends Fully Vaccinated Individuals in “Substantial” and “High” Transmission Areas Continue to Wear Masks

July 28 - Posted at 11:30 AM Tagged: , , , , , , ,

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) announced yesterday that the agency now recommends that people in areas with “substantial” and “high” COVID-19 transmission should wear masks indoors, regardless of vaccination status. This announcement reverses the CDC’s May 13 guidance that vaccinated people do not have to wear masks in non-healthcare settings. The updated guidance comes on the heels of what some call the third (or fourth) surge of COVID-19 infections due to the highly transmissible Delta variant, which CDC Director Dr. Rochelle Walensky indicated behaves “uniquely differently” from prior virus strains. While Director Walensky stressed that the vast majority of severe illness and death is among unvaccinated people, she also indicated data shows breakthrough infections can happen in 1 out of 10 vaccinated individuals in a “substantial” or “high” transmission area.  So what does this mean for employers and your masking policies?

What Has Changed and Why?

The announcement reverses the CDC’s May 13 guidance that vaccinated people do not have to wear masks in non-healthcare settings. Since then, new data shows the Delta variant is more transmissible than earlier strains of COVID-19, with those infected with the Delta variant carrying the same viral load as unvaccinated individuals with COVID-19.

Indeed, the CDC indicates while most COVID-19 transmission occurs in unvaccinated people, the amount of the virus in breakthrough infections caused by the Delta variant (e.g., viral load) is comparable to unvaccinated infections. This led the CDC to conclude that – although rare – breakthrough infections of vaccinated individuals have the same potential level of transmissibility as unvaccinated persons. Accordingly, the agency urged communities with substantial and high transmission rates to enforce masking guidelines to prevent the spread of COVID-19.

What About OSHA’s Emergency Temporary Standard?

Last month, OSHA issued its Emergency Temporary Standard (ETS), which gave wide latitude to most employers on their masking policies for vaccinated workers. OSHA provided that, except for workplace settings covered by the agency’s healthcare ETS and the remaining mask requirements for public transportation settings, most employers no longer need to take steps to protect their workers from COVID-19 exposure in any workplace, or well-defined portions of a workplace, where all employees are fully vaccinated. 

Yesterday’s CDC guidance could change that, particularly in areas with substantial and high transmission. That’s because the OSHA ETS specifically cited to the CDC’s May 13 guidance on masks as a factor to justify many of its recommendations.

According to the CDC, “high” transmission equals more than 100 cases per 100,000 people over a seven-day period, while “substantial” transmission equals 50-100 cases per 100,000 people over a seven-day period. The CDC recommended using its COVID-19 data tracker, which is updated daily by state and county. Much of the nation is currently in a substantial or high transmission category.  

Of course, employers should still take measures to protect unvaccinated or otherwise at-risk workers in their workplaces, or well-defined portions of workplaces, but many may need to implement masks for fully vaccinated workers in specific communities. 

What Should Employers Do?

The CDC’s new guidance provides important considerations for employers who may be thinking about implementing or rescinding masking policies. Even though CDC guidance is not directly binding  on employers, it is critically important. This is because OSHA’s guidance repeatedly refers to CDC guidance and clearly emphasizes the protection of people who are unvaccinated or otherwise at risk, which is the focal point of the CDC’s updated guidance.

If you have locations in areas which do not meet the criteria for “high” or “substantial” transmission, no immediate action is necessary. But it may still be prudent to have a plan in place to address how your company will adjust its masking policies if necessary. You should also consider state and local laws before making any changes to masking policies, given that states, such as Arkansas, have passed legislation barring entities (local governments) from imposing mask mandates.

If you are encouraging or mandating vaccines, you should also be prepared to address employee concerns over vaccination policies. This is especially true given the CDC’s position that infections are possible in vaccinated individuals and that those individuals may transmit the virus to others at a greater rate than previously understood. 

CDC Issues New Back-to-School Guidance with Emphasis on In-Person Learning

July 20 - Posted at 12:55 PM Tagged: , , , , ,

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) just substantially relaxed its pandemic guidance for K-12 schools. While certain restrictions remain and the guidance may continue to evolve in the coming months, especially if the COVID-19 vaccine becomes available for younger children, this new guidance provides schools with more information as they plan for the 2021-2022 school year. What do you need to know about this July 9th update?

What Has Changed?

The new CDC guidance has three important changes. First, it clarifies that fully vaccinated employees, staff, and students do not need to wear masks or facial coverings when indoors. Also, masks are not recommended for outdoor use unless your school is in an area of “substantial to high transmission,” and individuals are in crowded settings or engaging in activities that involve “sustained close contact” with others who are not fully vaccinated.

Second, the CDC’s guidance has a strong emphasis on full re-opening with in-person learning, regardless of whether all the prevention strategies can be implemented at your school. For example, the new guidance continues to recommend that students be spaced at least three feet apart, but with a new caveat: If maintaining physical distancing would prevent schools from fully reopening for in-person learning, schools could instead rely on a combination of other strategies like masking, testing, and improved ventilation.

Finally, the CDC strongly urges schools to promote vaccination among eligible students as well as teachers, staff, and household members, which it describes as “one of the most critical strategies to help schools safely resume full operations.”

What Has Not Changed?

The CDC continues to recommend prevention strategies, such as:

  • consistent and correct mask use where appropriate, particularly for unvaccinated individuals;
  • screening testing;
  • enhanced ventilation;
  • promoting handwashing and respiratory etiquette;
  • staying home when sick and getting tested;
  • contact tracing in combination with isolation and quarantine; and
  • frequent cleaning and disinfection.

What Do These Changes Mean for Schools?

Of course, children under 12 are not yet eligible for vaccination so elementary students and some middle school students will need to continue to wear masks indoors. Even for students ages 12 and older, schools wanting to go mask-less will have to determine the best way to go about it. Because the masking guidance only applies to fully vaccinated individuals, your school may have an inconsistent patchwork of some employees and students wearing masks while others are not. These inconsistencies may be disruptive, difficult to enforce, and may unintentionally single out those who do not get the vaccine, including for medical or religious reasons.

The CDC seems to be encouraging schools to collect information on vaccine status before allowing employees and students to go mask-less inside. The CDC guidance includes a description of times when school administrators may want to require the universal wearing of masks and this includes when the school lacks a system to monitor the vaccine status of employees and students or if there is difficulty monitoring and enforcing mask policies that are not universal. Therefore, in states where there is no local restriction, discussed more below, schools that want to allow vaccinated employees and students to go mask-less should implement a process to collect information on vaccination status, track that information, and use it to inform their masking and distancing practices.

Local Laws

All schools also have to consider local and state law implications before implementing new policies on vaccinations and masks. For example, Florida private businesses, including schools, are free to establish their own mask policies. However, under the so-called vaccine passport law, Florida schools are prohibited from requiring vaccination documentation for students and parents to enter the campus or receive a service from the school. Nothing in the law prohibits schools from asking that parents and students provide proof of vaccination on a voluntary basis if they want to be mask-less on campus. Some Florida schools, however, are choosing to simply rely on parents’ and students’ representations that they are vaccinated or to ask them to sign an attestation certifying that they have been fully vaccinated because schools are not comfortable asking families for documentary proof of vaccination.

In Texas, meanwhile, while Governor Greg Abbott issued an executive order prohibiting the use of masks in public schools, private schools are also free to implement masking policies at their own discretion. Texas private schools should consider seeking proof of vaccination if they intend to allow vaccinated students and employees to go mask-less. Keep in mind, however, that the Texas legislature passed a bill prohibiting private schools from requiring students be vaccinated. Therefore, requiring vaccinations of all age-appropriate students is not a solution to the inevitable monitoring and enforcement challenges associated with a partially masked student body.

Finally, despite the CDC guidance, California currently still requires students and faculty to wear masks in indoor settings regardless of vaccination status. Schools should expect more guidance from the California Department of Public Health in the next several days.

Conclusion

As schools prepare for the new normal, you should keep up to date with the rapidly changing developments at the federal, state and local level. We will continue to monitor the developing COVID-19 situation and provide updates as appropriate. 

The Feds Are Coming, Is Your Business Ready? Part 3: OSHA

June 21 - Posted at 8:38 AM Tagged: , , , ,

Recent CDC recommendations on masking has caused confusion for employers everywhere.  Guidance advises that those vaccinated could resume many of their normal routines without wearing a mask.  However, the CDC doesn’t govern employers or fine them for non-compliance, OSHA does. As a result, employers are left wondering if they lift their facemask requirements or not.

The most recent information from U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) from January 29th stated that employers should not distinguish between vaccinated and unvaccinated employees.  But doesn’t that contradict what the CDC released in their newest guidance? OSHA did acknowledge the CDC guidelines mid-May, but has not yet specifically advised employers on what to do.  Companies are working around these guidelines (and lack thereof) to build policies that are most fitting to their level of exposure and potential liability. 

In addition to updating mask guidance, you can look for other changes from OSHA.  President Biden nominated Doug Parker to lead OSHA.  Parker currently heads California’s OSHA division (Cal/OSHA).  While his tenure at Cal/OSHA has been brief, his time there strongly suggests the potential for new federal standards and increased enforcement.  Cal/OSHA standards are complex and more stringent than Federal OSHA and provide standards that have no federal counterpart.  They laid the groundwork for many standards that have yet to be enacted at the federal level.  The aerosol transmissible diseases (ATD) standard may be a preview of a federal workplace infectious disease standard, especially in the wake of COVID.  That standard has already sparked a National Emphasis Program and an imminent federal emergency temporary standard (which Parker said would stand up to legal challenges during his confirmation hearing).  

How much of a California flare will he bring to the federal agency and what should you expect as an employer? 

Common consensus is that employers can expect increased enforcement under the Biden administration… more inspections, more citations, less negotiating and more litigating.  The new administration has made it clear they intend to double the number of investigators.  It is not a matter of if, but when, employers will see an uptick in OSHA inspectors knocking on doors.

When OSHA does arrive, it is important for you to have your compliance playbooks at the ready.  You can prepare now, regardless of the current regulatory and enforcement landscape, to better protect your workforce.   

As The Employer Advocate, AAG is happy to work with you to discuss your facemask options, areas to consider before you change your existing policy as well as when an outbreak or complication from a vaccine may be OSHA recordable.

Part 3 of Myra’s Minutes- OSHA

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Business owners and HR professionals alike say that it’s nearly impossible to keep up with all the changes, but as the Employer Advocate, we’re here to help. AAG has compiled a series of informative videos and articles to help your business navigate the upcoming changes.

This episode covers conflicting CDC & OSHA unmasking guidance as well a preview of what employers can expect from OSHA once the new chief Douglas Parker is confirmed.

Check out Part 3 of our 4 part series of Myra’s Minutes 
here!
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