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You may recall the Seinfeld episode where Elaine Benes consumes a $29,000 piece of cake from the 1937 wedding of the Duke and Duchess of Windsor. A birthday cake from an office party in Kentucky may have that pricey wedding slice beat. If you haven’t heard already, a Kentucky jury just served an employer with a $450,000 bill associated with a surprise office birthday party gone awry. Does this massive legal loss spell the end of office birthday parties as we know them? Thankfully, no. Despite the media attention the April 15th verdict has garnered, it had less to do with the fact that the employer threw a surprise party than with how it handled the situation – and particularly the fallout. All kidding aside, this case has important reminders for employers about how you should handle disabilities in the workplace – and you can easily avoid a similar fate by following some commonsense steps.
The Worst Birthday Party Ever?
This case stemmed from a surprise birthday party thrown by Gravity Diagnostics LLC for lab worker Kevin Berling. According to his lawsuit, Berling suffered from an anxiety disorder and specifically asked his office manager not to celebrate his birthday party in the office. Coincidentally, the office manager was out of the office on Berling’s big day and his co-workers decided to plan him a surprise birthday celebration. When Berling caught wind of it, he alleged that he suffered a panic attack and spent his lunch period hiding out in his car.
But it’s what happened next that was particularly damning for the employer. According to Berling, his managers subsequently called him into a meeting and scolded and belittled him for his reaction. In fact, according to media reports, Berling said he was accused of “stealing his co-workers’ joy.
This in turn led him to suffer another panic attack where he used methods such as clenching his fists to deescalate the situation. According to the lawsuit, his behavior alarmed the employer, who feared Berling might respond violently. He says they asked him to immediately leave the property. He alleged that the company terminated him several days later.
Berling sued his ex-employer for disability discrimination and by the time the case went to the jury the only claim to decide was whether Gravity Diagnostics reasonably failed to reasonably accommodate his disability. After deliberating for merely one and one-half hours, the jury awarded Berling $450,000 – which consisted of $120,000 in lost wages and benefits, $30,000 in future lost earnings, and $300,000 for pain and suffering, mental anguish, embarrassment, humiliation, mortification, and loss of self-esteem. At some point in the near future, the court will tack on reasonable attorneys’ fees and costs, which could considerably increase the final tally that Gravity has to pony up to Berling.
All in all, that’s a costly payout for a birthday cake and some decorations.
What Can You Do to Avoid a Similar Fate?
What went so wrong with this seemingly joyous occasion? The alleged facts of the case offer some simple steps for employers to take to avoid a similar fate:
There was some dispute in this case about whether Berling had explicitly informed his employer about his anxiety order. Regardless of what happened here, it’s a good reminder to be attuned to your employees that may have disabilities and are seeking reasonable accommodations – even if not specifically couched in those terms.
If an employee is expressing significant unease with an office social function, they may very well be signaling that they suffer from some form of disability such as an anxiety disorder. A request not to throw a party or to not participate in a similar workplace function could be construed by a court as a request for a reasonable accommodation if the employee ties such request to something that is health related. At a minimum, you should be aware that issues such as this could trigger your obligation to engage in an interactive process to discuss this issue further with your employees.
While many employees are excited about returning to the office, seeing co-workers again, and getting back into the swing of social interactions at work, you should be aware that this may not be the universal sentiment for all employees. In the post-pandemic world, many employees may still be cautious or even fearful about such social interactions – especially those who may be immunocompromised or live with vulnerable family members.
As much as you may want to promote employee engagement and interaction, you should realize we are in a new era. Some employees may simply choose to be more cautious while interacting with others. After the trauma of the last two years, in fact, some employees may find that this discomfort rises to the level of an anxiety disorder or similar disability.
You should train your employees – especially HR folks and front-line supervisors and managers – to be attentive to such issues. They should know the specific steps to take in response to requests for reasonable accommodations and handling potential disabilities. The outcome in this case may very well have been avoided had the employer provided good training to the office manager and other employees about how to respond in such situations. Leaving employees to navigate these issues on their own and figure things out “on the fly” is almost always a recipe for disaster.
Before taking any adverse action against a worker, you should consider working with appropriate staff to look into whether there have been performance issues, disabilities, or any mitigating circumstances before making a final decision to discipline an employee. This process should be well-documented and consistent across the board.
In this case, the company alleged that it was concerned about violent behavior by Berling and acted on its “zero tolerance” policy towards workplace violence in making the decision to discharge him.
Depending on the circumstances, removing an employee from the workplace may be the right call from a workplace violence prevention standpoint. If an employee makes a threat or commits an act of violence, termination may simply be the best course of action. When an employee has not made a direct threat but you have witnessed behavior that may suggest the employee could be violent, you may want to remove the employee from the workplace until you can more carefully evaluate what you observed and make an informed decision concerning continued employment. This would include following up by asking the right questions, investigating, and figuring out what was happening with the employee in the specific situation. In some cases, a “cooling off” period of paid leave might be worth considering to assess the situation further and determine the appropriate course of action – rather than immediately making the decision to terminate without having all the facts.
Cases such as this generate a lot of attention and buzz due to their novelty. The facts of this case may certainly be unique. But cases like this are a good reminder for all employers to take a step back and contemplate how you would have handled a similar situation, and what you would have done differently. Keeping the points above in mind may help you avoid a similar outcome and ending up with egg (or birthday cake) on your face.
This flexibility allows employers whose workforce is working remotely to defer the physical presence requirements associated with the Employment Eligibility Verification (Form I-9) and section 274A of the Immigration and Nationality Act. The policy initially applied only to employers and workplaces that were working entirely remotely. However, the policy was expanded to cover all employers who hire employees on or after April 1, 2021 to exclusively work remotely due to the employer’s COVID-19 policy. In these cases, the in-person inspection requirement relating to Form I-9 identity and employment eligibility documentation applies only to employees who physically report to work at a company location on any “regular, consistent, or predictable basis.”
The temporary guidance continues to provide the following:
Employers that have gathering bans or restrictions due to COVID-19 are not required to perform an in-person review of the employee’s identity and employment authorization documents. Instead, employers may inspect the employee’s “Section 2” I-9 documents remotely, using “video link, fax or email, etc.” Employers must obtain, inspect and retain copies of the documents within 3 business days, and provide written documentation of their remote onboarding and remote work policy on the employee’s Form I-9. Once normal operations resume, employers must conduct an in-person verification of any documents presented by employees who were onboarded remotely, within 3 days of a return to the work location.
Although DHS has signaled a willingness to permanently adopt remote document examination for I-9 eligibility verification, to date, no permanent changes have been made. Accordingly, employers are encouraged to begin, at their discretion, the in-person verification of identity and employment eligibility documentation for employees who were hired on or after March 20, 2020, and who presented such documents for remote inspection in reliance on the flexibilities first announced in March 2020.
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?
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.
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.
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.
In fulfillment of President Biden’s promise to make at-home COVID tests more available for all of us, two significant action steps have now occurred:
All group health plans and insurance carriers must now cover the cost of at-home COVID-19 test kits, passing none of that cost to employees or individuals covered under the plan, and without requiring a medical diagnosis or prescription from a health care provider.
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.
The nation’s highest Court has announced it will step in and rule whether the Biden administration’s aggressive workplace vaccine strategy – including a mandate-or-test rule for larger employers and a strict mandate for certain healthcare organizations – should be temporarily blocked or are permitted to move forward as planned. In a pair of brief orders issued on Dec 22nd, the Supreme Court accepted review of the challenges to both OSHA’s ETS and CMS’s healthcare mandate and announced that oral argument will be held for both cases on January 7th. So what should you be doing in the meantime? Here is a review of what has happened, along with a five-step survival guides for employers subject to either the OSHA ETS or the CMS mandate.
Brief Overview and Recap
There are two rules at play here: a general ETS issued by OSHA that covers employers with over 100 workers and the CMS’s Healthcare Mandate which is specific to the healthcare industry. Whereas OSHA’s general ETS provides an option for employers to test employees for COVID-19 at least weekly in lieu of mandating the vaccine, the CMS mandate does not allow for a testing option and requires a vaccination policy.
General OSHA ETS
After workplace safety officials at the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) unveiled the mandate-or-test ETS on November 4, many groups opposing the rule filed actions in several federal courts to block the rule. The conservative Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals was the first to act by issuing a temporary “stay” that preliminarily blocked the ETS. This was followed by a November 12 extension of that stay which ordered OSHA to take no steps to implement or enforce the ETS.
But the Judicial Panel of Multidistrict Litigation announced on November 16 that it would consolidate all of the legal challenges and send them to the conservative Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals to decide the outcome of the rule. Then, on December 17, a surprise decision from a three-judge panel of the Sixth Circuit once again jolted employers back into scramble mode, as the court dissolved the stay and cleared OSHA to enforce the ETS across the country.
CMS Healthcare Mandate
The history and procedural status of the healthcare vaccine mandate are a bit messier. In early November, the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS) published a vaccine mandate, requiring all employees of healthcare facilities participating in Medicare and Medicaid – more than 17 million workers – to be fully vaccinated by January 4. Then, a pair of federal court decisions issued in late November blocked the mandate. First, on November 29, a federal judge in Missouri temporarily blocked the agency from enforcing the mandate in 10 states. And then, on November 30, a Louisiana federal court took one giant step further and blocked the rule from taking effect in any healthcare facility across the country that was not already covered by the Missouri decision.
Serving up yet another curveball for healthcare employers, the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals effectively reactivated the CMS vaccination mandate with a surprise decision on December 15 – but only for employers operating in nearly half of the country. And that’s where things stand now. You can review this most recent Insight for a list of states where the CMS mandate has been kept alive and a list of states where the CMS mandate is currently blocked.
What Happened Yesterday?
While the orders from SCOTUS were brief and to the point, three significant takeaways can be gleaned from the announcements:
What Should You Do? 5-Step Survival Guides
To demonstrate reasonable good faith efforts to comply between now and January 10, 2022, employers subject to the OSHA ETS should follow this five-step game plan:
If you are subject to the CMS healthcare mandate, the following five steps, described in further detail here, are critical parts of a successful plan:
We will continue to monitor this litigation and provide updates as warranted.
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.
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 ETS places additional burdens on employers (and employees) already straining under workforce shortages, supply chain issues, and varying standards and guidance related to COVID-19. The ETS is expected to face multiple legal challenges.
The OSHA ETS applies to employers with at least 100 employees company-wide.
It does not apply to:
The ETS also does not apply to the employees of covered employers:
At any time during the duration of the ETS, if an employer employs at least 100 workers, the requirements of the ETS will apply regardless of fluctuations in the size of the employer’s workforce.
OSHA’s ETS requires employers who have at least 100 employees (company-wide, not just at one facility) to institute either a mandatory vaccine policy or a weekly testing and mask policy.
Employers must inform employees of their policies and procedures designed to comply with the ETS, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s “Key Things to Know About COVID-19 Vaccines,” OSHA’s prohibition against retaliation for reporting workplace illnesses or injuries and OSHA’s whistleblower protections, and the criminal penalties associated with knowingly supplying false statements or documentation.
If an employer adopts a mandatory vaccination policy to comply with the OSHA ETS, it must require vaccination of all employees (and of all new employees as soon as practicable), other than those:
The employer must require each vaccinated employee to provide acceptable proof of vaccination status, including whether they are fully or partially vaccinated.
Acceptable proof of vaccination status is:
According to the OSHA ETS, the employer must maintain a record of each employee’s vaccination status. The employer must preserve acceptable proof of vaccination for each employee who is fully or partially vaccinated, along with a roster of each employee’s vaccination status. Significantly, employers that have already ascertained vaccination status prior to the effective date of the ETS through another form, attestation, or proof and retained records, are exempted from re-determining the vaccination status of individuals whose fully vaccinated status has been previously documented.
In addition, the employer must maintain a record of each test result provided by each employee.
These records and roster are considered employee medical records and must be maintained as such records. They must not be disclosed except as required or authorized by federal law. These records and roster must be maintained and preserved while this section remains in effect, but are not subject to OSHA’s standard 30-year retention requirement.
According to the ETS, employers must provide paid time off for employees to get vaccinated (up to four hours) and to recover from any side effects. The ETS requires up to four hours of paid time to receive each dose of the vaccine, including travel time, at the employee’s regular rate of pay. The ETS requires “reasonable time and paid sick leave” to recover from the side effects of each dose of the vaccine.
OSHA permits employers to pass the expense for testing to employees, subject to the requirements of other laws.
Whether employers can require employees to pay for their own tests will depend on state law and whether testing is offered as a reasonable accommodation. Many states have laws requiring employers to pay the cost of any required medical exams or tests or expense reimbursement laws, which may be implicated.
The Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) and state law will govern whether employers have to pay for the time associated with getting testing and awaiting results.
It is also unclear at this time whether, under the FLSA, the cost of testing may drop an employee’s effective rate of pay below the federal minimum wage.
Although some states have their own state OSHA plans, such plans generally must be “at least as effective as” the standard set by OSHA. In those states, the federal OSHA ETS will not apply immediately.
There are currently 22 states that have OSHA-approved State Plans regulating private sector employers. (Alaska, Arizona, California, Hawaii, Indiana, Iowa, Kentucky, Maryland, Michigan, Minnesota, Nevada, New Mexico, North Carolina, Oregon, Tennessee, South Carolina, Utah, Vermont, Virginia, Washington, Wyoming, and Puerto Rico.) Those states have 30 days to adopt the federal standard or inform OSHA of their plans to do something else. In addition to their own OSHA plans, some states have passed laws prohibiting or limiting employers’ ability to require COVID-19 vaccines.
OSHA’s ETS is intended to comprehensively address the occupational safety and health issues of vaccination, wearing face coverings, and testing for COVID-19. It, therefore, preempts any state or local requirements on these issues, except those from an OSHA-approved State Plan. Thus, the ETS preempts any state or local requirements banning or limiting an employer from requiring vaccines, face coverings, or testing.
According to the OSHA ETS, the COVID-19 test must be:
Examples of tests that satisfy this requirement include tests with specimens that are processed by a laboratory (including home or on-site collected specimens that are processed individually or as pooled specimens), proctored over-the-counter tests, point-of-care tests, and tests where specimen collection and processing is done or observed by an employer.
Employees who are not fully vaccinated must submit to testing at least weekly if present in the workplace at least once a week or within seven days before returning to work if away from the workplace for a week or longer.
For individuals who have received a positive COVID-19 test or who have been diagnosed with COVID-19, the ETS provides an exception from testing for the 90-day period following the positive diagnosis or test.
Employees who are not fully vaccinated and do not meet the testing requirements must be removed from the workplace pending a test result.
Regardless of vaccination status, employees who test positive for COVID-19 or who are diagnosed with COVID-19 must be removed from the workplace until they meet certain return-to-work criteria. The ETS does not require paid leave for employees who are removed, but acknowledges that other laws may impose such obligations.
Masking: Subject to limited exceptions, employers are required to enforce the wearing of masks for those who are unvaccinated when indoors and when occupying a vehicle with another person for work purposes. Like testing costs, the ETS does not mandate employers to pay for face coverings required by the ETS.
Reporting: Employers are required to report work-related COVID-19 hospitalizations and fatalities to OSHA (within 24 hours of hospitalization and eight hours of a fatality). Under OSHA’s normal reporting standards, work-related hospitalizations and fatalities must be reported only if they occur within a certain time period following the work-related incident (24 hours for hospitalization and 30 days for a fatality). Those time periods do not apply to work-related COVID-19 hospitalizations or fatalities, meaning, employers must still notify OSHA even if the hospitalization or fatality occurs after those time periods.
Notice: Employers must require employees to provide prompt notice when they receive a positive COVID-19 test or are diagnosed with COVID-19.
The OSHA ETS takes effect immediately, except in those states that have their own state plans. However, employers have 60 days to comply with the testing requirements of the ETS and 30 days to comply with the remaining provisions. State plan states have 30 days from the effective date to adopt the federal standard or inform OSHA of their plans to do something else.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.