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On September 9, 2021, the White House issued Path Out of the Pandemic: President Biden’s COVID-19 Action Plan (the Plan). The Plan outlines a six-pronged approach, portions of which will impose new obligations on employers across the country.
Most notably for employers, the first prong of the Plan, “Vaccinating the Unvaccinated,” includes:
The Plan also calls on states to adopt vaccination requirements for all school employees as part of the effort to “keep schools safely open.”
The Plan indicates that the administration will increase the amount of COVID-19 testing by ramping up production of testing products, offering at-home rapid COVID-19 tests at cost through certain retailers, and expanding free testing at retail pharmacy sites, among other things.
While the Plan is far-reaching, there are still many unknowns. Employer obligations arising from OSHA’s ETS will be dictated by the timing and the specific ETS provisions and corresponding requirements. The only thing we know for certain about the forthcoming ETS is that employers will need to continue to adapt and be prepared to pivot if necessary. It is also unclear how the new ETS will fit in with OSHA’s current COVID-19 Healthcare ETS, in 29 C.F.R. 1910 Subpart U, or impact OSHA’s current guidance for non-healthcare employers. Further, the 27 states with OSHA-approved State Plans, such as California, Washington, Oregon, and Virginia, will need to determine how to respond to the ETS, once it is issued, and if certain provisions require implementation alongside the state’s standards and regulations.
CMS also issued a press release urging Medicare and Medicaid-certified facilities to “make efforts now to get health care staff vaccinated.” However, the agency noted that it is still developing an Interim Final Rule with Comment Period that will be issued in October.
Employers who are impacted by the Plan, and who may be impacted by an ETS once issued, are advised to start thinking through how they will navigate many legal issues and operational challenges related to required vaccination and testing. These issues include policy requirements, workplace testing strategies, vaccination tracking and management, medical record collection and retention, and accommodations for religion, disability and pregnancy, as well as wage and hour implications, bargaining obligations for unionized workplaces, employee confidentiality and privacy issues. Further, employers should consider the logistical impact on federal contracts and how these obligations will interplay with other state or local mandates or restrictions on vaccinations.
Stay tuned as we dive into the Plan and corresponding guidance documents, as well as await further information from federal agencies responsible for complying with the Plan and its directives.
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.
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.
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.
This is the second in our four-part series designed to let you know what changes have taken place that may affect your business. AAG is a benefit brokerage that specializes in working alongside an employer’s Human Resource/Management Team to assist with keeping companies in compliance with the ever-changing state and federal regulations.
The Family First Coronavirus Response Act (FFCRA) was amended earlier this year under the American Rescue Plan Act (“ARPA”). The amended act encompasses the same covered categories as the Federal law required last year with some expansions, options, and more room for abuse.
If you are a private employer with less than 500 employees, you have the option to voluntarily extend FFCRA paid leave from April 1, 2021 through September 30, 2021 and receive a tax credit. However, you must proceed with caution because the rules have changed and if not followed you may not be eligible for the tax credit.
In addition to the previous six reasons for emergency paid sick leave (EPSL) under the FFCRA, if an employer chooses to offer, you must allow for the following three reasons:
The change also includes 10 new days of available leave effective April 1, 2021. If an employee took 80 hours of EPSL leave prior to April 1st, they will be eligible for a new bank of paid leave after April 1, 2021.
The emergency family medical leave (EFML) under the FFCRA also has some key changes to be aware of:
Employers will not have the option of whether to apply the new reasons for leave or the fresh 10-day bank. Should you decide to offer EPSL to employees, it must be offered completely and available to all employees. Strict compliance is required in order to be eligible for the tax credit.
As the world continues to open and more employees return to work, changes to these paid leave revisions will no doubt continue. With AAG on your side, you can focus on your employees while we stay on top of required changes and keep you informed! If you have any questions or would like additional information please reach out, we are here to help!
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.
Now that most states, the CDC, and OSHA have (or may soon) lift mask mandates for vaccinated workers, what is an employer to do about revealing an employee’s vaccination status? Under any relaxed masking guidance applicable to those who are fully vaccinated, customers, visitors, and co-workers are likely to draw their own conclusions about the vaccination status of everyone else in the workplace based upon whether or not they are wearing a mask. This addresses some of the legal and practical considerations for employers dealing with a partially vaccinated workforce and provides seven options for you to consider as you navigate this rapidly evolving area.
The Push to Unmask
Anxious to get back to normal after more than a year of mask mandates and social distancing, employers and employees are ready to do away with COVID-19 restrictions. Employees in certain industries (such as health care workers and educators) will likely continue to be required to mask up and social distance for the foreseeable future. However, other employers are developing various approaches and policies to lift masking requirements for employees (and others) who are fully vaccinated following new CDC and OSHA guidance.
Unmasking Employees Based On “Proof” of Vaccination
“Proof” of vaccination status is and will continue to be a significant consideration for employers when lifting mask mandates. Indeed, many employees are under the mistaken belief that an employer cannot ask vaccine status. However, per the guidance of the EEOC and other state agencies, you are permitted to request vaccination status. In California, local health authorities such as in Santa Clara County, have already mandated that businesses and government entities ascertain the vaccination status of all employees, independent contractors, and volunteers who are or will be working at a facility or worksite in the county.
Indeed, the inquiry may be required to determine which employees can and which employees cannot unmask. As an example, the Oregon Occupational Safety and Health Administration has already issued guidance that requires employers to “verify the vaccination status” of workers before permitting them to unmask. The CDC, OSHA, and many state authorities agree that only those employees who are fully vaccinated can follow relaxed COVID-19 protocols, while those who are not fully vaccinated must continue to observe safety protocols such as mask wearing and social distancing. During COVID-19 inspections, OSHA will likely require employers to show how they have documented or “verified” vaccination status where employees are permitted to work under the relaxed COVID-19 safety protocols.
In determining an employee’s vaccine status, however, you must carefully limit any vaccine-related inquiry only to vaccination status and not inquire further, as such follow-up could improperly elicit information about an employee’s medical disability or other family medical information. Given that this is likely considered medical information, such information should be kept separate and confidential. Additionally, employers subject to the CCPA in states such as California need to understand that collecting vaccine-related information triggers the CCPA notice obligation.
Navigating State Limitations on Requiring Proof of Vaccination Status
Even though some federal, state, or local agencies may require or request that employers track employee vaccine status, there is a growing move in some states to protect vaccine status as confidential, private information. States are literally all over the map when it comes to vaccine disclosure or use of so called “vaccine passports.” Some states have adopted or are considering laws that promote vaccine passports. New York, for example, launched a COVID-19 vaccine passport initiative known as the Excelsior Pass that allows users to provide proof of vaccination where required. Other states, like Hawaii, have or are considering similar passport systems that promote vaccine disclosure to assist in safe reopening of business and public access.
However, many other states have gone in the opposite direction to protect individual privacy rights. These states have acted to restrict vaccine passports, with government entities and businesses barred from requiring proof of vaccinations. For example, Florida Governor Ron DeSantis recently signed into law a statute that prohibits the use of vaccine passports by government entities or businesses, stating that “in Florida, your personal choice regarding vaccinations will be protected and no business or government entity will be able to deny you services based on your decision.” Other states such as Alabama, Arizona, Idaho, Indiana, Iowa, Georgia, South Carolina, South Dakota, Texas, and Wyoming have also restricted vaccine passports or requirements.
Arkansas and Montana have taken a more aggressive approach to address individuals’ privacy concerns and limit disclosure of vaccination status. Governor Hutchinson signed into law a statute that prevents state and local government entities from requiring proof of vaccinations as a condition of employment or to access goods and services. The law provides some exceptions for state-owned medical facilities. Montana Governor Gianforte has signed into law a statute that provides even greater protections for the unvaccinated, generally prohibiting employers from requiring any of the current vaccinations.
Given the fluidity in this area, you should remain mindful of the need to monitor these developments and check with counsel before implementing any vaccine-tracking policies.
Additional Landmines if Fully Vaccinated Employees Unmask
Aside from the spate of state and local government restrictions and mandates, employers face other potential legal landmines and practical problems when tracking and/or disclosing an employee’s vaccination status. As mentioned above, you should consider the legal privacy considerations in requesting and maintaining the vaccination status of employees.
As employers move to allow fully vaccinated workers to unmask employees, there will likely be legal, privacy, and employee morale issues related to any express or perceived disclosure of employee vaccination status. Indeed, even without an explicit disclosure, others will likely be able to decipher the vaccination status of employees. While employees are choosing to voluntarily disclose their vaccination status to their co-workers, you should not adopt such a casual attitude. You should consider the ramifications of disclosure of vaccine status without employee consent or as a result of a “company policy” or practice. Such practices could potentially give rise to exposure in areas of breach of confidentiality, privacy, discrimination, retaliation, and more.
Company disclosure of vaccine status may also inadvertently expose employees with legitimate disability issues or religious objections related to the vaccine. Employee morale could be compromised if employees believe they are being pitted against each other due to their vaccine status, especially if the company is somehow involved in the disclosures. Additionally, a policy of company-wide disclosure might even boomerang, potentially discouraging employees who do not want to be ridiculed or harassed by co-workers who are opposed to the vaccination.
What Should Employers Do? 7 Options to Address a Partially Vaccinated Workforce
How to relax restrictions for those who are fully vaccinated while maintaining confidentiality and a safe workplace for all? How to balance the possible exposure and potential federal and state safety agency fines if you don’t get it right? While there are rarely clear answers, and legal liabilities remain unclear, below are some options employers have been adopting to deal with the dilemma of the partially vaccinated workforce.
Each of these options come with some level of risk. You should explore the various paths available to you with your legal counsel before adopting any of them, especially in light of rapidly changing state and local laws in this area. Also, note that every option in which some employees are masked and some are unmasked includes the risk of employee conflict or harassment issues. This risk should be evaluated and addressed up front through training, ongoing communications emphasizing the importance of mutual respect in the workplace, adoption of written policies and procedures, and effective management oversight.
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.
In a surprise move today, CDC followed the lead of the various states that have lifted their masking and physical distancing recommendations. However, CDC’s new recommendations come with a twist. The CDC’s recommendations only apply to fully vaccinated people in non-healthcare settings. Here’s what your business should consider as it decides whether to “unmask.”
The May 13, 2021 CDC Interim Public Health Recommendations for Fully Vaccinated People states that fully vaccinated people no longer need to wear a mask or physically distance in any non-health care setting (except prisons and homeless shelters and public transportation), except where required by federal, state, local, tribal, or territorial laws, rules, and regulations, including local business and workplace guidance. According to the CDC, prevention measures (including masks and physical distancing) are still recommended for unvaccinated people.
Employers who are interested in relaxing mask requirements in the workplace should first consider the following.