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In a surprise move, federal immigration officials recently announced that they will permit remote review of new hires’ I-9 documentation for those who work exclusively in a remote setting due to COVID-19 related precautions through October 31, 2022. According to the April 25th announcement, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) has said that the requirement that employers inspect employees’ Form I-9 identity and employment eligibility documentation in-person applies only to those employees who physically report to work at a company location on any regular, consistent, or predictable basis for at least the next six months. Could this continued flexibility be a welcome sign of things to come?
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.
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.
A sharp rise in the availability of telehealth benefits has opened up new opportunities for mental and behavioral health counseling, as well as challenges for health care providers, employers and employees.
“The COVID-19 pandemic has created an unprecedented mental health crisis” with increased cases of depression, substance abuse and suicide, said Dennis Urbaniak, executive vice president of digital therapeutics at global pharmaceutical company Orexo. “The ability to receive care regardless of a person’s geographical location or proximity is obviously appealing, particularly when it comes to mental health care, which unfortunately continues to be surrounded by stigma, especially in the workplace,” he pointed out.
Employees in small cities that might not have enough local demand for a certain type of group can still get the support and resources they need by connecting with others, who could be located literally around the globe, Urbaniak noted. So it’s no surprise that virtual mental health care options have been on the rise.
At Voya Financial, chief HR officer Kevin Silva said that while telehealth options for acute physical care were already available to employees pre-pandemic, these options have been expanded to include primary care and mental health care. “Telehealth visits spiked for Voya in 2020 and have yet to return to pre-pandemic levels,” Silva shared. “Many employees prefer the convenience of telehealth [for physical and behavioral health visits] and it’s beneficial to employers because appointments are quicker with less impact to productivity.”
Virtual care is also being further automated through artificial intelligence, so that sometimes the “doctor” an employee may be interacting with isn’t a doctor at all. Wysa, an AI- and human-driven digital mental health app, provides counseling and support delivered by both credentialed mental health counselors and an AI chatbot available to employees and other users 24/7. The AI chatbot uses AI-CBT (cognitive behavioral therapy) to help people through their challenges and adapts to their unique situations based on their responses.
Many employees continue to feel isolated and anxious as remote and hybrid work continue. The opportunity to get together virtually to share concerns or participate in group treatment options can help.
Zoom, the popular app for holding online business meetings, is now being used by some mental health services providers as a virtual venue for behavioral group therapy or disease management support. For example, BrightView, an addiction services treatment provider in Cincinnati, facilitates virtual group therapy via Zoom to “help provide a safe environment [for patients] to heal emotionally, connect to others who understand your background, express your ideas, reflect on your experiences, and engage in support,” according to the organization’s website.
Psychotherapist Sean Grover described how during the pandemic he began using Zoom for therapy groups he had formerly held in his New York City office. “I didn’t have high hopes,” he wrote. “I decided not to charge for the first Zoom sessions because I was confident that online therapy groups would be a snoozefest. … I was wrong. From the first session, I could see that group members [were] starved for contact. They were thrilled to see each other.”
Zoom groups provide more flexibility for busy patients, Grover noted. Due to schedule conflicts, illness, child care and other priorities, group members often “would have to miss the session or even drop out of group. Now they call in from home, the office or other locations.”
As the pandemic wanes, Grover continues to offer Zoom sessions for individual and group therapy, as do other therapists, although some have raised concerns over hacking risks (see the discussion of privacy issues, below).
The early evidence suggests that virtual care for mental and behavioral health issues is effective. Virtual care provider Teladoc’s 2021 Mental Health Survey of 2,253 U.S. adults found that:
Despite the promise of this technology to serve a wide range of needs while improving access and even reducing costs, there are some caveats to be aware of. For instance, the Teladoc survey showed that:
Using Zoom for group therapy does pose the potential for privacy risks.
It’s better to hold such group meetings in a specific telemedicine tool, since health tech vendors typically take extra steps to ensure end-to-end security of their customers’ health data in such apps versus Zoom.
Concerns over data privacy were also raised by Dr. Mark Kestner, chief innovation officer with MediGuru, a telehealth services provider.
“The data generated by the virtual visit must be compliant with privacy standards and integrated into the clinical plan to measure the quality and outcome of care,” he said. “While the thought of ‘care anywhere’ is intriguing, there are limitations on the clinical force, such as state licensure and credentialing for the service.”
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.
Federal workplace immigration officials recently announced that “relaxed” I-9 rules have been extended until April 30, 2022, ensuring that employers can inspect I-9 documents for certain employees working remotely due to COVID-19 restrictions by way of camera or fax. U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) noted that this extension will ensure that the guidance for employees hired on or after April 1, 2021, and working exclusively in a remote setting due to COVID-19-related precautions will remain in place for the next several months. What do employers need to know about this December 15 announcement?
Employees who qualify for these relaxed rules are temporarily exempt from the physical inspection requirements associated with the Employment Eligibility Verification (Form I-9) until they undertake non-remote employment on a regular, consistent, or predictable basis, or the extension of the flexibilities related to such requirements is terminated, whichever is earlier. When an affected employee commences “non-remote employment on a regular, consistent, or predictable basis” the employer must verify the employee’s documentation in person within three business days.
What if the Remote Employee Leaves Employment Before We Have a Chance to Inspect Their I-9 Documents in Person?
In its announcement, ICE also provided the following guidance: “Employers may be unable to timely inspect and verify, in-person, the Form I-9 supporting documents of employee(s) hired since March 20, 2020, . . .in case-by-case situations (such as cases in which affected employees are no longer employed by the employer). In such cases, employers may memorialize the reason(s) for this inability in a memorandum retained with each affected employee’s Form I-9. Any such reason(s) will be evaluated, on a case-by-case basis, by DHS ICE in the event of a Form I-9 audit.”
When a government agency announces a “case by case” policy, this is of little comfort to employers. We suggest that employers err on the side of caution and have remote new hires’ Form I-9 documentation physically inspected by an authorized representative retained by the employer for that purpose, unless COVID-19 restrictions render that option unadvisable.
You should carefully coach authorized representatives on how to correctly fill out page 2 of the I-9, as any errors or omissions will be attributed to the employer. In the alternative, you should monitor remote employees’ visits to the workplace and conduct the in-person follow-up document review as early as possible.
Given that fines for I-9 errors can run in the thousands of dollars per I-9, the cost of a self-audit is relatively inexpensive, and helps ensure compliance moving forward.
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.