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During a special legislative session, Florida just passed a new law banning private employers from mandating COVID-19 vaccines unless several exemptions are offered to employees. The law, signed by the governor on 11/18/21, comes as OSHA’s national emergency temporary standard mandating vaccines is embroiled in legal challenges. What do Florida employers need to know about this new law, which takes effect immediately?
Who is Covered and What Does It Do?
The law applies to all private employers in Florida, regardless of size. It prohibits those employers from requiring employees to get vaccinated against COVID-19 unless various exemptions are offered.
What are the Exemptions?
Some of the exemptions in the new law will sound familiar to employers. Others are unique. If an employer receives a statement from an employee (as described below), they must allow the employee to opt-out of the vaccine mandate. The Department of Health will be creating template forms for each of these exemptions.
This includes for reasons of pregnancy or anticipated pregnancy. To receive a medical exemption, an employee must submit a signed statement by a physician or physician assistant that vaccination is not in the best interest of the employee. While not addressed in the legislation, we suspect that this exemption will function similarly to those provided for disabilities under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA).
An employee must present a statement that they decline the vaccine because of a “sincerely held religious belief.” Although that term is undefined, it likely refers to sincerely held religious beliefs as understood under federal lawA.
An employee must show “competent medical evidence” that they have immunity to COVID-19, which is documented by the results of laboratory testing on the employee. The law does not state what “immunity” is but directs the Department of Health to establish a standard for determining that immunity.
An employee must provide a statement indicating that they will comply with the employer’s requirement to submit to regular testing. Although “regular testing” is not defined, the law directs the Department of Health to adopt emergency rules specifying requirements for frequency of testing. Importantly, any testing must be at no-cost to the employee.
Because this exemption has no ties to existing federal law such as Title VII and the ADA, and the law does not address any “undue hardship” defense, it is likely that an employer cannot decline to pay for the testing if there is a charge the employee would otherwise incur.
An employee must present a statement that they agree to comply with the employer’s reasonable written requirement to use employer-provided personal protective equipment when around others. “Personal protective equipment” is not defined. It is unclear whether the use of the term would implicate OSHA regulations or CDC guidance on “personal protective equipment.”
But What About Federal Law?
The CMS Rule and Federal Contractor vaccine mandate requirements, which both require that covered staff be vaccinated and only allow for exemptions for medical conditions (ADA) and sincerely held religious beliefs (Title VII), should preempt this Florida law to the extent the laws directly conflict. The CMS Rule explicitly provides that it preempts state and local laws.
If OSHA’s ETS survives in the courts, it is likely that Florida’s new law will conflict with the OSHA ETS at least in so far as an employer (with 100 or more employees) might want to implement a mandatory vaccination policy instead of allowing employees to choose to be vaccinated or undergo weekly testing. However, the scope of that conflict is unknown and will depend on the final terms of the ETS if it survives.
How is the Law Going to be Enforced?
Florida’s vaccine mandate law will be enforced by the Department of Legal Affairs, in the Attorney General’s office. Employees can file complaints that an exemption was not offered or was improperly applied or denied, which will then be investigated. If the Department finds a violation, it must notify the employer of its determination and allow the employer the opportunity to cure the noncompliance. If the Department finds that an employee was improperly terminated and the employer does not restore the employee to their position with back pay, then the Department may fine the employer up to $50,000, depending on employer size and other factors. Employees who are wrongfully terminated may also be entitled to unemployment benefits. The Department of Legal Affairs will be issuing rules to further flesh out the complaint and investigation process.
What We Don’t Know Yet
There are many unanswered questions. For example, the new law does not address workers’ compensation claims and remains an open question whether an employee’s side effects to a mandated vaccine is covered by workers’ compensation.
What About Public Employers or Schools?
The legislature also passed statutes banning vaccine mandates for public employees and prohibiting any public educational institution or elected or appointed local official from imposing a COVID-19 vaccination mandate for any student. Unlike private sector employers, public sector employers are prohibited from mandating the vaccine — even if they offer the enumerated exemptions.
There are also provisions prohibiting public schools from requiring a student to wear a face mask, a face shield, or any other facial covering. Instead, such issues are left to the parent’s sole discretion. Further, the law prohibits public schools from barring any student or employee from school or school-sponsored activities or subjecting them to other disparate treatment based on an exposure to COVID-19, so long as the student or employee remains asymptomatic and has not received a positive test for COVID-19.
What Employers Can Do
Importantly, the law is not an outright prohibition on vaccine mandates. Private employers can still have a vaccine mandate, so long as you offer the various exemptions discussed above.
Neither does the law prohibit employers from “stacking” their COVID-19 prevention and mitigation efforts. Meaning, for example, you likely can still require both use of PPE and regular testing in order to protect its workforce. In other words, the statute is a ban on vaccine mandates without certain opt-out accommodations, but it is not a ban on your organization opting to require testing and/or continued use of PPE.
It is worth noting that this new law does not address employers’ immunity against COVID-19 claims. In March 2020, Florida passed a law granting businesses immunity from COVID-19 claims. Absent any more specific legislation, if an employer meets the standards of the immunity law (specifically, demonstrating good faith effort to comply with government-issued health guidance), the language of the immunity law is clear that the employer is immune from civil liability. This new law does not affect that.
You should also keep an eye out for the implementing rules to be issued by the various state agencies. According to the statute, such rulemaking must occur initially by filing emergency rules within 15 days after the effective date of the statute, followed by regular rulemaking thereafter. For the next 15 days (unless the Department of Health files its emergency rules earlier), employer COVID-19 vaccination mandates are deemed invalid under this statute.
This new law is yet another issue facing employers, who are increasingly confronting a myriad of conflicting orders at the state and federal levels. Unfortunately, the issue of COVID-19 vaccines in the workplace remains incredibly fluid and will surely continue to evolve through the holiday season. As always, we will continue to monitor the situation regarding employers’ vaccine mandates and provide updates as warranted.
Citing potential “grave statutory and constitutional issues” with the mandate-or-test emergency vaccine rule unveiled by OSHA on Thursday (11/4/2021), a federal appeals court just issued an order blocking the ETS from taking effect on a nationwide basis. That the ETS faced immediate litigation from opponents and was at least temporarily sidelined should come as little surprise – many law firms predicted an onslaught of legal challenges well before this move took place. The bigger question left in the wake of Saturday’s legal order: what should employers do now?
As every employer should know by now, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) published a mandate-or-test Emergency Temporary Standard (ETS) late last week which will soon require all covered employers with 100 or more employees to either mandate their workforce receive the vaccination against COVID-19 or test them weekly to ensure they are not infected.
On Friday (11/5/21), a number of parties – including a management company, multiple supermarkets, and several individuals – filed suit in the Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit challenging OSHA’s ETS the day it came into effect. A quirk in the way OSHA’s emergency standards can be challenged allows opponents to bypass the lower courts and go directly to a federal Court of Appeals. The Fifth Circuit challenge is not alone; similar cases have also been filed in the Sixth, Seventh, Eighth, and Eleventh Circuits.
The Fifth Circuit petition asked the Court to find the ETS either exceeded the scope of OSHA’s authority or that it was unconstitutional. The challengers also pleaded with the Fifth Circuit to “stay” – or temporarily stop – enforcement of the ETS until it could be reviewed by the courts.
Within 24 hours, the Fifth Circuit issued a brief order staying the ETS until it could be fully reviewed by the Court. The order was extremely terse, stating that “the petitions give cause to believe there are grave statutory and constitutional issues” with the ETS (perhaps purposefully mimicking the claim by OSHA that “grave” danger exists such to justify the emergency rule).
The Fifth Circuit instructed the government to respond to the request for a permanent injunction by 5:00pm on Monday, November 8, and allowed the challengers to reply to the government’s response by 5:00pm on Tuesday. This means it is possible that we will hear a final decision from the Fifth Circuit in the very near future.
We will probably see further rulings in the coming days and weeks from other federal appeals courts as well, some following in the Fifth Circuit’s footsteps and blocking the ETS, others ruling that the ETS stands on solid legal footing. With a patchwork of various legal rulings expected, there will ultimately be a unifying judicial order having the final say on this matter. Whether that ruling comes from the multidistrict litigation panel (an assembly of federal judges that manages certain kinds of national litigation spanning several jurisdictions) or the U.S. Supreme Court remains to be seen.
Where Does This Leave Employers?
At the moment, the outcome of the OSHA ETS is uncertain. While OSHA must refrain from enforcing the ETS until the Fifth Circuit says otherwise, this could change in the blink of an eye if a full panel of appeals court judges removes the stay. And again, with several separate lawsuits filed in different courts challenging the ETS, it is likely that a final binding and unifying determination will not be made for weeks or even months.
What Should You Do?
As of right now, an employer’s best course of action is to familiarize yourself with the requirements of the OSHA ETS and prepare to implement those requirements if the stay is lifted and the emergency rule is revived. After all, OSHA will most likely have little patience with non-compliant employers who claim they held off implementing the mandate-or-test rule while awaiting a final court ruling – and the agency has significant weapons at its disposal in the form of citations and penalties for those not following the ETS edicts.
Employers should spend the coming weeks preparing for the ETS as if it will take effect but waiting to implement its measures until the final judicial outcome is certain. The earliest effective date for any of the ETS requirements is December 5, which includes the need for you to have a vaccination policy and various other technical standards in place. You will be hard pressed to develop these materials overnight, so spend this interim limbo time efficiently and be prepared to comply should the ETS ultimately be upheld.
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.
As vaccine mandates increase, employers may face yet another headache in the continuing stream of pandemic-related concerns: employees presenting fake cards when asked to establish proof of vaccination. What can you do if you believe an employee has presented a fake vaccine card? And can your company be liable for relying on such falsified records?
How Widespread Is the Practice?
There are a growing number of Americans who are attempting to avoid vaccine mandates by using fake or bogus vaccination cards. As with the fake IDs used by underaged students to obtain alcohol, the internet has spawned a cottage industry marketing the bogus cards. The fake cards are increasingly available for vaccine hesitant customers, students, and employees who are willing to pay for the cards.
Fake vaccination documents can be purchased through a variety of social media sites, the black market, and other internet platforms. Vaccine-hesitant employees and customers have also been caught making homemade versions of vaccine cards.
Bogus vaccination cards are illegal under federal and certain state laws. Indeed, workers using counterfeit vaccine cards are running a significant legal risk. The use and forgery of government seals such as the CDC vaccination card is illegal, with violations ranging from a fine of up to $5,000 or up to five years imprisonment. Many state laws also prohibit such activity.
Unfortunately, there is increasing evidence that many vaccine-hesitant people are willing to take the risk of criminal prosecution.
There have been increasing demand by some leaders, including Senator Chuck Schumer (NY), for law enforcement to step up efforts to shut down internet or online sales of fraudulent certification cards.
What’s at Risk?
Regardless of how many counterfeit vaccine cards are floating around, the key question is whether you may face safety or legal exposure if any of your employees have falsified or misrepresented their vaccination status.
From a workplace safety standpoint, there is no doubt that someone who has skirted your rules can present a threat to other workers, members of the public, and other third parties at the worksite. If you have eased safety and social distancing measures for employees who are vaccinated, and/or discontinued any COVID-19 testing requirements for inoculated workers, an unvaccinated person who slips through the cracks could pose a danger to those around them. This concern alone requires you to take this emerging problem seriously.
Fortunately, your company’s legal liability in such a scenario is most likely low. As long as you have taken reasonable measures to check the vaccination status of your workforce, someone who has misled you by using a fake vaccine card is unlikely to subject the company to a high level of legal exposure. Certainly, your company could be sued, but your odds of successfully defending such a claim would hinge on the reasonableness of your verification process. This means that you should establish reasonable parameters to check vaccine cards, not simply allowing managers or other gatekeepers to give them a quick, cursory glance without reviewing key details. The more reliable your verification system, the better your odds of defeating any negligence claims relating to an employee’s use of a phony vaccine card. The obvious implication is that simply using an “honor system” appears less likely to withstand challenges, from plaintiffs’ lawyers or agencies such as OSHA.
What Can You Do About It?
If you suspect that an employee has presented a falsified vaccine card – what can you do about it? You can certainly take serious action, up to an including termination of employment. If you are concerned about this issue, thee following five steps can put your company in a much stronger position:
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.
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.