NEXT PAGE

Page 1 of 3

I-9 Deadline Approaching: Employers Have Until July 31 to Update Critical Immigration Forms

July 13 - Posted at 1:01 PM Tagged: , , , , , ,

If you accepted expired forms of identification from new employees who completed their I-9 forms during the pandemic, your deadline for updating them with current proofs of identification is fast approaching. The Department of Homeland Security recently announced that it was winding down its temporary policy that had allowed for expired List B (proof of identification) documents to be used when completing I-9s because of COVID-related difficulties in renewing such I.D. documents. You have until July 31 to update your I-9 forms to get into compliance with the law. What do you need to know about this fast-approaching deadline?

How We Ended Up Where We Are

In response to the COVID-19 pandemic, the Department of Homeland Security issued a number of temporary policies easing Form I-9 compliance. One of them was the COVID-19 Temporary Policy for List B Identity Documents

Under this policy, employers were allowed to accept expired List B (proof of identification) documents. Many state and local agencies were under lockdown, so it was difficult – if not impossible – for individuals to renew expired documents such as drivers’ licenses, school I.D. cards, Native American tribal documents, and others. 

What’s Changed?

The Department rescinded this temporary policy on May 1 and began again to require employers to accept only unexpired List B documents. USICS recently announced that employers who accepted expired List B documents prior to May 1, 2022, will have until July 31,2022 to update their Forms I-9. 

What Should You Do?

Specifically, for employees hired between May 1, 2020 and April 30, 2022 who presented an expired List B document, you need to have them to present to you:

  • the renewed List B document;
  • a different List B document; or
  • a document from List A. 

Important Notes

You do not need to update documents for affected employees who are no longer employed.

When updating List B documentation, you should enter the document’s: 

  • title;
  • issuing authority;
  • number;
  • and expiration date in the “Additional Information” field of Section 2.

Your representative should initial and date the change.

If the List B document was auto-extended by the issuing authority, making it unexpired when it was presented, no update is needed. For example, many states automatically extended the expiration date of certain drivers’ licenses due to COVID. Those documents would not need updating. 

Remote I-9 Verification Remains in Place – For Now

This move by DHS does not affect its decision to extend its remote I-9 verification flexibility policy, which has been extended once again to October 31, 2022.

Under that temporary policy, if employees hired on or after April 1, 2021, work exclusively in a remote setting due to COVID-19-related precautions, they are temporarily exempt from the I-9’s physical inspection requirements 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 by DHS, whichever is earlier. 

Conclusion

With these constantly evolving rules, employers who have adjusted their document inspection protocols during the pandemic may be at a higher risk for expensive monetary fines, potentially running in the thousands of dollars. Now is a good time to review your I-9 files and process to ensure continued compliance.

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

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

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

What Does the Law Say?

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

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

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

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

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

Pros and Cons of Lifting Mask Requirements

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

Pros:

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

Cons:

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

 

Virtual Mental Health Care Presents Opportunities—and Potential Risks

February 24 - Posted at 8:50 AM Tagged: , , , , , ,

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.

Addressing a ‘Mental Health Crisis’

“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.

Zooming into Group Therapy

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).

Effective Care

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:

  • Mental health support seekers give nearly identical high ratings to their virtual and in-person mental health care experience.
  • 92 percent of virtual mental health support seekers report at least some improvement during the pandemic, with over a third reporting a “breakthrough.”
  • 75 percent of those with anxiety reported improvement after the fourth visit, and 76 percent of those with depression reported improvement after the third visit.

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:

  • Almost 70 percent of respondents believe it is too difficult and overwhelming to use multiple websites, mobile apps and virtual care platforms to address their mental health.
  • 78 percent said they preferred a single, unified experience for mental and physical health virtual care.

Privacy Issues

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.”

 

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

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

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

OSHA’s Updated Recommendations

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

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

Top 10 Employer Takeaways

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Conclusion

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

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

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

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

What Has Changed and Why?

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

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

What About OSHA’s Emergency Temporary Standard?

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

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

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

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

What Should Employers Do?

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

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

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

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

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

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

What Has Changed?

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

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

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

What Has Not Changed?

The CDC continues to recommend prevention strategies, such as:

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

What Do These Changes Mean for Schools?

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

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

Local Laws

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

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

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

Conclusion

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

The Feds Are Coming, Is Your Business Ready? Part 1: New DOL Outreach

June 08 - Posted at 8:31 AM Tagged: , , , , , , , , , ,

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: 

  • Have you or one of your managers ever interrupted an employee during lunch to ask a “quick” work related question?
  • Do you auto deduct time for lunch each day?
  • Do your managers understand that if they need to reach out to employees before or after hours, even if it is a quick text or phone call, they should ensure the employee accounts for that time on their timesheet?
  • Do non-exempt employees have access to their work email on their personal phone?
  • How do you confirm time worked for remote employees is accurate?
  • Do you have a policy for your employees to report unauthorized or unapproved overtime?

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.

 

How To Ask Employees If They’ve Been Vaccinated Without Having To Call Your Lawyer First

April 12 - Posted at 8:45 AM Tagged: , , , , , , , , ,

Now that the country is on course to see all adult Americans eligible for COVID-19 vaccination in a matter of days, and an increasing number of employees are returning to the workplace, vaccination status is likely to be an increasingly common topic over the coming weeks and months. Which leads to these inevitable questions: when and how can employers ask their workers whether they’ve been vaccinated without getting into hot water? Whether it’s an innocent question asked while trying to make conversation or an inquiry posed to determine whether someone can return to normal duties, you need to understand your legal rights and obligations regarding this serious topic. Missteps can easily lead to legal complications.

A Simple Vaccine Question is Okay, But Be Wary of Going Further

The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission has indicated in recent guidance that it is generally permissible for employers to ask employees about COVID-19 vaccination status. That’s because this simple question alone is not likely to elicit information from the employee about possible medical conditions, an inquiry that otherwise would invoke federal or state disability laws.

And in many cases, the answer to that question alone may be all you really need. If you don’t really need to know anything beyond a simple “yes” or “no” to the question of whether they have been vaccinated – and in most cases, you won’t – the EEOC suggests warning employees not to provide any other medical information in response to your question to make sure you don’t inadvertently receive more information than you want.

If you require proof of vaccination, you should ask the employee to provide documentation from the immunization source showing the date(s) the vaccine was administered. To avoid potential legal issues related to this process, you should affirmatively inform employees that they do not need to provide any additional medical or family history information. The documentation you receive should be treated as a confidential medical record.

But issues could arise if you venture further than asking this simple question. Asking follow-up questions could trigger obligations under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and the Genetic Information Nondiscrimination Act (GINA) depending on a variety of factors, so you need to tread cautiously if you take the questions any further.

Going Further with Your Inquiries

That’s not to say you can’t or shouldn’t ask anything further than eliciting a simply yes-or-no answer. There may be circumstances where it is advisable or even necessary to ask more. In those cases, the key considerations relate to the kinds of questions posed and the kinds of responses provided. These are the situations that raise potential legal issues that will likely require you to confer with your lawyer.

Questions about why the employee isn’t vaccinated

If you need information about why the employee has not yet been vaccinated, you might end up eliciting information about the employee’s medical status. Therefore, you can only pose such questions if they are “job-related and consistent with business necessity.” As the EEOC has said, you meet this standard if you have a reasonable belief, based on objective evidence, that an employee who is not vaccinated would pose a direct threat to the health or safety of themselves or others. This can be a challenging and complicated hurdle to clear. You should coordinate with legal counsel to determine whether you can meet this standard in your situation.

If you are treating workers differently based on vaccination status – for example, not allowing them to participate in certain work activities, work in certain locations, interact with the public or other employees, etc. – and you have confirmed with counsel that you have a valid justification for doing so, you may need to ask additional questions to assist with an interactive process. It may be that you need to provide reasonable accommodations to those workers unable to be vaccinated due to underlying medical conditions or sincerely held religious justifications. Each situation will require a case-by-case, fact-specific analysis, and you should be prepared to engage in substantive interactive process discussions related to any accommodation requests.

Questions about how the vaccination process went

If your managers are asking follow-up questions to find out how the employees fared after vaccination – especially after the second dose of Moderna and Pfizer vaccines – you need to recognize that this can be a slippery slope. Such questions could reveal information related to disability status (see above) that you would otherwise not want to know about. Caution your managers to tread carefully when asking such questions, even if their intent is innocent, and train them to know what to do if they receive information that should lead to human resources involvement.

Questions to help with an employee leave program

It is always permissible for your managers to ask about the medical status of an employee in order to help administer an employee leave program that includes absences for vaccine side effects, whether due to federal or state law or due to company policy. As with any such inquiries about medical status, however, make sure your managers know that they need to keep the information confidential to protect the privacy of any medical records received, and to only ask questions that lead them to gather the type of information necessary.

What Steps Should You Take Right Now?

  • Decide as a company if you need to know workers’ vaccination status, and if so, who will responsible for this inquiry.
  • Train your managers not to casually ask your workers about their vaccination status unless there is a specific work-related reason for the question. There may be a natural curiosity or concern on the part of your managers in posing such questions, but you need to let them know about the possible risks involved.
  • Keep information you receive as confidential as you would any medical-related information in order to comply with privacy obligations.
  • Ask employees to be respectful of other employees’ privacy. Not all employees are comfortable sharing their personal information, and silence should not be interpreted as approval or disapproval of vaccines.
  • Even if you learn that an employee has been fully vaccinated, don’t let up on your social distancing, mask-wearing, and other safety precautions that you already have in place. While federal guidance allows you to ease up on quarantine procedures for vaccinated workers, that is currently the extent to which you should relax your protocols.
  • If your business is subject to California’s broad data privacy law – the CCPA – you need to recognize that collecting information from employees about their vaccination status triggers the “notice at collection” requirement. While you may not have to provide a different or new CCPA notice every time you ask for or receive such information, you may need to ensure that the broader notice you have already provided to all employees (i.e., the notice to inform the employee of all categories of personal information your company collects about or from the employee, along with all the business purposes for which the information is used) covers this type of data collection. Check with your legal counsel to ensure you are in compliance with California law.  

 

Can Employers Mandate a Vaccine Authorized for Emergency Use?

March 23 - Posted at 2:47 PM Tagged: , , , , , , , , ,

Federal and state anti-discrimination agencies have issued guidance for employers that want to require workers to get a COVID-19 vaccine—but at least one lawsuit has claimed that employers can’t mandate a vaccine that is approved only for emergency use. While this argument might not hold up in court, employers should be aware of the risks associated with a vaccine mandate.

When employees refuse a vaccine, the employer should address their concerns and explain the reasons why the company has adopted a mandatory vaccination policy. An open dialogue and education will be key, as will following FDA updates in this regard and consulting with legal counsel.

There are many reasons why an employee may be unwilling to receive a COVID-19 vaccine, and employers may need to explore reasonable accommodations, particularly with employees who have disability-related and religious objections to being vaccinated.

Emergency Use Authorization

Distribution of COVID-19 vaccines has been issued under the Food and Drug Administration’s (FDA’s) Emergency Use Authorization (EUA) rather than the FDA’s usual processes. But the FDA has said that the vaccine has met its “rigorous, scientific standards for safety, effectiveness and manufacturing quality” and that “its known and potential benefits clearly outweigh its known and potential risks.”

An employee who recently filed a lawsuit challenging an employer’s vaccine mandate argued that the EUA states that people must have “the option to accept or refuse administration of the [vaccine]” and be informed “of the consequence, if any, of refusing administration of the [vaccine] and of the alternatives to the [vaccine] that are available and of their benefits and risks.”

Although the employee in the case works in the public sector, many employment relationships in the private sector are at-will, which means either the employer or the worker can terminate the employment for any lawful reason. An employer that mandates a vaccine may argue the consequence of refusing a vaccine is being fired.

“Consensus in the legal community has been that, at least in the private sector, employers may require at-will employees to be vaccinated, subject to accommodations that may be required for medical or religious reasons,” said Kevin Troutman, an attorney with Fisher Phillips in Houston, and Richard Meneghello, an attorney with Fisher Phillips in Portland, Ore.

The U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) has issued guidance indicating that employers generally can mandate COVID-19 vaccinations. “The EEOC specifically addressed vaccinations that are authorized or approved by the FDA,” noted Anne-Marie Vercruysse Welch, an attorney with Clark Hill in Birmingham, Mich.  

The California Department of Fair Employment and Housing (DFEH) also recently said that the Fair Employment and Housing Act (FEHA) generally allows employers to mandate vaccines that have been approved by the FDA. The DFEH specially noted that the FDA has authorized and recommended three COVID-19 vaccines—all of which have been authorized under an EUA.

But vaccine mandates may still be risky for employers. It is possible that employees who are terminated for refusing to receive a vaccine authorized by the FDA under an EUA could try to pursue claims for wrongful termination in violation of public policy. The viability of such claims will depend on applicable state law regarding a potential public policy exception to at-will employment and how courts—state and federal—construe the EUA wording.

The regulatory framework is still unclear and a number of states are considering legislation that would prohibit employers from requiring employees to receive a COVID-19 vaccine. If these bills become law, the uncertainty regarding the EUA issue will become moot in those states, at least as of the time the laws go into effect.

Reasonable Accommodations

The EEOC issued guidance stating that employees may be exempt from employer vaccination mandates under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 (Title VII) and other workplace laws.

California’s guidance noted that the FEHA prohibits employers from discriminating against employees or job applicants based on a protected characteristic—such as age, race or sex—and requires employers to explore reasonable accommodations related to a worker’s disability or sincerely held religious beliefs.

“If an employee has a medical condition or sincerely held religious belief that would prevent them from being able to be vaccinated, their employer must go through the interactive process to determine if a reasonable accommodation is available,” Welch said. She recommended that employers have accommodation forms available to employees to begin the interactive process and document the steps the employer took to attempt to arrive at a reasonable accommodation.

Accommodations could take various forms, depending upon the employee’s job and setting. Employers may offer remote work, change the physical workspace, revise practices or provide a leave of absence. In each situation, the employer must determine whether an accommodation would enable the employee to safely perform the essential functions of their job.

Some employees might refuse to receive a vaccine for reasons that aren’t legally protected, such as a general distrust of vaccines. Employers need to be very thoughtful as they consider whether to mandate vaccines because employers may have to fire a material portion of their workforce who refuse to be vaccinated or allow some employees to ignore a company policywhich can lead to discrimination risks and employee morale issues.

Encouraging Vaccination

“Most employers are encouraging vaccination rather than requiring it,” Welch observed. 

Coburn recommended that employers focus on the following measures to encourage employees to receive a vaccination:

  • Develop vaccination education campaigns.
  • Facilitate vaccine access.
  • Ensure that employees who participate in an employer group health plan know that the cost of vaccination is covered. 
  • Provide paid time off for employees to get the vaccine and recover from any potential side effects.
  • Provide incentives to employees who get vaccinated.

Employers that want to offer incentives should be mindful of wellness program limitations and offer alternative ways for employees who cannot get vaccinated to receive the incentives, Coburn noted.

OSHA Issues New Guidance for Employers Combating COVID-19

February 10 - Posted at 10:30 AM Tagged: , , , , , , ,

On January 29, 2021, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) published “Protecting Workers: Guidance on Mitigating and Preventing the Spread of COVID-19 in the Workplace.” The Guidance incorporates much of the existing guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), adds to guidance OSHA previously issued, and reflects strategies and practices familiar to many employers.

The Guidance, which is intended for non-healthcare employers, is not mandatory and does not have the same legal effect as an OSHA standard. Nevertheless, it provides insight into OSHA’s views and previews what the agency may include in an Emergency Temporary Standard (ETS), which the Biden administration has directed OSHA to consider and potentially implement by March 15, 2021.

OSHA’s Guidance provides all employers an important opportunity to review their COVID-19 prevention strategies. While most of the Guidance is not new, it provides a handful of new recommendations employers may want to consider adding to their current COVID-19 protocols. The new recommendations include:

1. Establish a system to communicate and provide training to all employees on the employer’s COVID-19 policies and establish an avenue for employees to report COVID-19-related concerns anonymously, without fear of retaliation. All such communications should be in languages employees understand and provided in a manner accessible to individuals with disabilities.

2. Make COVID-19 vaccines available at no cost to all eligible employees and provide information and training on the benefits and safety of vaccinations. While OSHA does not specify the information or training it suggests employers provide, the Guidance references CDC’s “Frequently Asked Questions About COVID-19 Vaccination.”

3. Don’t distinguish between workers who are vaccinated and those who are not. All vaccinated employees should continue to wear a mask, socially distance, and follow other COVID-19 protocols (e.g., exclusion from the workplace following COVID-19 exposure). This is necessary because, as OSHA explains, at this time, “there is not evidence that COVID-19 vaccines prevent transmission of the virus from person-to-person.”

4. Provide all workers with face coverings (i.e., cloth face coverings and surgical masks), unless their work task requires a respirator, at no cost.

OSHA recommends that employers provide all workers with face coverings, which include cloth face coverings and surgical masks, for use in the workplace with limited exception and unless their work tasks require a respirator (such as an N95 filtering facepiece respirator) or would present a hazard. OSHA also recommends that employers consider acquiring masks with clear coverings over the mouth for all workers to facilitate lip-reading for employees who are deaf or have a hearing deficit. OSHA further recommends that employers require all other individuals at the workplace over the age of two, such as visitors or customers, to wear face coverings. Where employees with disabilities cannot wear a certain type of face covering, employers should discuss the possibility of providing a reasonable accommodation using an interactive process. OSHA’s Guidance on reasonable accommodations for face covering requirements dovetails with guidance on reasonable accommodations previously provided by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC).

OSHA has explained in previous guidance that cloth face coverings are not personal protective equipment (PPE), but can be used as recommended by CDC as a preventive measure in an employer’s COVID-19 exposure control plan. The new Guidance acknowledges that cloth face coverings can reduce exposure for the person wearing the covering in some instances.

The rest of the Guidance reviews additional practices and protocols that OSHA suggests are necessary for an effective COVID-19 prevention program. These are as follows:

1. Assign a coordinator. OSHA recommends assigning a workplace coordinator to be responsible for COVID-19 issues. The coordinator should administer the COVID-19 prevention program on the employer’s behalf.

2. Conduct a hazard assessment. It is important for employers to identify where and how workers may be exposed to COVID-19 and implement responsive COVID-19 hazard controls. As OSHA points out, it is important to consult with employees, especially those who are in the trenches, when conducting the assessment to understand the realities of the workplace.

3. Identify a combination of measures that will prevent and limit the spread of COVID-19. OSHA provides a hierarchy of controls, prioritizing engineering controls that eliminate the COVID-19 hazard entirely, followed by administrative policies and PPE to protect workers from COVID-19 hazards. OSHA lists several commonly recognized measures that employers should take and provides details to assist employers to implement these measures effectively:

a. Separate and send home infected or potentially infected people from the workplace.

The first step in any workplace safety hazard assessment is to eliminate the hazard. In the case of COVID-19, that means removing infected or potentially infected people from the workplace. We recommend that employers communicate clear expectations to employees and adopt employee and visitor screening practices consistent with state and local requirements and recommendations.

OSHA incorporates existing CDC guidance on how long individuals who are infected should isolate and how long workers who have been exposed to COVID-19 through a close contact with a known infected individual should be excluded from the workplace and directed to quarantine. Workers who have COVID-19 should isolate until they meet the CDC guidelines, or applicable state and local health department requirements, to end isolation (at a minimum, 10 days).

As for workers who are exposed to COVID-19, CDC continues to endorse that these individuals should quarantine for 14 days. CDC explains that any quarantine shorter than 14 days balances reduced burden against a small possibility of spreading the virus. With that balancing act in mind, CDC recognizes that local public health departments may adopt shortened quarantine options if the exposed individual is asymptomatic; for example, ending quarantine after day 10 without testing, or 7 days after receiving a negative test result (test must occur on day 5 or later). CDC advises that in limited circumstances, employers may consider allowing critical infrastructure workers to continue working following exposure.

OSHA explains that most employers will follow a symptom-based strategy for identifying, separating, and sending workers home. OSHA also recognizes that there are some circumstances where “employers may consider a COVID-19 test-based strategy.”

b. Implement physical distancing in all communal work areas.

OSHA explains that the “best way to protect individuals is to stay far enough away so as not to breathe in particles produced by an infected person.” Keeping 6 feet of distance is generally recommended, but it is “not a guarantee of safety, especially in enclosed spaces or those with poor ventilation.” To increase physical distance, it is often important to limit the number of people in one place at any given time and increase physical space between people. OSHA recommends numerous strategies that many employers have adopted over the past 10 months, including telework, flexible work hours, staggered shifts, delivery of remote services, limiting the size of meetings, and using visible cues to encouraging distancing, to name a few.

c. Install barriers where physical distancing cannot be maintained. OSHA recommends installing transparent shields or other solid barriers at fixed workstations where workers cannot maintain 6 feet from other people.

d. Suppress the spread of COVID-19 by using face coverings to prevent COVID-19-infected individuals from spreading the virus through respiratory droplets when they speak, sneeze, or cough.

e. Improve ventilation. OSHA directs employers to the CDC’s guidance on ways to optimize ventilation following the American Society of Heating, Refrigerating and Air-Conditioning Engineers (ASHRAE) “Guidance for Building Operations During the COVID-19 Pandemic.” The OSHA Guidance also details steps employers should take to evaluate their ventilation systems and, where needed, increase air filtration to prevent the spread of COVID-19. In addition to generally increasing ventilation rates, employers are encouraged to improve central air filtration by having a MERV-13 filter (the grade of filter recommended by ASHRAE) or the highest filter compatible installed on the system. The Guidance further recommends that employers ensure ventilation systems are functioning properly, well maintained, and regularly cleaned and serviced.

f. Use applicable PPE to protect workers from exposure. When other measures cannot be implemented or do not protect workers fully, the Guidance concludes that current OSHA standards require that employers provide PPE as a supplement to other controls. (As discussed above, OSHA maintains that cloth face coverings are not PPE.) The standards referenced in the Guidance include OSHA’s PPE and respiratory protection standards, 29 CFR 1910, Subpart I, which require employers, at a minimum, complete a written hazard assessment to determine the need for PPE and PPE appropriate for the hazard and corresponding procedures and training. Therefore, employers are responsible for determining when and what PPE is necessary to protect workers while in the workplace. If an employer determines that an employee must wear PPE while at work and to perform a job safely, the PPE should be provided at no cost to workers and maintained in a safe condition. In application to COVID-19, CDC has addressed when PPE is necessary for job tasks that require interactions with individuals known or suspected of having COVID-19 and, depending on the task, recommends PPE consisting of surgical masks or respirators, such as the filtering facepiece respirators (e.g., N95) or personal air purifying respirators (PAPRs), with eye and face protection (i.e., face shields), protective gowns, and gloves.

If workers are required to use respirators to protect against COVID-19 exposures, employers should comply with the existing respirator standard which requires, among other things, that employers have (i) a written respirator program, (ii) a documented hazard assessment showing the selection of respirator for the hazard, (iii) ensured employees who must use respirators are medically evaluated, fit tested, and trained on their use, maintenance, and care before use, and (iv) implemented procedures to guarantee respirators are used, stored, and, where appropriate, disposed of safely. Many of these requirements must be completed annually.

Although the obligations for an employer are reduced, employers have similar compliance obligations when employees are permitted to use respirators voluntarily. These requirements include ensuring the use of respirators will not create a hazard, which generally requires a hazard assessment, written program detailing conditions of voluntary use, steps to prevent employees from wearing respirators improperly, and measures to ensure employer-provided respirators are properly stored, maintained, and disposed. An employer also must provide employees a copy of the respiratory standard’s Appendix D, which advises employees to consult with their physician on the appropriateness of respirator use. Therefore, employers must be prepared to comply with certain provisions of the PPE and respirator standard if allowing employees to use respirators in the workplace to protect against COVID-19.
There are times when PPE is not required under OSHA standards or other industry-specific guidance but may be provided as a reasonable accommodation under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). Other workers may want to use different or additional PPE voluntarily due to concerns over their personal safety or the safety of a family member who is at higher risk for severe illness. The public dialogue about respirators has increased in recent weeks given the identification of the new virus variants and decisions of leaders in some European countries to require N95s, or similar medical-grade respirators, in many public spaces. Employers should be prepared for some employees to elect to use N95 respirators, double masks, or other equipment at work. In those cases, OSHA recommends that employers encourage and support the employees’ voluntary use of PPE. In doing so, however, employers should comply with applicable federal and state standards, including OSHA’s standards on PPE use, and ensure that employees’ voluntary use of PPE does not pose an additional workplace hazard.

g. Provide supplies for good hygiene, including access to soap and water and hand sanitizer, and take other steps to promote hand washing and respiratory etiquette.

h. Perform routine cleaning and disinfecting. OSHA summarizes and directs employers to follow existing CDC guidance on cleaning and disinfection measures. OSHA’s Guidance also reminds employers that workers may need PPE during disinfecting based on the setting and product used. Employers also may need to comply with federal and state standards and regulations governing use, storage, and disposal of hazardous chemicals, such as OSHA’s Hazard Communication Standard.

4. Consider protections for workers at higher risk for severe illness. Workers with disabilities may be entitled to “reasonable accommodations” under state and federal law to protect them from the risk of contracting COVID-19. The EEOC discusses reasonable accommodations that could offer protection to an employee who is at higher personal risk from COVID-19 due to a pre-existing disability in D.1 of its “What You Should Know About COVID-19 and the ADA and Rehabilitation Act.” OSHA encourages employers to consider whether workers who have an increased personal risk of contracting a severe respiratory illness from COVID-19 (including older adults and anyone who has a serious medical condition) can do some or all of their work at home or in a less densely occupied, better ventilated workplace.

5. Establish a system for communicating effectively with workers. Employers should ask workers to report, without fear of reprisal, symptoms of COVID-19, possible COVID-19 exposures, and possible COVID-19 hazards at work. Similarly, employers should establish channels for communicating important information to employees and, of course, communicate with workers in a language they understand.

6. Educate and train workers on COVID-19 policies and procedures. OSHA recommends that, along with training workers on company policies, employers educate workers about the basic facts about COVID-19, including how it is spread. This can go a long way to helping workers understand why proper distancing, appropriate face coverings, and other measures are important to protect them. OSHA outlines a number of other topics that should be included in worker and supervisor training. OSHA recommends that the training be in plain language that workers understand (including non-English languages and American Sign Language or other accessible communication methods, if applicable).

7. Instruct workers who are infected or potentially infected to stay home and isolate or quarantine. OSHA recommends attendance policies that are non-punitive.

8. Minimize the negative impact of quarantine and isolation on workers. OSHA recommends that, “when possible,” employers allow workers to telework, use paid sick leave, if available, or consider implementing paid leave. Employers that were covered under the Families First Coronavirus Response Act (FFCRA), generally employers with less than 500 employees, can still take advantage of tax credits in connection with voluntarily providing paid leave for COVID-19 related reasons through March 31, 2021.

9. Isolate and send home workers who show symptoms at work.

10. Perform enhanced cleaning and disinfection after people suspected or confirmed to have COVID-19 have been in the workplace. Employers should follow CDC’s guidance, which includes increasing air circulation, cleaning, and disinfection using an EPA-registered disinfectant identified for use against SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19. Employers are required to comply with existing OSHA standards, including those related to hazard communication and PPE appropriate for exposure to cleaning chemicals.

11. Provide guidance on screening and testing. Employers should follow state and local guidance for screening and viral testing (as distinguished from antibody testing) in workplaces. Employers that adopt workplace testing programs should inform workers of testing requirements. We recommend employers review recent guidance from the CDC placing a new emphasis on informed consent prior to testing.

12. Record and report COVID-19 infections and deaths as required by existing OSHA regulations. Employers must record work-related cases of COVID-19 illness on their Form 300 Logs if certain criteria are met. An employer has an obligation to record an employee’s COVID-19 illness if: the exposure is work-related, it results in a fatality, lost workdays, job restrictions or transfers, or otherwise requires medical treatment beyond first aid. Employers must report to OSHA a COVID-19 illness if an employee is admitted to the in-patient service of a hospital within 24 hours of a workplace exposure to COVID-19 or if an employee dies within 30 days of a workplace exposure to COVID-19. In the case of a hospitalization, an employer has 24 hours to report to OSHA from when the in-patient hospitalization occurs or when the employer learns of the hospitalization if the latter occurs later. In the case of a fatality, the employer must report a work-related COVID-19 death within 8 hours of the death or within 8 hours of learning of the employee’s death, if the death occurred within 30 days of the workplace exposure. These are fact-driven, often complicated, analyses and not every employee who tests positive for COVID-19 needs to be recorded on an employer’s OSHA 300 Log or reported to OSHA, for that matter.

13. Implement protections from retaliation and set up an anonymous process for workers to report COVID-19-related hazards. OSHA explains that the Occupational Safety and Health Act prohibits employers from discriminating against an employee for raising “a reasonable concern about infection control related to COVID-19.”

14. Comply with existing OSHA standards. OSHA reminds employers that all OSHA standards that apply to protecting workers from infection, including requirements for PPE, respiratory protection, sanitation, protection from bloodborne pathogens, and requirements for employees to access medical and exposure records, remain in place. As mentioned above, while there is no OSHA standard specific to COVID-19, employers still have an obligation under the General Duty Clause to “provide a safe and healthful workplace that is free from recognized hazards that can cause serious physical harm or death.”

Next Steps

Employers should consider the following next steps:

  • Review your COVID-19 prevention program and consider adopting additional elements to align with OSHA recommendations.
  • Train employees, including supervisors, on your latest COVID-19-related policies and prevention strategies.
  • Evaluate availability of vaccines in your state and locality, strategize for making vaccines available to employees, and develop your employee communication strategy.
  • Continue to monitor new and evolving guidance and requirements from OSHA, the CDC, and the EEOC, as well as state and localities where your workplaces are located.

The year 2020 highlighted the need for all of us to be agile, adjusting and responding as our world shifted, science evolved, and best practices for responding to COVID-19 developed and changed. This year is shaping up in a similar manner. 

Article courtesy of Jackson Lewis

© 2022 Administrators Advisory Group, Inc. All Rights Reserved