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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).

 

Sixth Circuit Dissolves Stay of OSHA COVID-19 Vaccine ETS

December 20 - Posted at 10:41 AM Tagged: , , , , , , ,

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit has lifted the Fifth Circuit’s stay of the Occupational Safety and Health Administration’s (OSHA) Emergency Temporary Standard (ETS) on COVID-19 vaccination and testing for employers with at least 100 employees. 

Multiple parties, including 27 states, have filed emergency motions with the U.S. Supreme Court to block the ETS.

In an opinion authored by Judge Jane B. Stanch, a three-judge panel determined in a 2-1 vote that, in light of the continued spread of COVID-19 variants, OSHA “must be able to respond to dangers as they evolve.” Judge Stanch was appointed to the bench by President Barack Obama. She was joined by Judge Julia Smith Gibbons, an appointee of President George W. Bush. Judge Joan Larsen, an appointee of President Donald Trump, dissented, noting employees are exposed to COVID-19 even while not working and OSHA had not established there was “grave danger” in the workplace or the ETS requirements would correct that.

OSHA quickly announced that it will not issue citations for noncompliance before January 10, 2022. The agency also stated it will exercise its discretion and not issue citations for noncompliance with testing requirements under the ETS before February 9, 2022, if an employer is exercising reasonable, good faith efforts to come into compliance with the standard.

The ETS includes face covering requirements, a written policy, collection of proof of vaccination, creation of a vaccination status roster, removal of COVID-19 positive or untested employees from the workplace, maintenance of employee medical records, and certain employee communications about the employer’s policies and vaccine information from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Covered employers will need to decide whether to adopt a mandatory vaccination policy, subject to reasonable accommodations and required exemptions, or a vaccination or weekly test policy. Covered employers implementing a mandatory vaccination plan still must comply with all other requirements, such as weekly testing for employees who are excused from the mandate as a reasonable accommodation.

None of the 22 approved State Plans covering private employers have taken steps to enact an ETS, but they are required to notify OSHA of their intentions to do so within 15 days of promulgation of the standard, and to act within 30 days. In addition, California’s Cal/OSHA has approved revisions to the state’s existing COVID-19 emergency temporary standard. It is unclear whether it will take further action now with respect to the OSHA ETS. It is also unclear whether the Fifth Circuit stay that was in effect until December 17 tolls the deadlines for OSHA State plan adoption deadlines. The ETS has immediate effect in the other 29 states and territories, albeit with the new enforcement delays.

Employers in states and localities that prohibit or restrict vaccination or face covering requirements must be mindful of state and local laws, ordinances, and executive orders that might limit the employer’s ability to require vaccination or otherwise conflict with ETS requirements, particularly if an employer opts for the ETS’s mandatory vaccination policy. While the Sixth Circuit lifted the stay, it has yet to decide the case on the merits, including arguments over whether the ETS overrides state or local laws due to federal preemption. Significantly, Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, Iowa, Kansas, Montana, North Dakota, Tennessee, Texas, Utah, and West Virginia have enacted measures that would restrict or impact vaccination requirements. Some of these states are OSHA State Plans and some are actually federal OSHA jurisdictions, creating additional compliance confusion.

Several petitioners have already appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court to stay enforcement of the ETS, emphasizing the irreparable harm they will suffer in having to implement the ETS and providing supporting witness declarations. They continue to argue irreparable harm based on labor shortages, the unavailability of tests and unintended (and ironic) consequences of laying off vaccinated workers to financially support compliance. In addition to the challengers’ concerns about the economic viability of their businesses, they argue their likelihood of success in enjoining the standard on the merits and balance of equities weigh in favor of a stay.

Emergency appeals, such as the request for a stay of a ruling by a Circuit Court, go directly to a justice assigned to that Circuit — in this case, to Justice Brett Kavanaugh, who is assigned to the Sixth Circuit. The assigned justice may distribute the application to the full court to consider or decide the request on their own. Just a few months ago, Justice Amy Coney Barrett rejected an emergency request made by a group of Indiana University students seeking to block enforcement of the school’s vaccine mandate after the Seventh Circuit refused to enjoin the mandate. Justice Barrett did not refer the emergency application to the full Supreme Court and did not provide an explanation in the denial of the petitioners’ request.

If you have questions or need assistance on the OSHA ETS, please reach out to AAG for guidance. 

Unmasking the Challenges: 7 Options for Managing a Partially Vaccinated Workforce

June 02 - Posted at 9:00 AM Tagged: , , , , , , , , ,

Now that most states, the CDC, and OSHA have (or may soon) lift mask mandates for vaccinated workers, what is an employer to do about revealing an employee’s vaccination status? Under any relaxed masking guidance applicable to those who are fully vaccinated, customers, visitors, and co-workers are likely to draw their own conclusions about the vaccination status of everyone else in the workplace based upon whether or not they are wearing a mask. This addresses some of the legal and practical considerations for employers dealing with a partially vaccinated workforce and provides seven options for you to consider as you navigate this rapidly evolving area.       

The Push to Unmask

Anxious to get back to normal after more than a year of mask mandates and social distancing, employers and employees are ready to do away with COVID-19 restrictions. Employees in certain industries (such as health care workers and educators) will likely continue to be required to mask up and social distance for the foreseeable future. However, other employers are developing various approaches and policies to lift masking requirements for employees (and others) who are fully vaccinated following new CDC and OSHA guidance.   

  • For a summary of the CDC’s guidance on scrapping mask mandates for fully vaccinated workers and a seven-step blueprint for employers to overcome risks and hurdles, click here.
  • For a summary of the three options that employers have in light of OSHA’s subsequent unmasking announcement, click here.

Unmasking Employees Based On “Proof” of Vaccination

“Proof” of vaccination status is and will continue to be a significant consideration for employers when lifting mask mandates. Indeed, many employees are under the mistaken belief that an employer cannot ask vaccine status. However, per the guidance of the EEOC and other state agencies, you are permitted to request vaccination status. In California, local health authorities such as in Santa Clara County, have already mandated that businesses and government entities ascertain the vaccination status of all employees, independent contractors, and volunteers who are or will be working at a facility or worksite in the county.

Indeed, the inquiry may be required to determine which employees can and which employees cannot unmask. As an example, the Oregon Occupational Safety and Health Administration has already issued guidance that requires employers to “verify the vaccination status” of workers before permitting them to unmask. The CDC, OSHA, and many state authorities agree that only those employees who are fully vaccinated can follow relaxed COVID-19 protocols, while those who are not fully vaccinated must continue to observe safety protocols such as mask wearing and social distancing. During COVID-19 inspections, OSHA will likely require employers to show how they have documented or “verified” vaccination status where employees are permitted to work under the relaxed COVID-19 safety protocols.  

In determining an employee’s vaccine status, however, you must carefully limit any vaccine-related inquiry only to vaccination status and not inquire further, as such follow-up could improperly elicit information about an employee’s medical disability or other family medical information. Given that this is likely considered medical information, such information should be kept separate and confidential. Additionally, employers subject to the CCPA in states such as California need to understand that collecting vaccine-related information triggers the CCPA notice obligation.

Navigating State Limitations on Requiring Proof of Vaccination Status

Even though some federal, state, or local agencies may require or request that employers track employee vaccine status, there is a growing move in some states to protect vaccine status as confidential, private information. States are literally all over the map when it comes to vaccine disclosure or use of so called “vaccine passports.” Some states have adopted or are considering laws that promote vaccine passports. New York, for example, launched a COVID-19 vaccine passport initiative known as the Excelsior Pass that allows users to provide proof of vaccination where required. Other states, like Hawaii, have or are considering similar passport systems that promote vaccine disclosure to assist in safe reopening of business and public access. 

However, many other states have gone in the opposite direction to protect individual privacy rights. These states have acted to restrict vaccine passports, with government entities and businesses barred from requiring proof of vaccinations. For example, Florida Governor Ron DeSantis recently signed into law a statute that prohibits the use of vaccine passports by government entities or businesses, stating that “in Florida, your personal choice regarding vaccinations will be protected and no business or government entity will be able to deny you services based on your decision.” Other states such as Alabama, Arizona, Idaho, Indiana, Iowa, Georgia, South Carolina, South Dakota, Texas, and Wyoming have also restricted vaccine passports or requirements. 

Arkansas and Montana have taken a more aggressive approach to address individuals’ privacy concerns and limit disclosure of vaccination status. Governor Hutchinson signed into law a statute that prevents state and local government entities from requiring proof of vaccinations as a condition of employment or to access goods and services. The law provides some exceptions for state-owned medical facilities. Montana Governor Gianforte has signed into law a statute that provides even greater protections for the unvaccinated, generally prohibiting employers from requiring any of the current vaccinations.   

Given the fluidity in this area, you should remain mindful of the need to monitor these developments and check with counsel before implementing any vaccine-tracking policies.

Additional Landmines if Fully Vaccinated Employees Unmask

Aside from the spate of state and local government restrictions and mandates, employers face other potential legal landmines and practical problems when tracking and/or disclosing an employee’s vaccination status. As mentioned above, you should consider the legal privacy considerations in requesting and maintaining the vaccination status of employees.

As employers move to allow fully vaccinated workers to unmask employees, there will likely be legal, privacy, and employee morale issues related to any express or perceived disclosure of employee vaccination status. Indeed, even without an explicit disclosure, others will likely be able to decipher the vaccination status of employees. While employees are choosing to voluntarily disclose their vaccination status to their co-workers, you should not adopt such a casual attitude. You should consider the ramifications of disclosure of vaccine status without employee consent or as a result of a “company policy” or practice. Such practices could potentially give rise to exposure in areas of breach of confidentiality, privacy, discrimination, retaliation, and more.  

Company disclosure of vaccine status may also inadvertently expose employees with legitimate disability issues or religious objections related to the vaccine. Employee morale could be compromised if employees believe they are being pitted against each other due to their vaccine status, especially if the company is somehow involved in the disclosures. Additionally, a policy of company-wide disclosure might even boomerang, potentially discouraging employees who do not want to be ridiculed or harassed by co-workers who are opposed to the vaccination.    

What Should Employers Do? 7 Options to Address a Partially Vaccinated Workforce

How to relax restrictions for those who are fully vaccinated while maintaining confidentiality and a safe workplace for all? How to balance the possible exposure and potential federal and state safety agency fines if you don’t get it right? While there are rarely clear answers, and legal liabilities remain unclear, below are some options employers have been adopting to deal with the dilemma of the partially vaccinated workforce.

  1. Continue to Mask Up. As noted, most jurisdictions can ease up on the COVID-19 safety protocols for those who are fully vaccinated (with certain exceptions such as healthcare workers). Nonetheless, some employers are choosing to require the entire workforce to continue to follow COVID-19 protocols. The protocols for all workers will remain in place until further guidance is issued. For non-healthcare employers, this may likely be an unpopular choice. But this option avoids landmines and morale issues created by a workforce that is partially masked and partially unmasked.
  2. Vaccine Mandate. In certain locations, you may have the option of adopting a vaccine mandate where permitted by state laws. Under this option, you would eliminate unvaccinated employees from the workplace and the remaining vaccinated workforce could unmask without concern. This option comes with increased legal risks and other practical issues in implementing the mandate, including exploring reasonable accommodations for those with protected reasons to remain unvaccinated. The mandates also create morale and employee defection issues. And your organization could be considered an outlier depending on your location and industry, as a recent FP Flash Survey revealed that fewer than one in 20 employers (4%) were mandating or considering mandating the vaccine.
  3. A Pure Honor System – Permit Fully Vaccinated to Unmask Without “Proof.” Employers who are choosing this option would not mandate the vaccination or require documentation to prove COVID-19 vaccination status. You would notify your workforce that fully vaccinated employees can ease up on COVID-19 safety protocols while all those who are not fully vaccinated are instructed to maintain the protocols and continue to mask up. This option comes with risk that employees who are not fully vaccinated will not appropriately follow the honor system. Without verification, this honor system may run afoul federal or state safety requirements. This option may also lead to employee morale issues and third-party liability concerns of those fully vaccinated workers, clients, or customers who do not trust the honor system. In addition, this is not a workable option in jurisdictions that require tracking of COVID-19 vaccination status.
  4. Employee Audits. Under this option, you would advise your workforce that fully vaccinated employees can dispense with relaxed COVID-19 protocols – subject to random audits of those employees who have dispensed with the relaxed COVID-19 protocols. If an employee is subject to a random audit, the unmasked employee would be required to provide proof of COVID-19 vaccination status. Effective management auditing and policing would be a key variable. This will not be a workable option in jurisdictions that require tracking of COVID-19 vaccination status.
  5. Employee Self-Certification. Another option is to allow employees to provide a self-certification of their COVID-19 vaccination status. Employees that self-certify they are fully vaccinated would be permitted to dispense with relaxed COVID-19 safety protocols. Those who certify that they are not fully vaccinated or decline to complete the self-certification would be required to maintain COVID-19 safety protocols. A template self-certification form may be found here. It is important to be mindful that self-certification may not be an acceptable form of “proof” in certain jurisdictions that have specific heightened criteria specifying what meets the verification or proof of COVID-19 vaccination standard.
  6. Requiring Certain “Proof” of Vaccination Status. For some employers that want to choose to permit employees to unmask, the above options may not go far enough. You could instead choose to require that all employees provide certain documented “proof” that they are fully vaccinated to designated personnel. Based upon the response, the employer will permit those who have provided the required proof that they are fully vaccinated to dispense with relaxed COVID-19 safety protocols. All others would be required to continue to follow COVID-19 protocols. Under this option, you would monitor and police employee violations. Obtaining proof and policing may limit liability concerns but also places a greater administrative burden on the employer.
  7. Requiring Proof and Disclosing Vaccine Status. Under this final option, you would request “proof” of vaccine status (similar to that required under option number 6) but would provide a sticker, badge, or lanyard to fully vaccinated employee once they submit “proof” of full vaccination. Those who have the company-issued sticker, badge, lanyard, etc. indicating they are fully vaccinated would be allowed to dispense with relaxed COVID-19 protocols, while all others are required to follow safety protocols. Unlike option number 6, you would take an affirmative step to identify those who unmask as fully vaccinated. Though this option provides greater clarity in the verification process and compliance with the policy, it also comes with greater risk of breach of privacy and confidentiality concerns – as well as potential employee morale issues. You should proceed with caution and consider obtaining written authorization from employees to disclose their vaccination status. It is also important to remain cognizant that some states such as California impose specific legal requirements that must be followed when asking for an employee’s consent to disclose confidential medical information such as vaccine status.

Conclusion

Each of these options come with some level of risk. You should explore the various paths available to you with your legal counsel before adopting any of them, especially in light of rapidly changing state and local laws in this area. Also, note that every option in which some employees are masked and some are unmasked includes the risk of employee conflict or harassment issues. This risk should be evaluated and addressed up front through training, ongoing communications emphasizing the importance of mutual respect in the workplace, adoption of written policies and procedures, and effective management oversight. 

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