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Now that most states, the CDC, and OSHA have (or may soon) lift mask mandates for vaccinated workers, what is an employer to do about revealing an employee’s vaccination status? Under any relaxed masking guidance applicable to those who are fully vaccinated, customers, visitors, and co-workers are likely to draw their own conclusions about the vaccination status of everyone else in the workplace based upon whether or not they are wearing a mask. This addresses some of the legal and practical considerations for employers dealing with a partially vaccinated workforce and provides seven options for you to consider as you navigate this rapidly evolving area.
The Push to Unmask
Anxious to get back to normal after more than a year of mask mandates and social distancing, employers and employees are ready to do away with COVID-19 restrictions. Employees in certain industries (such as health care workers and educators) will likely continue to be required to mask up and social distance for the foreseeable future. However, other employers are developing various approaches and policies to lift masking requirements for employees (and others) who are fully vaccinated following new CDC and OSHA guidance.
Unmasking Employees Based On “Proof” of Vaccination
“Proof” of vaccination status is and will continue to be a significant consideration for employers when lifting mask mandates. Indeed, many employees are under the mistaken belief that an employer cannot ask vaccine status. However, per the guidance of the EEOC and other state agencies, you are permitted to request vaccination status. In California, local health authorities such as in Santa Clara County, have already mandated that businesses and government entities ascertain the vaccination status of all employees, independent contractors, and volunteers who are or will be working at a facility or worksite in the county.
Indeed, the inquiry may be required to determine which employees can and which employees cannot unmask. As an example, the Oregon Occupational Safety and Health Administration has already issued guidance that requires employers to “verify the vaccination status” of workers before permitting them to unmask. The CDC, OSHA, and many state authorities agree that only those employees who are fully vaccinated can follow relaxed COVID-19 protocols, while those who are not fully vaccinated must continue to observe safety protocols such as mask wearing and social distancing. During COVID-19 inspections, OSHA will likely require employers to show how they have documented or “verified” vaccination status where employees are permitted to work under the relaxed COVID-19 safety protocols.
In determining an employee’s vaccine status, however, you must carefully limit any vaccine-related inquiry only to vaccination status and not inquire further, as such follow-up could improperly elicit information about an employee’s medical disability or other family medical information. Given that this is likely considered medical information, such information should be kept separate and confidential. Additionally, employers subject to the CCPA in states such as California need to understand that collecting vaccine-related information triggers the CCPA notice obligation.
Navigating State Limitations on Requiring Proof of Vaccination Status
Even though some federal, state, or local agencies may require or request that employers track employee vaccine status, there is a growing move in some states to protect vaccine status as confidential, private information. States are literally all over the map when it comes to vaccine disclosure or use of so called “vaccine passports.” Some states have adopted or are considering laws that promote vaccine passports. New York, for example, launched a COVID-19 vaccine passport initiative known as the Excelsior Pass that allows users to provide proof of vaccination where required. Other states, like Hawaii, have or are considering similar passport systems that promote vaccine disclosure to assist in safe reopening of business and public access.
However, many other states have gone in the opposite direction to protect individual privacy rights. These states have acted to restrict vaccine passports, with government entities and businesses barred from requiring proof of vaccinations. For example, Florida Governor Ron DeSantis recently signed into law a statute that prohibits the use of vaccine passports by government entities or businesses, stating that “in Florida, your personal choice regarding vaccinations will be protected and no business or government entity will be able to deny you services based on your decision.” Other states such as Alabama, Arizona, Idaho, Indiana, Iowa, Georgia, South Carolina, South Dakota, Texas, and Wyoming have also restricted vaccine passports or requirements.
Arkansas and Montana have taken a more aggressive approach to address individuals’ privacy concerns and limit disclosure of vaccination status. Governor Hutchinson signed into law a statute that prevents state and local government entities from requiring proof of vaccinations as a condition of employment or to access goods and services. The law provides some exceptions for state-owned medical facilities. Montana Governor Gianforte has signed into law a statute that provides even greater protections for the unvaccinated, generally prohibiting employers from requiring any of the current vaccinations.
Given the fluidity in this area, you should remain mindful of the need to monitor these developments and check with counsel before implementing any vaccine-tracking policies.
Additional Landmines if Fully Vaccinated Employees Unmask
Aside from the spate of state and local government restrictions and mandates, employers face other potential legal landmines and practical problems when tracking and/or disclosing an employee’s vaccination status. As mentioned above, you should consider the legal privacy considerations in requesting and maintaining the vaccination status of employees.
As employers move to allow fully vaccinated workers to unmask employees, there will likely be legal, privacy, and employee morale issues related to any express or perceived disclosure of employee vaccination status. Indeed, even without an explicit disclosure, others will likely be able to decipher the vaccination status of employees. While employees are choosing to voluntarily disclose their vaccination status to their co-workers, you should not adopt such a casual attitude. You should consider the ramifications of disclosure of vaccine status without employee consent or as a result of a “company policy” or practice. Such practices could potentially give rise to exposure in areas of breach of confidentiality, privacy, discrimination, retaliation, and more.
Company disclosure of vaccine status may also inadvertently expose employees with legitimate disability issues or religious objections related to the vaccine. Employee morale could be compromised if employees believe they are being pitted against each other due to their vaccine status, especially if the company is somehow involved in the disclosures. Additionally, a policy of company-wide disclosure might even boomerang, potentially discouraging employees who do not want to be ridiculed or harassed by co-workers who are opposed to the vaccination.
What Should Employers Do? 7 Options to Address a Partially Vaccinated Workforce
How to relax restrictions for those who are fully vaccinated while maintaining confidentiality and a safe workplace for all? How to balance the possible exposure and potential federal and state safety agency fines if you don’t get it right? While there are rarely clear answers, and legal liabilities remain unclear, below are some options employers have been adopting to deal with the dilemma of the partially vaccinated workforce.
Each of these options come with some level of risk. You should explore the various paths available to you with your legal counsel before adopting any of them, especially in light of rapidly changing state and local laws in this area. Also, note that every option in which some employees are masked and some are unmasked includes the risk of employee conflict or harassment issues. This risk should be evaluated and addressed up front through training, ongoing communications emphasizing the importance of mutual respect in the workplace, adoption of written policies and procedures, and effective management oversight.
Declaring that the state is “no longer in a state of emergency,” Florida Governor Ron DeSantis signed a bill on Monday, May 3rd, banning vaccine passports while issuing two executive orders immediately suspending and invalidating local government COVID-19 restrictions, including mask mandates. But the news doesn’t necessarily mean you should rush to ease up on your facemask requirements for workers or visitors, nor impact your decision to mandate vaccines for your workers. Below is a summary of the implications for Florida businesses.
Vaccine Passports Banned
As the vaccine rollout progresses, businesses and employers nationwide have been wondering if a “vaccine passport” – an official document certifying that an individual has been vaccinated against COVID-19 – can lead to a path back to normalcy. A Florida law now prohibits businesses operating in Florida from implementing those measures with respect to customers. The new law does not come as a surprise to most Floridians. On April 2, Governor DeSantis signed Executive Order 21-81 prohibiting vaccine passports. This new law, however, solidifies the ban and provides more guidance for businesses.
Specifically, the new law says that “business entities,” including for-profit and not-for-profit entities, cannot require that patrons or customers provide documentation certifying that they received the COVID-19 vaccine or certifying that they have recovered from the virus to enter or receive a service from the business. Licensed health care providers are exempt from this provision.
The law also provides that educational institutions, including both public and private schools, cannot require students or residents to provide documentation certifying that they received the COVID-19 vaccine or have recovered from the virus.
Importantly, the law does not prohibit private businesses from requiring that their own employees show proof of vaccination or certification that they recovered from the virus. Of note, recent guidance from the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission clarifies that it is generally permissible for employers to ask employees about whether they have been vaccinated, but employers should avoid further inquiries.
Further, the new law permits covered entities to continue to use screening protocols (such as temperature checks) in accordance with state or federal law to protect public health.
Governor Eliminates Current Local Restrictions After Florida Surgeon General Discourages Masks
On April 29, Florida State Surgeon General Dr. Scott Rivkees issued a Public Health Advisory rescinding prior public health advisories. Notably, the advisory states that fully vaccinated people should no longer be advised to wear face coverings or avoid social and recreational gatherings except in “limited circumstances.” Those limited circumstances are not defined, but the advisory appears to cover masking both indoors and outdoors.
Noticeably, the Surgeon General’s advisory is less restrictive than CDC guidance. Although the CDC recently announced that fully vaccinated people can forego masks in certain situations (for example, if they are indoors with other vaccinated people, indoors with unvaccinated people from the same household, or outdoors in spaces that are not crowded), the CDC generally recommends that fully vaccinated people continue to wear masks or face coverings in other scenarios.
To follow the Surgeon General’s advisory, Governor DeSantis issued a pair of executive orders on May 3 suspending and invalidating local government COVID-19 restrictions, including mask mandates. These orders effectively eliminate all existing coronavirus-related restrictions imposed by local governments. This means that local orders requiring, among other things, masks, sanitizing, and capacity limits are no longer effective. The orders do not affect restrictions issued by school districts.
Noticeably, the governor’s orders only prohibit local governments from issuing and enforcing COVID-19 restrictions using their emergency procedures. They specifically allow local governments to enact ordinances under regular enactment procedures. Thus, it is possible that local governments will counter the governor’s orders by enacting ordinances continuing to require such measures as masking and distancing.
However, the state’s guidance does not mean that private businesses cannot – or should not – enforce their own policies. The orders only prohibit local governments from issuing and enforcing restrictions on individuals or businesses using emergency powers. Local governments may still enact such procedures using regular procedures. Businesses can still generally enforce their own measures, including mask mandates, if they choose to.
What Should Employers Do Now?
Pushing forward to a new normal, Florida employers should be aware of how to proceed. Despite the state’s guidance, you should continue to enforce safety measures.
Florida recently passed a new COVID-19 liability protection law for businesses. Although very favorable to businesses, the law requires that businesses make a “good faith effort to substantially comply with authoritative or controlling government-issued health standards” to gain its protection. If there are different sources of guidance in effect, a business may follow any of them. This means that although they are different, a business can likely be protected from liability by following either Florida or CDC guidance. However, an employer may have stronger defenses and be able to undercut possible claims earlier by following CDC guidance, which takes a more conservative approach than current Florida guidance.
Further, OSHA requires that employers maintain a workplace free of recognized hazards. COVID-19 is such a recognized hazard. By not following CDC guidance, a Florida employer may open themselves to exposure under OSHA’s General Duty Clause, even in the absence of a state mandate.
Employers should also consider the business realities of having unmasked employees. Among other things, customers and vendors may not feel comfortable entering your business if they see employees unmasked, even if they are vaccinated.
Finally, because the Surgeon General’s recommendations only apply to fully vaccinated people, your business may have an inconsistent patchwork of some employees wearing masks while others are not. This may result in a situation where different standards apply to different employees depending on their vaccination status. Employers should avoid this, as OSHA has issued guidance stating that businesses should not treat unvaccinated employees differently than vaccinated employees. Additionally, inconsistency among employees wearing masks may inadvertently reveal who is and is not vaccinated, which may be disruptive and may unintentionally single out employees who do not get the vaccine, including for medical or religious reasons.