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During a special legislative session, Florida just passed a new law banning private employers from mandating COVID-19 vaccines unless several exemptions are offered to employees. The law, signed by the governor on 11/18/21, comes as OSHA’s national emergency temporary standard mandating vaccines is embroiled in legal challenges. What do Florida employers need to know about this new law, which takes effect immediately?
Who is Covered and What Does It Do?
The law applies to all private employers in Florida, regardless of size. It prohibits those employers from requiring employees to get vaccinated against COVID-19 unless various exemptions are offered.
What are the Exemptions?
Some of the exemptions in the new law will sound familiar to employers. Others are unique. If an employer receives a statement from an employee (as described below), they must allow the employee to opt-out of the vaccine mandate. The Department of Health will be creating template forms for each of these exemptions.
This includes for reasons of pregnancy or anticipated pregnancy. To receive a medical exemption, an employee must submit a signed statement by a physician or physician assistant that vaccination is not in the best interest of the employee. While not addressed in the legislation, we suspect that this exemption will function similarly to those provided for disabilities under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA).
An employee must present a statement that they decline the vaccine because of a “sincerely held religious belief.” Although that term is undefined, it likely refers to sincerely held religious beliefs as understood under federal lawA.
An employee must show “competent medical evidence” that they have immunity to COVID-19, which is documented by the results of laboratory testing on the employee. The law does not state what “immunity” is but directs the Department of Health to establish a standard for determining that immunity.
An employee must provide a statement indicating that they will comply with the employer’s requirement to submit to regular testing. Although “regular testing” is not defined, the law directs the Department of Health to adopt emergency rules specifying requirements for frequency of testing. Importantly, any testing must be at no-cost to the employee.
Because this exemption has no ties to existing federal law such as Title VII and the ADA, and the law does not address any “undue hardship” defense, it is likely that an employer cannot decline to pay for the testing if there is a charge the employee would otherwise incur.
An employee must present a statement that they agree to comply with the employer’s reasonable written requirement to use employer-provided personal protective equipment when around others. “Personal protective equipment” is not defined. It is unclear whether the use of the term would implicate OSHA regulations or CDC guidance on “personal protective equipment.”
But What About Federal Law?
The CMS Rule and Federal Contractor vaccine mandate requirements, which both require that covered staff be vaccinated and only allow for exemptions for medical conditions (ADA) and sincerely held religious beliefs (Title VII), should preempt this Florida law to the extent the laws directly conflict. The CMS Rule explicitly provides that it preempts state and local laws.
If OSHA’s ETS survives in the courts, it is likely that Florida’s new law will conflict with the OSHA ETS at least in so far as an employer (with 100 or more employees) might want to implement a mandatory vaccination policy instead of allowing employees to choose to be vaccinated or undergo weekly testing. However, the scope of that conflict is unknown and will depend on the final terms of the ETS if it survives.
How is the Law Going to be Enforced?
Florida’s vaccine mandate law will be enforced by the Department of Legal Affairs, in the Attorney General’s office. Employees can file complaints that an exemption was not offered or was improperly applied or denied, which will then be investigated. If the Department finds a violation, it must notify the employer of its determination and allow the employer the opportunity to cure the noncompliance. If the Department finds that an employee was improperly terminated and the employer does not restore the employee to their position with back pay, then the Department may fine the employer up to $50,000, depending on employer size and other factors. Employees who are wrongfully terminated may also be entitled to unemployment benefits. The Department of Legal Affairs will be issuing rules to further flesh out the complaint and investigation process.
What We Don’t Know Yet
There are many unanswered questions. For example, the new law does not address workers’ compensation claims and remains an open question whether an employee’s side effects to a mandated vaccine is covered by workers’ compensation.
What About Public Employers or Schools?
The legislature also passed statutes banning vaccine mandates for public employees and prohibiting any public educational institution or elected or appointed local official from imposing a COVID-19 vaccination mandate for any student. Unlike private sector employers, public sector employers are prohibited from mandating the vaccine — even if they offer the enumerated exemptions.
There are also provisions prohibiting public schools from requiring a student to wear a face mask, a face shield, or any other facial covering. Instead, such issues are left to the parent’s sole discretion. Further, the law prohibits public schools from barring any student or employee from school or school-sponsored activities or subjecting them to other disparate treatment based on an exposure to COVID-19, so long as the student or employee remains asymptomatic and has not received a positive test for COVID-19.
What Employers Can Do
Importantly, the law is not an outright prohibition on vaccine mandates. Private employers can still have a vaccine mandate, so long as you offer the various exemptions discussed above.
Neither does the law prohibit employers from “stacking” their COVID-19 prevention and mitigation efforts. Meaning, for example, you likely can still require both use of PPE and regular testing in order to protect its workforce. In other words, the statute is a ban on vaccine mandates without certain opt-out accommodations, but it is not a ban on your organization opting to require testing and/or continued use of PPE.
It is worth noting that this new law does not address employers’ immunity against COVID-19 claims. In March 2020, Florida passed a law granting businesses immunity from COVID-19 claims. Absent any more specific legislation, if an employer meets the standards of the immunity law (specifically, demonstrating good faith effort to comply with government-issued health guidance), the language of the immunity law is clear that the employer is immune from civil liability. This new law does not affect that.
You should also keep an eye out for the implementing rules to be issued by the various state agencies. According to the statute, such rulemaking must occur initially by filing emergency rules within 15 days after the effective date of the statute, followed by regular rulemaking thereafter. For the next 15 days (unless the Department of Health files its emergency rules earlier), employer COVID-19 vaccination mandates are deemed invalid under this statute.
This new law is yet another issue facing employers, who are increasingly confronting a myriad of conflicting orders at the state and federal levels. Unfortunately, the issue of COVID-19 vaccines in the workplace remains incredibly fluid and will surely continue to evolve through the holiday season. As always, we will continue to monitor the situation regarding employers’ vaccine mandates and provide updates as warranted.
The ETS places additional burdens on employers (and employees) already straining under workforce shortages, supply chain issues, and varying standards and guidance related to COVID-19. The ETS is expected to face multiple legal challenges.
The OSHA ETS applies to employers with at least 100 employees company-wide.
It does not apply to:
The ETS also does not apply to the employees of covered employers:
At any time during the duration of the ETS, if an employer employs at least 100 workers, the requirements of the ETS will apply regardless of fluctuations in the size of the employer’s workforce.
OSHA’s ETS requires employers who have at least 100 employees (company-wide, not just at one facility) to institute either a mandatory vaccine policy or a weekly testing and mask policy.
Employers must inform employees of their policies and procedures designed to comply with the ETS, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s “Key Things to Know About COVID-19 Vaccines,” OSHA’s prohibition against retaliation for reporting workplace illnesses or injuries and OSHA’s whistleblower protections, and the criminal penalties associated with knowingly supplying false statements or documentation.
If an employer adopts a mandatory vaccination policy to comply with the OSHA ETS, it must require vaccination of all employees (and of all new employees as soon as practicable), other than those:
The employer must require each vaccinated employee to provide acceptable proof of vaccination status, including whether they are fully or partially vaccinated.
Acceptable proof of vaccination status is:
According to the OSHA ETS, the employer must maintain a record of each employee’s vaccination status. The employer must preserve acceptable proof of vaccination for each employee who is fully or partially vaccinated, along with a roster of each employee’s vaccination status. Significantly, employers that have already ascertained vaccination status prior to the effective date of the ETS through another form, attestation, or proof and retained records, are exempted from re-determining the vaccination status of individuals whose fully vaccinated status has been previously documented.
In addition, the employer must maintain a record of each test result provided by each employee.
These records and roster are considered employee medical records and must be maintained as such records. They must not be disclosed except as required or authorized by federal law. These records and roster must be maintained and preserved while this section remains in effect, but are not subject to OSHA’s standard 30-year retention requirement.
According to the ETS, employers must provide paid time off for employees to get vaccinated (up to four hours) and to recover from any side effects. The ETS requires up to four hours of paid time to receive each dose of the vaccine, including travel time, at the employee’s regular rate of pay. The ETS requires “reasonable time and paid sick leave” to recover from the side effects of each dose of the vaccine.
OSHA permits employers to pass the expense for testing to employees, subject to the requirements of other laws.
Whether employers can require employees to pay for their own tests will depend on state law and whether testing is offered as a reasonable accommodation. Many states have laws requiring employers to pay the cost of any required medical exams or tests or expense reimbursement laws, which may be implicated.
The Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) and state law will govern whether employers have to pay for the time associated with getting testing and awaiting results.
It is also unclear at this time whether, under the FLSA, the cost of testing may drop an employee’s effective rate of pay below the federal minimum wage.
Although some states have their own state OSHA plans, such plans generally must be “at least as effective as” the standard set by OSHA. In those states, the federal OSHA ETS will not apply immediately.
There are currently 22 states that have OSHA-approved State Plans regulating private sector employers. (Alaska, Arizona, California, Hawaii, Indiana, Iowa, Kentucky, Maryland, Michigan, Minnesota, Nevada, New Mexico, North Carolina, Oregon, Tennessee, South Carolina, Utah, Vermont, Virginia, Washington, Wyoming, and Puerto Rico.) Those states have 30 days to adopt the federal standard or inform OSHA of their plans to do something else. In addition to their own OSHA plans, some states have passed laws prohibiting or limiting employers’ ability to require COVID-19 vaccines.
OSHA’s ETS is intended to comprehensively address the occupational safety and health issues of vaccination, wearing face coverings, and testing for COVID-19. It, therefore, preempts any state or local requirements on these issues, except those from an OSHA-approved State Plan. Thus, the ETS preempts any state or local requirements banning or limiting an employer from requiring vaccines, face coverings, or testing.
According to the OSHA ETS, the COVID-19 test must be:
Examples of tests that satisfy this requirement include tests with specimens that are processed by a laboratory (including home or on-site collected specimens that are processed individually or as pooled specimens), proctored over-the-counter tests, point-of-care tests, and tests where specimen collection and processing is done or observed by an employer.
Employees who are not fully vaccinated must submit to testing at least weekly if present in the workplace at least once a week or within seven days before returning to work if away from the workplace for a week or longer.
For individuals who have received a positive COVID-19 test or who have been diagnosed with COVID-19, the ETS provides an exception from testing for the 90-day period following the positive diagnosis or test.
Employees who are not fully vaccinated and do not meet the testing requirements must be removed from the workplace pending a test result.
Regardless of vaccination status, employees who test positive for COVID-19 or who are diagnosed with COVID-19 must be removed from the workplace until they meet certain return-to-work criteria. The ETS does not require paid leave for employees who are removed, but acknowledges that other laws may impose such obligations.
Masking: Subject to limited exceptions, employers are required to enforce the wearing of masks for those who are unvaccinated when indoors and when occupying a vehicle with another person for work purposes. Like testing costs, the ETS does not mandate employers to pay for face coverings required by the ETS.
Reporting: Employers are required to report work-related COVID-19 hospitalizations and fatalities to OSHA (within 24 hours of hospitalization and eight hours of a fatality). Under OSHA’s normal reporting standards, work-related hospitalizations and fatalities must be reported only if they occur within a certain time period following the work-related incident (24 hours for hospitalization and 30 days for a fatality). Those time periods do not apply to work-related COVID-19 hospitalizations or fatalities, meaning, employers must still notify OSHA even if the hospitalization or fatality occurs after those time periods.
Notice: Employers must require employees to provide prompt notice when they receive a positive COVID-19 test or are diagnosed with COVID-19.
The OSHA ETS takes effect immediately, except in those states that have their own state plans. However, employers have 60 days to comply with the testing requirements of the ETS and 30 days to comply with the remaining provisions. State plan states have 30 days from the effective date to adopt the federal standard or inform OSHA of their plans to do something else.
In response to the surge of delta variant cases across the country, federal workplace safety officials just issued updated guidance to help employers and workers identify current COVID-19 risks for unvaccinated or otherwise at-risk workers – making many employers feel like they are in the same ol’ situation they were in just a few months ago. The Occupational Safety and Health Administration’s (OSHA’s) updated guidance, released on August 13, revises its June 2021 guidance applicable to those not covered by OSHA’s COVID-19 Emergency Temporary Standard (ETS) for healthcare workplaces and adheres to updated Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) coronavirus guidance issued last month. What are the top 10 takeaways employers need to know about with respect to OSHA’s most recent guidance?
OSHA’s Updated Recommendations
As most are aware by now, the CDC updated its recommendations for fully vaccinated individuals to reduce their risk of becoming infected with the delta variant and potentially spreading it to others. The CDC’s guidance addresses mask wearing in public indoor settings; choosing to wear masks regardless of the potential level of transmission (particularly if individuals are at risk or have someone in their household who is at increased risk of severe disease or not fully vaccinated); and revised testing recommendations for known exposures.
In its revised guidance, OSHA has essentially adopted analogous recommendations for employers. To follow this guidance, you should implement multi-layered interventions to protect unvaccinated and otherwise at-risk workers and mitigate the spread of COVID-19. In light of OSHA’s recent guidance, it is clear the agency is focused at facilitating higher vaccination rates via imposing new standards on employers.
Top 10 Employer Takeaways
Here are the top 10 takeaways from OSHA’s new guidance.
At sites where unvaccinated or otherwise at-risk workers cannot physically distance, transparent shields (or other like barriers) may be considered. These types of barriers should block face-to-face pathways between individuals to prevent direct transmission of respiratory droplets. Any openings should be placed at the bottom, made as small as possible, and the height should consider the employee’s posture while working (i.e., sitting or standing). Ventilation, fire safety, and other safety considerations should be incorporated when designing and installing barriers.
Face coverings should be made of at least two layers of a tightly woven breathable fabric, such as cotton, and should not have exhalation valves or vents. They should fit snugly over the nose, mouth, and chin with no large gaps on the outside of the face. Workers who are outdoors may opt not to wear face coverings unless they are at risk. Regardless, employers should support employees who continue to wear a face covering, especially when working closely with others. If an employer determines PPE is necessary to protect unvaccinated and otherwise at-risk workers from exposure to COVID-19, the employer must provide PPE per the relevant OSHA PPE standards.
Employers should educate and train workers on their COVID-19 policies and procedures using accessible formats and in languages they understand. Employers should train managers on how to implement their COVID-19 policies. These policies should be communicated clearly, frequently, and using multiple methods to promote a safe and healthy workplace. OSHA suggests that communications should be in plain language that unvaccinated and otherwise at-risk workers understand (including non-English languages, and American Sign Language or other accessible communication methods, if applicable) and in a manner accessible to individuals with disabilities.
Training should include basic facts about COVID-19, including how it is spread and the importance of physical distancing (including remote work), ventilation, vaccination, use of face coverings, hand hygiene, and workplace policies and procedures to protect workers from COVID-19 hazards. In addition, employers should implement a means of tracking which (and when) workers receive this information.
Employers should suggest or require unvaccinated customers, visitors, or guests to wear face coverings in public-facing workplaces, such as retail establishments. All customers, visitors, or guests should wear face coverings in public, indoor settings in areas of substantial or high transmission. This could include posting a notice or otherwise suggesting or requiring individuals wear face coverings, even if no longer required by your jurisdiction.
Employers should maintain workplace ventilation systems. As COVID-19 spreads more easily indoors, improving and maintaining ventilation systems is a key engineering control. Such a maintenance program can be used as part of a layered strategy to reduce the concentration of viral particles in indoor air (and consequently reduce the risk of transmission to unvaccinated and otherwise at-risk workers in particular). A well-maintained ventilation system is essential in any indoor workplace setting, and when working properly, ventilation is a primary control measure to limit the spread of COVID-19.
Specific recommendations can be located within the American Society of Heating, Refrigerating and Air-Conditioning Engineers (ASHRAE) Guidance for Building Operations and Industrial Settings during the COVID-19 Pandemic. Key measures include ensuring HVAC systems are operating in accordance with the manufacturer’s specifications, conducting regularly scheduled inspections and maintenance, maximizing the amount of outside air supplied, installing air filters with a Minimum Efficiency Reporting Value (MERV) 13 or higher where feasible. Buildings without HVAC systems should maximize natural ventilation by opening windows or doors, when conditions allow (if that does not pose a safety risk) and consider using portable air cleaners with High Efficiency Particulate Air (HEPA) filters in spaces with high occupancy or limited ventilation.
Employers should perform routine cleaning and disinfection. This is especially important if someone who has been in the facility within 24 hours is suspected of having COVID-19 or is a confirmed COVID-19 case. In those situations, OSHA recommends following the CDC’s cleaning and disinfection recommendations.
Employers must record and report workplace COVID-19 infections and deaths: Under OSHA’s recordkeeping standard, employers are required to record work-related cases of COVID-19 illness on OSHA’s Form 300 logs if the following requirements are met: (1) the case is a confirmed case of COVID-19; (2) the case is work-related; and (3) the case involves one or more relevant recording criteria (e.g., medical treatment, days away from work). Likewise, employers must follow the requirements when reporting work-related COVID-19 fatalities and hospitalizations.
Employers should implement protections from retaliation and set up anonymous methods for workers to raise concerns about COVID-19-related hazards. Employers should ensure workers know whom to contact with questions and/or concerns about workplace safety and health, and that there are prohibitions against retaliation for raising workplace safety and health concerns or engaging in other protected occupational safety and health activities. This could be accomplished by using an employee hotline or other method for workers to voice concerns anonymously.
The guidance also reminds employers to follow all other applicable mandatory OSHA standards. These mandatory OSHA standards include requirements for PPE, respiratory protection, sanitation, protection from bloodborne pathogens, and OSHA’s requirements for employee access to medical and exposure records.
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) announced yesterday that the agency now recommends that people in areas with “substantial” and “high” COVID-19 transmission should wear masks indoors, regardless of vaccination status. This announcement reverses the CDC’s May 13 guidance that vaccinated people do not have to wear masks in non-healthcare settings. The updated guidance comes on the heels of what some call the third (or fourth) surge of COVID-19 infections due to the highly transmissible Delta variant, which CDC Director Dr. Rochelle Walensky indicated behaves “uniquely differently” from prior virus strains. While Director Walensky stressed that the vast majority of severe illness and death is among unvaccinated people, she also indicated data shows breakthrough infections can happen in 1 out of 10 vaccinated individuals in a “substantial” or “high” transmission area. So what does this mean for employers and your masking policies?
What Has Changed and Why?
The announcement reverses the CDC’s May 13 guidance that vaccinated people do not have to wear masks in non-healthcare settings. Since then, new data shows the Delta variant is more transmissible than earlier strains of COVID-19, with those infected with the Delta variant carrying the same viral load as unvaccinated individuals with COVID-19.
Indeed, the CDC indicates while most COVID-19 transmission occurs in unvaccinated people, the amount of the virus in breakthrough infections caused by the Delta variant (e.g., viral load) is comparable to unvaccinated infections. This led the CDC to conclude that – although rare – breakthrough infections of vaccinated individuals have the same potential level of transmissibility as unvaccinated persons. Accordingly, the agency urged communities with substantial and high transmission rates to enforce masking guidelines to prevent the spread of COVID-19.
What About OSHA’s Emergency Temporary Standard?
Last month, OSHA issued its Emergency Temporary Standard (ETS), which gave wide latitude to most employers on their masking policies for vaccinated workers. OSHA provided that, except for workplace settings covered by the agency’s healthcare ETS and the remaining mask requirements for public transportation settings, most employers no longer need to take steps to protect their workers from COVID-19 exposure in any workplace, or well-defined portions of a workplace, where all employees are fully vaccinated.
Yesterday’s CDC guidance could change that, particularly in areas with substantial and high transmission. That’s because the OSHA ETS specifically cited to the CDC’s May 13 guidance on masks as a factor to justify many of its recommendations.
According to the CDC, “high” transmission equals more than 100 cases per 100,000 people over a seven-day period, while “substantial” transmission equals 50-100 cases per 100,000 people over a seven-day period. The CDC recommended using its COVID-19 data tracker, which is updated daily by state and county. Much of the nation is currently in a substantial or high transmission category.
Of course, employers should still take measures to protect unvaccinated or otherwise at-risk workers in their workplaces, or well-defined portions of workplaces, but many may need to implement masks for fully vaccinated workers in specific communities.
What Should Employers Do?
The CDC’s new guidance provides important considerations for employers who may be thinking about implementing or rescinding masking policies. Even though CDC guidance is not directly binding on employers, it is critically important. This is because OSHA’s guidance repeatedly refers to CDC guidance and clearly emphasizes the protection of people who are unvaccinated or otherwise at risk, which is the focal point of the CDC’s updated guidance.
If you have locations in areas which do not meet the criteria for “high” or “substantial” transmission, no immediate action is necessary. But it may still be prudent to have a plan in place to address how your company will adjust its masking policies if necessary. You should also consider state and local laws before making any changes to masking policies, given that states, such as Arkansas, have passed legislation barring entities (local governments) from imposing mask mandates.
If you are encouraging or mandating vaccines, you should also be prepared to address employee concerns over vaccination policies. This is especially true given the CDC’s position that infections are possible in vaccinated individuals and that those individuals may transmit the virus to others at a greater rate than previously understood.
The 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:
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.
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.
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.
This is the second in our four-part series designed to let you know what changes have taken place that may affect your business. AAG is a benefit brokerage that specializes in working alongside an employer’s Human Resource/Management Team to assist with keeping companies in compliance with the ever-changing state and federal regulations.
The Family First Coronavirus Response Act (FFCRA) was amended earlier this year under the American Rescue Plan Act (“ARPA”). The amended act encompasses the same covered categories as the Federal law required last year with some expansions, options, and more room for abuse.
If you are a private employer with less than 500 employees, you have the option to voluntarily extend FFCRA paid leave from April 1, 2021 through September 30, 2021 and receive a tax credit. However, you must proceed with caution because the rules have changed and if not followed you may not be eligible for the tax credit.
In addition to the previous six reasons for emergency paid sick leave (EPSL) under the FFCRA, if an employer chooses to offer, you must allow for the following three reasons:
The change also includes 10 new days of available leave effective April 1, 2021. If an employee took 80 hours of EPSL leave prior to April 1st, they will be eligible for a new bank of paid leave after April 1, 2021.
The emergency family medical leave (EFML) under the FFCRA also has some key changes to be aware of:
Employers will not have the option of whether to apply the new reasons for leave or the fresh 10-day bank. Should you decide to offer EPSL to employees, it must be offered completely and available to all employees. Strict compliance is required in order to be eligible for the tax credit.
As the world continues to open and more employees return to work, changes to these paid leave revisions will no doubt continue. With AAG on your side, you can focus on your employees while we stay on top of required changes and keep you informed! If you have any questions or would like additional information please reach out, we are here to help!
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.
In a surprise move today, CDC followed the lead of the various states that have lifted their masking and physical distancing recommendations. However, CDC’s new recommendations come with a twist. The CDC’s recommendations only apply to fully vaccinated people in non-healthcare settings. Here’s what your business should consider as it decides whether to “unmask.”
The May 13, 2021 CDC Interim Public Health Recommendations for Fully Vaccinated People states that fully vaccinated people no longer need to wear a mask or physically distance in any non-health care setting (except prisons and homeless shelters and public transportation), except where required by federal, state, local, tribal, or territorial laws, rules, and regulations, including local business and workplace guidance. According to the CDC, prevention measures (including masks and physical distancing) are still recommended for unvaccinated people.
Employers who are interested in relaxing mask requirements in the workplace should first consider the following.
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.
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?