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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?
Federal and state anti-discrimination agencies have issued guidance for employers that want to require workers to get a COVID-19 vaccine—but at least one lawsuit has claimed that employers can’t mandate a vaccine that is approved only for emergency use. While this argument might not hold up in court, employers should be aware of the risks associated with a vaccine mandate.
When employees refuse a vaccine, the employer should address their concerns and explain the reasons why the company has adopted a mandatory vaccination policy. An open dialogue and education will be key, as will following FDA updates in this regard and consulting with legal counsel.
There are many reasons why an employee may be unwilling to receive a COVID-19 vaccine, and employers may need to explore reasonable accommodations, particularly with employees who have disability-related and religious objections to being vaccinated.
Distribution of COVID-19 vaccines has been issued under the Food and Drug Administration’s (FDA’s) Emergency Use Authorization (EUA) rather than the FDA’s usual processes. But the FDA has said that the vaccine has met its “rigorous, scientific standards for safety, effectiveness and manufacturing quality” and that “its known and potential benefits clearly outweigh its known and potential risks.”
An employee who recently filed a lawsuit challenging an employer’s vaccine mandate argued that the EUA states that people must have “the option to accept or refuse administration of the [vaccine]” and be informed “of the consequence, if any, of refusing administration of the [vaccine] and of the alternatives to the [vaccine] that are available and of their benefits and risks.”
Although the employee in the case works in the public sector, many employment relationships in the private sector are at-will, which means either the employer or the worker can terminate the employment for any lawful reason. An employer that mandates a vaccine may argue the consequence of refusing a vaccine is being fired.
“Consensus in the legal community has been that, at least in the private sector, employers may require at-will employees to be vaccinated, subject to accommodations that may be required for medical or religious reasons,” said Kevin Troutman, an attorney with Fisher Phillips in Houston, and Richard Meneghello, an attorney with Fisher Phillips in Portland, Ore.
The U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) has issued guidance indicating that employers generally can mandate COVID-19 vaccinations. “The EEOC specifically addressed vaccinations that are authorized or approved by the FDA,” noted Anne-Marie Vercruysse Welch, an attorney with Clark Hill in Birmingham, Mich.
The California Department of Fair Employment and Housing (DFEH) also recently said that the Fair Employment and Housing Act (FEHA) generally allows employers to mandate vaccines that have been approved by the FDA. The DFEH specially noted that the FDA has authorized and recommended three COVID-19 vaccines—all of which have been authorized under an EUA.
But vaccine mandates may still be risky for employers. It is possible that employees who are terminated for refusing to receive a vaccine authorized by the FDA under an EUA could try to pursue claims for wrongful termination in violation of public policy. The viability of such claims will depend on applicable state law regarding a potential public policy exception to at-will employment and how courts—state and federal—construe the EUA wording.
The regulatory framework is still unclear and a number of states are considering legislation that would prohibit employers from requiring employees to receive a COVID-19 vaccine. If these bills become law, the uncertainty regarding the EUA issue will become moot in those states, at least as of the time the laws go into effect.
The EEOC issued guidance stating that employees may be exempt from employer vaccination mandates under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 (Title VII) and other workplace laws.
California’s guidance noted that the FEHA prohibits employers from discriminating against employees or job applicants based on a protected characteristic—such as age, race or sex—and requires employers to explore reasonable accommodations related to a worker’s disability or sincerely held religious beliefs.
“If an employee has a medical condition or sincerely held religious belief that would prevent them from being able to be vaccinated, their employer must go through the interactive process to determine if a reasonable accommodation is available,” Welch said. She recommended that employers have accommodation forms available to employees to begin the interactive process and document the steps the employer took to attempt to arrive at a reasonable accommodation.
Accommodations could take various forms, depending upon the employee’s job and setting. Employers may offer remote work, change the physical workspace, revise practices or provide a leave of absence. In each situation, the employer must determine whether an accommodation would enable the employee to safely perform the essential functions of their job.
Some employees might refuse to receive a vaccine for reasons that aren’t legally protected, such as a general distrust of vaccines. Employers need to be very thoughtful as they consider whether to mandate vaccines because employers may have to fire a material portion of their workforce who refuse to be vaccinated or allow some employees to ignore a company policy–which can lead to discrimination risks and employee morale issues.
“Most employers are encouraging vaccination rather than requiring it,” Welch observed.
Coburn recommended that employers focus on the following measures to encourage employees to receive a vaccination:
Employers that want to offer incentives should be mindful of wellness program limitations and offer alternative ways for employees who cannot get vaccinated to receive the incentives, Coburn noted.
President Biden’s latest COVID-19 stimulus package – the American Rescue Plan – has been passed by Congress and will become law once the president signs it into effect this Friday (3/12/21). The measure provides $1.9 trillion in economic relief, with many of the specific items directly affecting employers. What do businesses need to know about this finalized legislation?
What Is Not Included In The American Rescue Plan?
Before examining the areas of law that changed, it is just as important to review portions of the initial proposal which were not included in the final version signed by the president. The three most critical pieces NOT included:
What You Should Do: While these provisions did not make it into the final American Rescue Plan, the White House and Democratic leaders have stated their intent to introduce new legislation in the future to fulfill these campaign promises.
Extension Of FFCRA Tax Credits
The federal Families First Coronavirus Response Act (FFCRA) expired on December 31, 2020 – and with it, covered employers’ obligation to provide emergency paid sick leave and emergency family and medical leave. Shortly before the end of the year, Congress extended the tax credit for employers who voluntarily continued to provide such paid leave through March 31, 2021.
President Biden’s original vision for the American Rescue Plan proposed to extend and expand emergency paid leave obligations in several key areas. However, the House version of the current COVID-19 relief bill does not extend the employer obligation to provide paid leave. Instead, the legislation merely extends the tax credit for voluntary provision of leave through September 30, 2021 and makes related changes. These provisions of the relief bill include the following:
Even though the current legislation does not extend the employer mandate to provide paid FFCRA leave, this is likely not the last conversation on this topic. There are indications that the Biden administration may attempt to resurrect pieces of the American Rescue Plan that did not make it into this bill into subsequent legislation in the near future.
What You Should Do: Determine which, if any, state and local paid sick leave laws may apply to you as many have been extended beyond the December 31, 2020 expiration of the FFCRA paid leave mandate. In addition, you should continue to monitor developments at the federal level. Although an extension of paid leave was not included in this stimulus package, it is still on the Biden administration’s and many members of Congress’s “to do” list. We could see new leave mandate proposals in the immediate future, so this will be one area to watch closely.
Boost For Vaccine Efforts
The American Rescue Plan provides over $15 billion aimed toward enhancing, expanding and improving the nationwide distribution and administration of vaccines, including the support of efforts to increase access, especially in underserved communities, to increase vaccine confidence and to fund more research, development, manufacturing, and procurement of vaccines and related supplies as needed. The upshot? We may see the widespread proliferation of vaccine availability even earlier than expected.
What You Should Do: Despite developments indicating that vaccines are likely to become much more widely available in the short term, many employers remain unprepared to deal with related issues. Those issues include not only the initial administration process, but also the extent to which the greater prevalence of vaccinated employees may (or may not) affect your safety protocols in terms of mask mandates, physical distancing, and related rules.
Relief For Small Businesses
The American Rescue Plan Act provides additional funding for small businesses, with a focused effort on those in hard-hit industries like restaurants and bars. The new bill provides $25 billion for a new Small Business Administration program focused on supporting restaurants and other food and drinking establishments. These grants are available for up to $10 million for those eligible and can be used to pay expenses like payroll, mortgage, rent, utilities, and food and beverages.
The bill provides an additional $7 billion for the Paycheck Protection Program, which provides small businesses with the potential for 100% forgivable loans. The additional PPP funding brings the total for the current round of the program to over $813 billion. Likewise, both bills expand PPP eligibility for certain nonprofit organizations.
The new law also provides $15 billion to the Economic Injury Disaster Loan (EIDL) Advance program designed to provide economic relief to businesses currently experiencing a temporary loss of revenue due to COVID-19. Like the PPP, the EIDL program is administered through the SBA to help qualifying businesses meet financial obligations and operating expenses that could have been met had the disaster not occurred. Priority funding is also allocated to businesses with less than 10 employees that the pandemic has severely impacted.
Finally, the law includes funding under the Shuttered Venue Operators Grant (SVOG) program, which had previously appropriated $15 billion in the December 2020 stimulus package. Eligible entities for the SVOG include live venue operators or promoters, theatrical producers, live performing arts organization operators, museum operators, motion picture theatre operators, and talent representatives. Eligible entities for the SVOG program can also qualify for loans under the PPP.
What You Should Do: If you’re a small business operating in a hard-hit industry such as the hospitality sector, you should quickly determine eligibility for funding. Even if you’re not a bar or a restaurant, you might still be eligible for economic assistance through the various grants or loan programs detailed in the plan if the COVID-19 pandemic has severely impacted your business.
President Biden considers it imperative that workers impacted by the pandemic not lose out on emergency enhanced unemployment benefits, but the expanded unemployment assistance under the CARES Act and Stimulus 2.0 are set to expire soon in mid-March. Without an extension, millions of unemployed Americans impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic would be impacted. Luckily, both the House’s and Senate’s versions of the American Rescue Plan increase and further extend these unemployment benefits. However, there were some key differences between the two versions of the proposal, and the finalized version differs from the initial proposal.
The finalized legislation retains the $300 per week unemployment benefits, however, the version signed into law extends these benefits until September 6, which is more in alignment with Biden’s proposed outline for the American Rescue Plan.
Another major change related to the unemployment benefits in the finalized version is the addition of a provision making the first $10,200 in unemployment received in 2020 non-taxable for households with incomes under $150,000. This provision will go a long way to address the looming concerns for the millions of Americans currently on unemployment insurance.
What You Should Do: There is not much for employers to do in response to this provision of the bill, as it is primarily geared toward workers. However, it is important to understand the lay of the land in terms of unemployment insurance, as certain industries may face obstacles in hiring for certain positions for the time being. You should be aware that the benefits will expire on September 6 and adjust your hiring plans accordingly.
The American Rescue Plan means that the federal government will send $1,400 stimulus checks on top of the $600 payments issued through the December stimulus bill. Under the structure agreed to during lawmaking negotiations, the payments will phase out at a quicker rate for those at higher income levels compared with the initial proposal floated by President Biden. Those earning $75,000 per year and couples earning $150,000 will still receive the full $1,400-per-person benefit but those earning more than $80,000 and couples earning more than $160,000 will not be eligible.
Tax Credits And Benefits
The bill expands three important tax credits: the child tax credit, the earned income credit, and the employee retention credit. The bill also increases certain health and pension benefits.
The bill also provides for a 100% COBRA premium subsidy effective April 1 through September 2021 for those who are involuntarily terminated and want to remain on their employer’s health insurance. The employer would pass along the subsidy so that qualifying individuals would pay nothing for their COBRA coverage during this period.
Finally, the bill expands the class of those who are entitled to help with the cost of their insurance under the Affordable Care Act. Consumers would be able to receive assistance if their premiums exceed 8.5% of their incomes rather than the current income cutoff of $51,000. The bill provides over $24 billion to shore up childcare facilities which have been hit particularly hard by the pandemic. It provides help to childcare workers making less than $12 per hour.
We will keep a close eye on further legislative proposals and provide updates as warranted.
Employers wanting to require workers to get a COVID-19 vaccination should be prepared to respond to workers’ concerns and make reasonable accommodations under federal and state law.
Mandating vaccinations could have benefits for employers and employees alike. Vaccinations will likely decrease the risk of spreading the virus in the workplace, reduce absenteeism, increase productivity and decrease employee health care costs. On the other hand, employees may react poorly to mandatory vaccination policies.
“Most employers are choosing to inform, educate and encourage their employees to consider the vaccine,” observed Katherine Dudley Helms, an attorney with Ogletree Deakins in Columbia, S.C. However, she noted, there may be industries where vaccination is critical and a mandatory approach makes sense.
“Even then, employees should be informed and educated as to why the business felt that approach was necessary,” she said. “If the employer has made the vaccine mandatory, it needs to be sure that it is ready to terminate or otherwise address employees who refuse and who are not entitled to a reasonable accommodation.”
Employers that require vaccinations may face discrimination claims if they deny accommodation requests based on medical or religious objections.
The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) issued guidance stating that employees may be exempt from employer vaccination mandates under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 (Title VII) and other workplace laws.
Under the ADA, an employer can have a workplace policy that includes “a requirement that an individual shall not pose a direct threat to the health or safety of individuals in the workplace.”
If a vaccination requirement screens out a worker with a disability, however, the employer must show that unvaccinated employees would pose a “direct threat” due to a “significant risk of substantial harm to the health or safety of the individual or others that cannot be eliminated or reduced by reasonable accommodation.”
If an employee who cannot be vaccinated poses a direct threat to the workplace, the employer must consider whether a reasonable accommodation can be made, such as allowing the employee to work remotely or take a leave of absence.
Title VII requires an employer to accommodate an employee’s sincerely held religious belief, practice or observance, unless it would cause an undue hardship on the business. Courts have said that an “undue hardship” is created by an accommodation that has more than a “de minimis,” or very small, cost or burden on the employer.
The definition of religion is broad and protects religious beliefs and practices that may be unfamiliar to the employer. Therefore, the employer “should ordinarily assume that an employee’s request for religious accommodation is based on a sincerely held religious belief,” according to the EEOC.
Helene Hechtkopf, an attorney with Hoguet Newman Regal & Kenney in New York City, said an employer will need to evaluate the employee’s job functions, whether there is an alternative job that the employee could do that would make vaccination less critical and how important it is to the employer’s operations that the employee be vaccinated.
Employers that mandate vaccines will have more issues to consider beyond providing reasonable accommodations. For instance, can an employer be held liable if a worker has an adverse reaction to the vaccine?
A severe allergic reaction to the vaccination is possible but rare, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
“If an employer mandates vaccines, there is likely coverage for injury or illness under the employer’s workers’ compensation policy, but employers should check with their carriers,” Hechtkopf said. “If an employer merely encourages employees to obtain a vaccine, coverage under workers’ compensation policies may not be available.”
Employers must also be careful about collecting medical information. “If an employer requires employees to provide proof that they have received a COVID-19 vaccination from a pharmacy or their own healthcare provider, the employer cannot mandate that the employee provide any medical information as part of the proof,” according to the CDC.
Additionally, Helms noted, a number of states are contemplating legislation that would prohibit businesses from making the COVID-19 vaccination mandatory. So employers will have to monitor the rules in each applicable location.
Employers that plan to require employees to get a vaccine should develop a written policy, Hechtkopf said.
If a significant portion of the workforce refuses to comply with a vaccine mandate, the employer will be put in the very difficult position of either adhering to the mandate and terminating the employees or deviating from the mandate for certain employees, noted Brett Coburn, an attorney with Alston & Bird in Atlanta. This can increase the risk of discrimination claims.
“Rather than implementing mandates that could lead to such difficult decisions, employers may wish to focus on steps they can take to encourage and incentivize employees to get vaccinated,” he said. For example, employers may want to:
Regardless of whether the policy is for mandatory or voluntary vaccinations, Helms said, employers should communicate clearly and often with the workforce as to why the company believes that vaccinations are important and let employees know that other COVID-19 precautions remain in place.
On January 29, 2021, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) published “Protecting Workers: Guidance on Mitigating and Preventing the Spread of COVID-19 in the Workplace.” The Guidance incorporates much of the existing guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), adds to guidance OSHA previously issued, and reflects strategies and practices familiar to many employers.
The Guidance, which is intended for non-healthcare employers, is not mandatory and does not have the same legal effect as an OSHA standard. Nevertheless, it provides insight into OSHA’s views and previews what the agency may include in an Emergency Temporary Standard (ETS), which the Biden administration has directed OSHA to consider and potentially implement by March 15, 2021.
OSHA’s Guidance provides all employers an important opportunity to review their COVID-19 prevention strategies. While most of the Guidance is not new, it provides a handful of new recommendations employers may want to consider adding to their current COVID-19 protocols. The new recommendations include:
1. Establish a system to communicate and provide training to all employees on the employer’s COVID-19 policies and establish an avenue for employees to report COVID-19-related concerns anonymously, without fear of retaliation. All such communications should be in languages employees understand and provided in a manner accessible to individuals with disabilities.
2. Make COVID-19 vaccines available at no cost to all eligible employees and provide information and training on the benefits and safety of vaccinations. While OSHA does not specify the information or training it suggests employers provide, the Guidance references CDC’s “Frequently Asked Questions About COVID-19 Vaccination.”
3. Don’t distinguish between workers who are vaccinated and those who are not. All vaccinated employees should continue to wear a mask, socially distance, and follow other COVID-19 protocols (e.g., exclusion from the workplace following COVID-19 exposure). This is necessary because, as OSHA explains, at this time, “there is not evidence that COVID-19 vaccines prevent transmission of the virus from person-to-person.”
4. Provide all workers with face coverings (i.e., cloth face coverings and surgical masks), unless their work task requires a respirator, at no cost.
OSHA recommends that employers provide all workers with face coverings, which include cloth face coverings and surgical masks, for use in the workplace with limited exception and unless their work tasks require a respirator (such as an N95 filtering facepiece respirator) or would present a hazard. OSHA also recommends that employers consider acquiring masks with clear coverings over the mouth for all workers to facilitate lip-reading for employees who are deaf or have a hearing deficit. OSHA further recommends that employers require all other individuals at the workplace over the age of two, such as visitors or customers, to wear face coverings. Where employees with disabilities cannot wear a certain type of face covering, employers should discuss the possibility of providing a reasonable accommodation using an interactive process. OSHA’s Guidance on reasonable accommodations for face covering requirements dovetails with guidance on reasonable accommodations previously provided by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC).
OSHA has explained in previous guidance that cloth face coverings are not personal protective equipment (PPE), but can be used as recommended by CDC as a preventive measure in an employer’s COVID-19 exposure control plan. The new Guidance acknowledges that cloth face coverings can reduce exposure for the person wearing the covering in some instances.
The rest of the Guidance reviews additional practices and protocols that OSHA suggests are necessary for an effective COVID-19 prevention program. These are as follows:
1. Assign a coordinator. OSHA recommends assigning a workplace coordinator to be responsible for COVID-19 issues. The coordinator should administer the COVID-19 prevention program on the employer’s behalf.
2. Conduct a hazard assessment. It is important for employers to identify where and how workers may be exposed to COVID-19 and implement responsive COVID-19 hazard controls. As OSHA points out, it is important to consult with employees, especially those who are in the trenches, when conducting the assessment to understand the realities of the workplace.
3. Identify a combination of measures that will prevent and limit the spread of COVID-19. OSHA provides a hierarchy of controls, prioritizing engineering controls that eliminate the COVID-19 hazard entirely, followed by administrative policies and PPE to protect workers from COVID-19 hazards. OSHA lists several commonly recognized measures that employers should take and provides details to assist employers to implement these measures effectively:
a. Separate and send home infected or potentially infected people from the workplace.
The first step in any workplace safety hazard assessment is to eliminate the hazard. In the case of COVID-19, that means removing infected or potentially infected people from the workplace. We recommend that employers communicate clear expectations to employees and adopt employee and visitor screening practices consistent with state and local requirements and recommendations.
OSHA explains that most employers will follow a symptom-based strategy for identifying, separating, and sending workers home. OSHA also recognizes that there are some circumstances where “employers may consider a COVID-19 test-based strategy.”
b. Implement physical distancing in all communal work areas.
OSHA explains that the “best way to protect individuals is to stay far enough away so as not to breathe in particles produced by an infected person.” Keeping 6 feet of distance is generally recommended, but it is “not a guarantee of safety, especially in enclosed spaces or those with poor ventilation.” To increase physical distance, it is often important to limit the number of people in one place at any given time and increase physical space between people. OSHA recommends numerous strategies that many employers have adopted over the past 10 months, including telework, flexible work hours, staggered shifts, delivery of remote services, limiting the size of meetings, and using visible cues to encouraging distancing, to name a few.
c. Install barriers where physical distancing cannot be maintained. OSHA recommends installing transparent shields or other solid barriers at fixed workstations where workers cannot maintain 6 feet from other people.
f. Use applicable PPE to protect workers from exposure. When other measures cannot be implemented or do not protect workers fully, the Guidance concludes that current OSHA standards require that employers provide PPE as a supplement to other controls. (As discussed above, OSHA maintains that cloth face coverings are not PPE.) The standards referenced in the Guidance include OSHA’s PPE and respiratory protection standards, 29 CFR 1910, Subpart I, which require employers, at a minimum, complete a written hazard assessment to determine the need for PPE and PPE appropriate for the hazard and corresponding procedures and training. Therefore, employers are responsible for determining when and what PPE is necessary to protect workers while in the workplace. If an employer determines that an employee must wear PPE while at work and to perform a job safely, the PPE should be provided at no cost to workers and maintained in a safe condition. In application to COVID-19, CDC has addressed when PPE is necessary for job tasks that require interactions with individuals known or suspected of having COVID-19 and, depending on the task, recommends PPE consisting of surgical masks or respirators, such as the filtering facepiece respirators (e.g., N95) or personal air purifying respirators (PAPRs), with eye and face protection (i.e., face shields), protective gowns, and gloves.
4. Consider protections for workers at higher risk for severe illness. Workers with disabilities may be entitled to “reasonable accommodations” under state and federal law to protect them from the risk of contracting COVID-19. The EEOC discusses reasonable accommodations that could offer protection to an employee who is at higher personal risk from COVID-19 due to a pre-existing disability in D.1 of its “What You Should Know About COVID-19 and the ADA and Rehabilitation Act.” OSHA encourages employers to consider whether workers who have an increased personal risk of contracting a severe respiratory illness from COVID-19 (including older adults and anyone who has a serious medical condition) can do some or all of their work at home or in a less densely occupied, better ventilated workplace.
5. Establish a system for communicating effectively with workers. Employers should ask workers to report, without fear of reprisal, symptoms of COVID-19, possible COVID-19 exposures, and possible COVID-19 hazards at work. Similarly, employers should establish channels for communicating important information to employees and, of course, communicate with workers in a language they understand.
6. Educate and train workers on COVID-19 policies and procedures. OSHA recommends that, along with training workers on company policies, employers educate workers about the basic facts about COVID-19, including how it is spread. This can go a long way to helping workers understand why proper distancing, appropriate face coverings, and other measures are important to protect them. OSHA outlines a number of other topics that should be included in worker and supervisor training. OSHA recommends that the training be in plain language that workers understand (including non-English languages and American Sign Language or other accessible communication methods, if applicable).
7. Instruct workers who are infected or potentially infected to stay home and isolate or quarantine. OSHA recommends attendance policies that are non-punitive.
8. Minimize the negative impact of quarantine and isolation on workers. OSHA recommends that, “when possible,” employers allow workers to telework, use paid sick leave, if available, or consider implementing paid leave. Employers that were covered under the Families First Coronavirus Response Act (FFCRA), generally employers with less than 500 employees, can still take advantage of tax credits in connection with voluntarily providing paid leave for COVID-19 related reasons through March 31, 2021.
9. Isolate and send home workers who show symptoms at work.
10. Perform enhanced cleaning and disinfection after people suspected or confirmed to have COVID-19 have been in the workplace. Employers should follow CDC’s guidance, which includes increasing air circulation, cleaning, and disinfection using an EPA-registered disinfectant identified for use against SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19. Employers are required to comply with existing OSHA standards, including those related to hazard communication and PPE appropriate for exposure to cleaning chemicals.
11. Provide guidance on screening and testing. Employers should follow state and local guidance for screening and viral testing (as distinguished from antibody testing) in workplaces. Employers that adopt workplace testing programs should inform workers of testing requirements. We recommend employers review recent guidance from the CDC placing a new emphasis on informed consent prior to testing.
12. Record and report COVID-19 infections and deaths as required by existing OSHA regulations. Employers must record work-related cases of COVID-19 illness on their Form 300 Logs if certain criteria are met. An employer has an obligation to record an employee’s COVID-19 illness if: the exposure is work-related, it results in a fatality, lost workdays, job restrictions or transfers, or otherwise requires medical treatment beyond first aid. Employers must report to OSHA a COVID-19 illness if an employee is admitted to the in-patient service of a hospital within 24 hours of a workplace exposure to COVID-19 or if an employee dies within 30 days of a workplace exposure to COVID-19. In the case of a hospitalization, an employer has 24 hours to report to OSHA from when the in-patient hospitalization occurs or when the employer learns of the hospitalization if the latter occurs later. In the case of a fatality, the employer must report a work-related COVID-19 death within 8 hours of the death or within 8 hours of learning of the employee’s death, if the death occurred within 30 days of the workplace exposure. These are fact-driven, often complicated, analyses and not every employee who tests positive for COVID-19 needs to be recorded on an employer’s OSHA 300 Log or reported to OSHA, for that matter.
13. Implement protections from retaliation and set up an anonymous process for workers to report COVID-19-related hazards. OSHA explains that the Occupational Safety and Health Act prohibits employers from discriminating against an employee for raising “a reasonable concern about infection control related to COVID-19.”
14. Comply with existing OSHA standards. OSHA reminds employers that all OSHA standards that apply to protecting workers from infection, including requirements for PPE, respiratory protection, sanitation, protection from bloodborne pathogens, and requirements for employees to access medical and exposure records, remain in place. As mentioned above, while there is no OSHA standard specific to COVID-19, employers still have an obligation under the General Duty Clause to “provide a safe and healthful workplace that is free from recognized hazards that can cause serious physical harm or death.”
Employers should consider the following next steps:
The year 2020 highlighted the need for all of us to be agile, adjusting and responding as our world shifted, science evolved, and best practices for responding to COVID-19 developed and changed. This year is shaping up in a similar manner.
Article courtesy of Jackson Lewis
Employers now have clarification that they will be able mandate the COVID-19 vaccine among their workers in certain circumstances without running afoul of key federal anti-discrimination laws, according to updated guidance issued Wednesday by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. While there are numerous issues to consider before mandating that your employees get vaccinated, this guidance is the first official pronouncement on the subject from the employment law watchdog agency and provides an outline of various hurdles to overcome. Here are the top seven takeaways for employers from this critical development.
1. The EEOC indicates that employers can require their workers to get a COVID-19 vaccine in certain circumstances, even under the Emergency Use Authorization.
The agency’s updated FAQs do not unequivocally state that “employers can require the vaccine.” However, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) repeatedly answers questions discussing what actions employers can take in response to various circumstances after an employer has mandated the vaccine. This approach plainly suggests there must be circumstances where employers are legally permitted to require vaccine immunization of their workers without violating the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), Title VII, and other federal anti-discrimination laws. According to the EEOC, this is true even though the COVID-19 vaccine is only authorized under the FDA’s Emergency Use Authorization (EUA), rather than approved under the full and comprehensive FDA vaccine licensure process, known as a Biologics License Application or “BLA.”
To be clear, the only scenario described by the EEOC as a permissible basis to mandate vaccination under the ADA is when a worker poses a “direct threat” to themselves or others by their physical presence in the workplace without being immunized. This means mandating vaccines is only permitted if workers would pose “significant risk of substantial harm to the health or safety of the individual or others that cannot be eliminated or reduced by reasonable accommodation.” Therefore, if an employee is capable of fully performing their current job duties remotely without the potential spread of the virus to co-workers or work-related third parties, it does not appear that you can require that they get vaccinated.
2. Employers that require the COVID-19 vaccine must consider reasonable accommodations for employees with disabilities.
Notably, simply because your company chooses to mandate vaccine usage for those workers who may pose a direct threat to themselves or others does not mean you have complete freedom to require the vaccine for all such workers. If an individual cannot be vaccinated because of a disability, you need to determine whether you can provide a reasonable accommodation (absent undue hardship) that would eliminate or reduce the safety risk. You cannot automatically exclude them from the workplace or take any other negative action against them.
First and foremost, the EEOC recommends that those managers responsible for communicating with your employees about compliance with your vaccination requirement should know how to recognize an employee’s accommodation request. You should also train your managers about the process they should follow to refer accommodation requests through the proper channels for consideration. While the EEOC’s guidance does not mention this, you should strongly consider providing details about the accommodation request procedure in writing to all of your employees (whether in hard copy, electronically, or both).
Next, the EEOC indicates you should engage in a flexible, interactive process with any employee requesting an accommodation to identify options that do not constitute an undue hardship (significant difficulty or expense). This process should include determining whether it is necessary to obtain supporting documentation about the employee’s disability and considering the possible options for accommodation given the nature of the workforce and the employee’s position. Some things you should consider include the prevalence in the workplace of employees who already have received a COVID-19 vaccination, the amount of involvement with customers, and the rate of vaccination in your community, as well as the amount of contact with others whose vaccination status could be unknown. You should consult your Fisher Phillips’ attorney in developing a medical inquiry for an employee’s doctor or a protocol for responding to requests for accommodation more generally.
Finally, the EEOC reminds employers that it is unlawful to disclose that an employee is receiving a reasonable accommodation, just as it is a violation of federal law to retaliate against an employee for requesting an accommodation. Likewise, you should not reveal which employees have or have not been vaccinated.
3. Similarly, employers need to consider reasonable accommodations for employees who are unable to receive the vaccine for religious reasons.
The EEOC says you must provide a reasonable accommodation if an employee’s sincerely held religious belief, practice, or observance prevents them from receiving the vaccination – unless it would pose an undue hardship under Title VII. The definition of “undue hardship” is slightly different in the religious context compared to the disability context, as courts have defined it as simply “having more than a de minimis cost or burden” on an employer.
While you should ordinarily assume that an employee’s request for religious accommodation is based on a sincerely held religious belief, you would be justified in requesting additional supporting information if you have an objective basis for questioning either the religious nature or the sincerity of a particular belief, practice, or observance. The key word here is “objective.” This is a delicate area of the law and you should not unilaterally contact the employee’s place or worship seeking proof about their level of belief, or engage in any conduct that could raise potential discrimination issues. We recommend consulting with an attorney before making such a request to any of your employees.
4. Employers can require employees to show proof that they received a COVID-19 vaccination.
Assuming you can demonstrate that a mandatory vaccine is appropriate and that no accommodation requirements are in play, the EEOC indicates you can require workers to prove they have received the COVID-19 vaccine. The EEOC says that simply requesting proof of receipt of the vaccination is not likely to elicit information about a disability and, therefore, is not a disability-related inquiry.
However, subsequent questions, such as asking why an individual did not receive a vaccination, may elicit information about a disability and would be subject to the pertinent ADA standard that disability-related inquiries be “job-related and consistent with business necessity.” For this reason, if you require employees to provide proof that they have received a COVID-19 vaccination from a pharmacy or their own healthcare provider, you may want to warn the employee not to provide any medical information as part of the proof in order to avoid implicating the ADA. If you do receive medical information along with proof of vaccination, you should store the medical information in a confidential medical file consistent with ADA requirements.
5. The administration of a COVID-19 vaccine is not a “medical examination” for purposes of the ADA.
The EEOC confirmed that the act of administering the COVID-19 vaccine is not an ADA “medical examination.” Therefore, if you (or a third party with whom you contract to administer the vaccine) simply administer the vaccine to an employee, the EEOC does not consider you to be seeking information about an individual’s impairments or current health status – but see the next point about questionnaires relating to giving the vaccine.
6. Employers can pose pre-screening vaccination questions, so long as they comply with ADA requirements.
The EEOC’s FAQs offered some direction for employers who want to ask pre-screening vaccination questions as they administer the inoculation. The first thing employers need to know is that pre-screening vaccination questions may implicate the ADA’s provision on disability-related inquiries (defined as any such inquiries likely to elicit information about a disability). Therefore, if you administer the vaccine, you must show that any pre-screening questions are job-related and consistent with business necessity. To meet this standard, the EEOC says, you need to have a reasonable belief, based on objective evidence, that an employee who does not answer the questions and, therefore, does not receive a vaccination, will pose a direct threat to the health or safety of themselves or others.
The EEOC does explain that there are two circumstances in which these screening questions can be asked without needing to satisfy the “job-related and consistent with business necessity” requirement. First, you can offer the vaccination to employees on a voluntary basis (i.e. employees choose whether to be vaccinated), which means the employee’s decision to answer pre-screening, disability-related questions would also be voluntary. If an employee chooses not to answer these questions, you may decline to administer the vaccine to them but may not retaliate against, intimidate, or threaten them for refusing to answer the questions.
Second, if an employee receives an employer-required vaccination from a third party with whom your organization does not have a contract (such as a pharmacy or other healthcare provider), the ADA “job-related and consistent with business necessity” restrictions on disability-related inquiries would not apply.
Finally, regardless of whether you meet the “job-related and consistent with business necessity” standard, the ADA requires you to keep any employee medical information obtained in the course of the vaccination program confidential. On a related note, the agency reminds employers that any pre-screening questions that ask about genetic information, such as family members’ medical histories or immune systems of family members, may violate the Genetic Information Nondiscrimination Act (GINA). As the EEOC explicitly says that “it is not yet clear what screening checklists for contraindications will be provided with COVID-19 vaccinations,” this is an issue that employers should be aware of as we move closer to vaccines being provided to members of the general population.
To avoid these complications, the EEOC says that employers who want to ensure that employees have been vaccinated may want to request proof of vaccination instead of administering the vaccine themselves. However, to steer clear of unintended GINA violations, you may still want to warn the employee not to provide genetic information as part of the proof. If this warning is provided, the EEOC says any genetic information you receive in response to your request for proof of vaccination will be considered inadvertent and, therefore, not a GINA violation.
7. Employees may be confused about their ability to “refuse” the vaccine as a result of the EUA.
We expect that some employees may believe they have the right the “refuse” the vaccine even if mandated by their employer. That’s because of language in the EEOC’s updated guidance about the EUA that may cause confusion.
The EEOC notes that, for any vaccine issued under an Emergency Use Authorization, the FDA (and the vaccination provider) has an obligation to inform vaccine recipients about its potential benefits and risks, the extent to which such benefits and risks are unknown, whether any alternative products are available, and “that they have the option to accept or refuse the vaccine.” This language comes from the federal statute governing the EUA.
The FDA’s website (cited by the EEOC) says that the option to refuse is typically included in a “fact sheet” provided to the individual receiving the vaccine (or, alternatively, the party administering the vaccine can direct the individual to the weblink to view the fact sheet online). That fact sheet for the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine can be found here, and it explicitly says that “the recipient or their caregiver has the option to accept or refuse [the] Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 Vaccine.”
This directive seems to be targeted at whether an individual can be forced to take the vaccine by a government entity (as a New York lawmaker recently suggested), not whether an employer can condition an individual’s continued employment on taking the vaccine. After all, in at-will employment settings, an employee can always pursue alternative employment if they do not want to get vaccinated as a condition of their current job. Note that this analysis may be different in unionized settings governed by a collective bargaining agreement. If you are working with a union, you should consult with your Fisher Phillips counsel before proceeding with any mandatory vaccination plan.
Although the EEOC seems to permit mandating vaccinations of employees in certain circumstances, most employers should consider encouraging rather than mandating vaccinations due to potential related risks. Whether you simply encourage or mandate vaccinations, you should be prepared with at least a policy framework and a communications plan as wider availability of the vaccine draws closer.
Article courtesy of Fisher Phillips