Category Archives: COVID-19

I Don’t Want to Wear a Mask…Part 5: CDC Reversal…and School Supplies Include Masks?!?!

Contributed by Michael Wong, July 28, 2021

Vector attention sign, please wear face mask, in flat style

Just when we were starting to let loose and enjoy the summer without masks, as a result of rising number of COVID-19 cases and the Delta variant, the CDC revised their guidance for fully vaccinated individuals on July 27, 2021 with the following changes:

  • Fully vaccinated individuals are recommended to wear masks when indoors in areas of substantial or high transmission.
  • Fully vaccinated individuals who have a known exposure to someone with suspected or confirmed COVID-19 should be tested 3-5 days after exposure, and wear a mask in public indoor settings for 14 days or until they receive a negative test result.
  • Universal indoor masking for all teachers, staff, students, and visitors to schools, regardless of vaccination status.

Since OSHA adopted the CDC’s prior changes regarding fully vaccinated individuals not being required to wear masks, it is expected that OSHA will also adopt the CDC’s new guidance. 

What are Areas of Substantial or High Transmission? – It’s not a reference to a certain type of workplace (e.g. hospital), but rather the geographic county that you are in. The CDC’s COVID-19 Data Tracker shows the level of transmission and COVID-19 cases within counties and based on the CDC’s evaluation of community characteristics will identify a risk level. The CDC’s COVID-19 Data Tracker is updated on a daily basis at 8 p.m. EST with the map representing a 7 day period. Based on the current map over 63% of counties in the US are considered areas of substantial or high transmission.

What does that mean for your business? – While it is sometimes hard to turn back the clock, with the threat of OSHA violations and exposure to legal claims, employers should check whether their business falls within an area of substantial or high transmission. If the business does fall within an area of substantial or high transmission, then based on CDC guidance (and likely OSHA’s adoption), businesses will have to re-evaluate their mask policies and consider going back to requiring all individuals coming into their business wear a mask, regardless of whether they have been fully vaccinated or not.

Additionally, pursuant to the CDC guidance regardless of whether or not a business is in an area of substantial or high transmission, fully vaccinated employees who have a known exposure to someone with suspected or confirmed COVID-19 should be tested 3-5 days after exposure and wear a mask in indoor settings for 14 days or until they receive a negative test.

What risks do I face if my business ignores this guidance? – If OSHA adopts the CDC’s new guidance (which it is expected to do), and your business is located in an area of substantial or high transmission, you will be expected to require all employees and visitors, regardless of vaccination status, to wear a mask indoors. If you do not make changes and still allow employees, customers and visitors to go maskless indoors you will face potential fines from OSHA. Additionally, if there is an outbreak in your facility or one of your employees, customers or visitors claims that they contracted COVID-19 at your business, you could face civil claims (including workers’ compensation claims) which would be more difficult to defend based upon you not complying with the CDC and/or OSHAS’s current standard.

Impact on K-12 Schools – School Administrators that have been working long hours to figure out whether or not students and staff have to be masked, just got the answer to that question for this fall. The CDC’s guidance states children in K-12 should return to full-time in-person learning, but that all teachers, staff, students and visitors to K-12 schools, regardless of vaccination status, should wear masks indoors.

State and Local – The trickle down effect of the CDC’s new guidance will not just impact OSHA’s requirements, but those at the state and local levels. As such in the coming days businesses will need to keep up to date with local guidance. For the immediate future, businesses should anticipate being faced with state and local guidance that provide fully vaccinated individuals do not need to wear masks, while the CDC guidance states the opposite. In looking at those conflicts, businesses should recognize that the state and local guidance will likely be updated to comply with the CDC’s guidelines, much like it has in the past.

How to Address? – Businesses are now faced with the impossible task of addressing guidelines that can potentially change on a weekly basis. There is no simple answer.  For businesses that are in a county that is currently considered an area of substantial or high transmission, the best practice will be to err on the side of safety and require employees, customers and visitors to wear masks when indoors. This minimizes the potential risk and exposure to legal claims, while also protecting the business’s workforce from the surge in COVID-19 cases and the Delta variant. In this day and age where maintaining a workforce and recruiting employees is already difficult, keeping one’s workforce intact and working is of utmost importance.

Businesses will also be faced with potential issues in communicating and/or enforcing the new guidelines. When the CDC and OSHA issued the “mask free” announcement it was relatively easy for businesses to take down signs and allow customers, visitors and employees to not wear a mask if they were fully vaccinated. With the CDC backtracking, businesses will be faced with the same issues and problems from when mask mandates were instituted (e.g. viral video of customer and employee confrontations over not wearing masks). Even more problematic is how often will the business want to change its policy and procedures, with the understanding that whether or not the business is located in an area of substantial or high transmission could change on a daily or weekly basis.

Communicating your decision on how to address this issue and whether you will be updating your policy on a regular basis to stay in line with areas of substantial or high transmission, or are simply re-instituting your mask policy, will be key. Likewise training employees on addressing, managing and de-escalating conflicts with customers and other employees will play a major role in addressing these issues, while minimizing potential problems. With these changes, employers must also recognize their obligations to provide reasonable accommodations to employees based on a disability or religious belief. Needless to say, just when we felt we were getting out, we’ve been pulled back into the pandemic life.  

As these issues continue to change and evolve it will be important for businesses to consult with legal counsel experienced and knowledgeable in labor and employment law to help you continue to evolve your business for success during these times.

OSHA ETS: What Health Care Providers Need to Know

Contributed By John R. Hayes, June 18, 2021

On June 10, 2021 OSHA issued its COVID-19 Emergency Temporary Standard (ETS) for the health care industry, along with general guidance for all other employers, which we already touched on in a previous post. However, there remains a lot to unpack, as there are many unanswered questions, especially for the health care field.  Below we dig a bit deeper into the ETS and its practical implications for health care providers.

Are you covered? The first question—and it is not as clear cut as it may seem—is whether the ETS applies to your business. OSHA has issued a flowchart to attempt to answer this question. However, it still remains murky for some. Generally, the ETS applies to settings where coronavirus patients are treated (including hospitals, nursing homes and assisted living facilities) and covers “all settings where any employee provides health care services or health care support services.” These are defined as:

  • Health care services are services that are provided to individuals by professional health care practitioners (doctors, nurses, emergency medical personnel, oral health professionals) for the purpose of promoting, maintaining, monitoring, or restoring health, and are delivered through various means including hospitalization, long-term care, ambulatory care, home health and hospice care, emergency medical response, and patient transport.
  • Health care support services are services that facilitate the provision of health care services, which include patient intake/admission, patient food services, equipment and facility maintenance, housekeeping services, health care laundry services, medical waste handling services, and medical equipment cleaning/reprocessing.

The ETS contains several exemptions to its coverage, and it does not apply to:

(1) the dispensing of prescriptions by pharmacists in retail settings;

(2) non-hospital ambulatory care settings (outpatient settings such as doctor’s offices) where all non-employees are screened before entering and people with suspected or confirmed COVID-19 are not allowed to enter;

(3) well-defined hospital ambulatory care settings and home health care settings where all employees are fully vaccinated, all non-employees are screened prior to entry, and people with suspected or confirmed COVID-19 are not permitted to enter those settings or are not present;

(4) health care support services not performed in a health care setting (off-site services); and

(5) telehealth services performed outside of a setting where direct patient care occurs. 

Moreover, in certain situations, such as where a health care setting is embedded with a non-health care provider (such as a medical clinic in a manufacturing facility), the ETS applies only to the embedded health care setting and not the other parts of the facility. 

Also, in well-defined areas in a health care setting where there is no reasonable expectation that any person with suspected or confirmed COVID-19 will be present the ETS provisions for PPE, physical distancing, and physical barriers do not apply to fully vaccinated employees. To meet this exception, the COVID-19 plan for the employer must include policies and procedures to determine employee vaccination status.

ETS Mandates. If you are an entity covered by the ETS, then what exactly does it require of you? The main requirements are what you have likely had in place throughout the pandemic:

  • Development of a COVID-19 plan. This applies to all covered employers with 10 or more employees.
  • Provide PPE and ensure employees properly wear facemasks that meet OSHA standards when physical distancing is not possible.
  • Cleaning, disinfecting, installing barriers and maintaining social distancing. 
  • Follow general screening and management practices for COVID-19. 
  • Record Keeping/Reporting. Employers must retain all versions of their COVID-19 plan, log and record each instance an employee is COVID-19 positive whether or not the infection was at work, report each work-related COVID-19 fatality and in-patient hospitalization within 24 hours.
  • Vaccination PTO. Employers must provide reasonable time and paid leave for employees to receive COVID-19 vaccinations and recover from any side effects. OSHA defines “reasonable time” as four hours of paid leave for each dose, and 8 hours of leave for any side effects of the dose.
  • Training on the basics of COVID-19 and employer and workplace specific policies on all other ETS requirements, such as screening, cleaning, and sick leave policies.

Medical Removal Protection (MRP) Benefits. Employers with more than 10 employees must provide paid leave to employees if the employee is removed from the workplace under the ETS – basically if the employee is unable to work due to COVID-19 or COVID-19 exposure, regardless of whether the employee was exposed at work or outside the workplace.

  • For employers with more than 10 but fewer than 500 employees, the employee is entitled to their regular rate of pay, up to $1,400 per week for the first two weeks.  Beginning in the third week, if the removal continues that long, then the employee shall receive two-thirds the rate of their regular pay, up to $200 a day. 
  • For employers with 500 or more employees, the employer must pay up to the $1400 cap each week during the entire period of removal, until the employee meets the return to work criteria, which must be made in accordance with guidance from a licensed health care provider or applicable guidance from the CDC.
  • For all employers with more than 10 employees they must continue to provide the benefits to which the employee is normally entitled.
  • The employer is not required to provide overtime pay, even if the employee had regularly worked overtime hours in recent weeks.
  • The employer may reduce the amount paid to the removed employee by compensation the employee receives for lost earnings from any other source, such as employer-paid sick leave or other PTO.
  • For employers with fewer than 500 employees, tax credits are available under the American Rescue Plan for voluntarily provided COVID-19 sick leave through September 30, 2021.

Implementation Timeline. Covered employers must comply with most provisions of the standard within 14 days of publishing, and with the provisions regarding physical barriers, ventilation, and training within 30 days. OSHA states it will use its enforcement discretion to avoid citing employers who are making a good faith effort to comply with the ETS. However, OSHA has made no secret it is overall increasing its enforcement, and is encouraging more in-person inspections. Employers who believe they may be subject to the ETS should review it carefully and consult with experienced employment counsel regarding their obligations under the ETS.

Yes, Your Employer Can Require You To Be Vaccinated, According to a Federal Judge in Texas

Contributed By: John R. Hayes, June 14, 2021

A federal judge in Texas on June 12, 2021 dismissed a lawsuit brought by Texas health care workers challenging their hospital’s COVID-19 vaccine mandate. The scathing opinion by U.S. District Judge Lynn N. Hughes left no doubt that he believed the claims of the 117 plaintiffs were without merit.

The lawsuit was brought by employees of Houston Methodist Hospital, who had refused the vaccine, after the hospital in April announced a policy requiring  vaccination of all employees.  In early June, over 170 employees of the hospital were suspended for two weeks without pay over their decision to refuse getting the COVID-19 vaccine. If these employees did not get vaccinated within two weeks then they would be terminated. At the time of the filing, almost 25,000 Hospital employees had complied with the vaccination requirement, and approximately 285 employees had received medical or religious exemptions. 

The employees refusing the vaccine claimed that the policy of the hospital requiring the COVID-19 vaccine of its employees was an effort to coerce them into becoming test subjects for an untested and unreliable vaccine. Echoing a refrain made by many who are refusing the vaccine, the plaintiffs argued that the lack of full approval by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), justified their refusal to get vaccinated. While not yet granting full approval for the three vaccines in the United States, the FDA has granted emergency use authorization for the vaccines, and approximately 173 million Americans have received at least one dose, with over 143 million being fully vaccinated.

In his opinion, Judge Hughes found that the plaintiffs were not “coerced” to get the vaccine, and that public policy clearly supports widespread inoculation efforts. Specifically, the court said that lead plaintiff and nurse Jennifer Bridges’ claims that the vaccines are “experimental and dangerous” were “false” and “irrelevant.”  He went on to say Bridges’ argument that the vaccine requirement equates to medical experimentation in Nazi concentration camps was “reprehensible.” 

Further explaining that the employees were not coerced, Judge Hughes stated that the hospital “is trying to do their business of saving lives without giving them the COVID-19 virus. It is a choice made to keep staff, patients and their families safer. Bridges can freely choose to accept or refuse a COVID-19 vaccine; however, if she refuses, she will simply need to work somewhere else.” Calling it “all part of the bargain” between a worker and their employer, the court stated “every employment includes limits on the worker’s behavior in exchange for his renumeration.”   

While the focus of the opinion was on Texas law regarding wrongful discharge, it appears to be the first of its kind regarding vaccine mandates, and has implications nationwide.  Judge Hughes cited to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission’s (EEOC) updated May 28, 2021 guidance that employers can require employees to be vaccinated against COVID-19, subject to reasonable accommodations for employees with disabilities or sincerely held religious beliefs that preclude vaccination. He further stated that while this guidance is not binding “it is advice about the position one is likely to meet at the Commission.” 

The lawyer for the plaintiffs stated he planned to pursue an appeal.

Ultimately, the decision whether or not to mandate vaccination of its employees is up to the individual employer. While some hospital systems and other health care institutions such as nursing homes and home health care providers in the country are moving to require COVID-19 shots, many private employers have not yet taken that step. And although the EEOC has said employers can require vaccines, subject to certain exemptions, there still remain questions on the legality of doing so, as evidenced by this lawsuit. Any workplace vaccination policy—whether a mandate or one that provides incentives to get the shot—should be carefully considered in advance, ideally vetted by experienced employment counsel. 

We are continuing to monitor this evolving situation, and will update our blog with any new developments.

EEOC Issues Updated Guidance Addressing COVID-19 Vaccine Incentives Among Other Issues

Contributed By Steven Jados, May 28, 2021

Medicine doctor and vaccine dose

On May 28, 2021, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) updated its guidance regarding employers offering incentives for employees to be vaccinated against COVID-19. The updated guidance also clarifies issues related to whether employers can mandate that employees be vaccinated before entering the workplace.

Interestingly, the EEOC’s guidance on vaccine incentives is broken into two parts: (1) incentives for employees voluntarily providing proof that they received a vaccination on their own, and (2) incentives for employees who voluntarily receive a vaccination administered by the employer or its agent.

As to the first scenario, the EEOC’s guidance says little more than that requesting proof of vaccination is not a disability-related inquiry covered by the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), and also does not seek information protected by the Genetic Information Nondiscrimination Act (GINA), and therefore employers may offer incentives to employees who provide proof that they were vaccinated. 

The guidance for the second scenario is a bit more detailed. It states that incentives may be offered, so long as the incentive (whether it is a reward or penalty) “is not so substantial as to be coercive.” The difference between the first and second scenarios is that in the second scenario, employees will likely be required to disclose protected medical information as part of the vaccine provider’s pre-vaccination inquiry. An incentive that is too large could make employees feel pressured to disclose that protected medical information, and that undue pressure may violate the ADA.

The EEOC’s guidance is that the incentive limitation in the second scenario does not apply to the first scenario—because the first scenario is just asking for proof of vaccination status, which is not a disability-related inquiry in the EEOC’s eyes. However, we recommend caution in providing large incentives in first scenario circumstances, too, given the recency of this EEOC guidance, and the thorny issues and litigation risks that can arise with respect to incentive programs that touch on employee health and medical information.

On the subject of mandatory vaccines, the EEOC’s updated guidance makes clear that “federal EEO laws do not prevent an employer from requiring all employees physically entering the workplace to be vaccinated for COVID-19,” subject to reasonable accommodation and other EEO considerations. The guidance includes expanded advice for responding to employees who do not want to be vaccinated due to medical or religious reasons or because of pregnancy. (A word of caution: federal EEO laws are not the only game in town, and there is a possibility that other laws could prohibit employers from imposing mandatory vaccine policies—so be careful.)

The EEOC’s next piece of guidance should not come as a surprise to our loyal readers: employees’ COVID-19 vaccination documentation is confidential and must be kept separate from employee personnel files, like other medical information.

The EEOC’s updated guidance also includes several links to resources available for employers to educate their employees about COVID-19 vaccinations and related issues.

As discussed above, issues relating to vaccine incentives—and really any issue relating to COVID-19 vaccines in the workplace—can get thorny very quickly. With that in mind, we recommend engaging experienced employment counsel before wading too deep into these issues.

Save the Date! Complimentary Webcast, May 24th: Mask Mandate Mayhem! A Briefing for Confused Employers

On May 13, 2021, the CDC issued new guidance stating that those who are fully vaccinated can resume activities without wearing a mask or social distancing. Following the CDC guidance, on May 17, 2021, OSHA updated its website to refer business and employers to the CDC guidelines. The door has been opened to employers and businesses to allow employees to be in the workplace without a mask, if they are fully vaccinated, but has not provided any guidance or direction on how to do so, or even made clear that employers and businesses are allowed to.

Moreover, state and local requirements and guidance have had mixed responses to the CDC and OSHA changes. What is expected of businesses and employers at this point is unclear – so what should you do?

Join Mike Wong and Carlos Arévalo on Monday, May 24 @ noon CT for a 30 minute briefing on what to expect in the coming months. Topics will include:

  • Risks of worker compensation claims
  • Reasonable accommodations under ADA and Title VII
  • Navigating federal, state, local, tribal or territorial laws, rules, and regulations

Don’t miss this timely webcast!

UPDATED: I Don’t Want to Wear a Mask…Part 4: OSHA Weighs In!

Contributed By Michael Wong, May 17, 2021

Blue medical face masks isolated on white

***On May 17, 2021, OSHA updated its web page regarding “Protecting Workers: Guidance on Mitigating and Preventing the Spread of COVID-19 in the Workplace” to state the following:

“The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has issued new guidance relating to recommended precautions for people who are fully vaccinated, which is applicable to activities outside of healthcare and a few other environments. OSHA is reviewing the recent CDC guidance and will update our materials on this website accordingly. Until those updates are complete, please refer to the CDC guidance for information on measures appropriate to protect fully vaccinated workers.”

The CDC’s May 13, 2021 guidance “Interim Public Health Recommendations for Fully Vaccinated People” states that fully vaccinated people can “Resume activities without wearing masks or physically distancing, EXCEPT where required by federal, state, local, tribal, or territorial laws, rules and regulations, including local business and workplace guidance. Fully vaccinated people should also continue to wear a well-fitted mask in correctional facilities and homeless shelters. Prevention measures are still recommended for unvaccinated people.”

However, the CDC has not made any changes to its workplace guidance regarding the use of masks. In particular, the CDC still advises employers to “encourage employees to wear face coverings in the workplace, if appropriate”, and does not differentiate between those who have been vaccinated and those who have not. 

Finally, even though the CDC and OSHA have issued this guidance, a patchwork of state and local policies or rules are popping up making it clear that an “across the board” mask-free workplace is not without legal risk for employers.

What does this mean for the workplace?

OSHA’s updated reference to the CDC’s guidance has essentially made this issue a little more clear. In doing so though, OSHA and the CDC has opened the door to employers and businesses allowing employees to be in the workplace without a mask, if they are fully vaccinated, but has not provided any guidance or direction on how to do so. The risk of OSHA issuing a fine or penalty on this issue has been reduced as long as the company is taking common sense steps to protect its employees, which could include (i) requiring verification or confirmation by employees that they have been fully vaccinated before allowing them to be mask free in the workplace; and (ii) modifying guidance to allow employees who have been vaccinated to not wear a mask in the workplace, unless interacting with or in a part of the business where there are customers, clients or the public.

In considering revised policies, employers should remember that there is still risk from workers’ compensation claims. While being vaccinated reduces the possibility of getting COVID-19, if an employee is not wearing a mask in the workplace and gets COVID-19, the employer could still face a workers’ compensation claim that the employee got COVID-19 at work. 

With respect to customers or clients coming into the business, the issue is even muddier, as the CDC and OSHA guidelines are unclear on what is expected of businesses and employers at this point. For example, if a business allows customers or clients into the business without a mask, do they have to verify that they have been vaccinated? Moreover, there is no guidance on what questions a business could ask a customer or client to confirm if he or she has been vaccinated. 

As such, this still means that training, education and communicating with employees and customers will be vital within the next few weeks and months. Many employees and customers will hear about the federal “unmasking,” but will not understand that it does not apply to employers or businesses based on state or local requirements or guidelines.

Training for employees should include methods on addressing, managing and de-escalating conflicts with customers and between employees. In particular, re-emphasizing and educating employees on how to communicate the business’ policies and more importantly the reason why the business’ policies may not have changed.

Finally, don’t forget that employer and business obligations regarding reasonable accommodation of disabilities and religious beliefs under the ADA and Title VII are still in place.

Due to the complexity and interplay of federal, state, local, tribal or territorial laws, rules and regulations, including CDC, OSHA and state and local health departments and governments, it is important to use legal counsel experienced and knowledgeable in labor and employment law to help you navigate these waters.

For further information on this matter, keep an eye out for our timely webcast, “Mask Mandate Mayhem! A Briefing for Confused Employers” on Monday, May 24th at Noon CT.  

I Don’t Want to Wear a Mask…Part 3: Land of the Mask Free and Home of the Brave

Contributed By Michael Wong, May 14, 2021

Blue medical face masks isolated on white

On May 13, 2021, the CDC issued new guidance stating that those who are fully vaccinated can resume activities without wearing a mask or social distancing. Following the CDC’s announcement, President Biden lifted the mask mandate that was required by staff and visitors of the White House.  

While the CDC has issued this guidance, a patchwork of state and local policies or rules are popping up making clear that we are not going to be mask free quite yet. More importantly, the CDC’s announcement contained a big “EXCEPTION” by stating “except where required by federal, state, local, tribal or territorial laws, rules and regulations, including local businesses and workplace guidance.”

To be clear, the CDC has not made any changes to its workplace guidance regarding the use of masks. The CDC guidance still advises employers to “encourage employees to wear face coverings in the workplace, if appropriate.” More importantly though for employers, OSHA still states that employers and businesses should require the use of face masks and emphasizes that “employers are responsible for providing a safe and healthy workplace free from recognized hazards likely to cause death or serious harm. In fact, President Biden’s “lifting of the mask mandate” for staff and visitors could potentially be considered a violation of CDC and OSHA guidance regarding workplaces.

Employer and business compliance with CDC and OSHA Guidelines is still very important, especially with the potential for fines. Recently, OSHA issued a $136,532 penalty and citation to a Massachusetts company for prohibiting employees and customers from wearing face coverings in the workplace and requiring employees to work within six feet of each other and customers for multiple hours while not wearing face coverings, finding that the company’s actions put its employees safety at risk of recognized hazards that are causing or likely to cause death or serious physical harm.

The issue gets even more complicated at the state and local level. Some states, including New York, New Jersey, North Carolina, and Maine, have advised that they will not be modifying their mask mandates at this time. Many other states, including Illinois, Kentucky, Minnesota, Nevada, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Connecticut, and California have begun adjusting their mask mandates and guidance (including setting dates for them to tentatively end).  While other states, including Alabama, Arkansas, Iowa, Mississippi, Montana, New Hampshire, and Texas, have already rescinded their statewide mask mandates. To make things even more confusing, even in the states that have rescinded the state wide mask mandates, some local governments have maintained mask mandates including those for employees and/or customers. Then to make it even more unclear, Indiana just passed a law stating that the decision regarding masks is now controlled by city councils and mayors/elected officials and not local health officers. At least one county in Indiana, Marion County, which covers Indianapolis and its surrounding suburbs, has already had its City Council vote to continue its mask mandate.

What does this mean For Businesses?
This means that businesses must still require employees to wear masks in the workplace and must still require customers coming into the business to wear masks unless otherwise allowed by state or local guidelines, and even then you are still required to comply with OSHA requirements.

This also means that training, education and communicating with employees and customers will be vital within the next few weeks and months. Many employees and customers will hear about the federal “unmasking,” but will not understand that it does not apply to employers or businesses based on state or local requirements or guidelines. Moreover, as OSHA has now made clear by fining businesses, there are repercussions for employers and businesses violating the face mask requirements and guidance. 

Training for employees should include methods on addressing, managing and de-escalating conflicts with customers and between employees. In particular, re-emphasizing and educating employees on how to communicate the business’ policies and more importantly the reason why the business’ policies have not changed. This is vitally important to avoid “viral videos” of confrontations as businesses will no longer be able to point to a presidential mandate or executive order to validate mask policies. Rather, businesses will have to educate employees and customers on federal, state and local requirements and guidelines for businesses and make clear that the “mask free” announcement for those with vaccinations are limited to public and social activities and not so much the workplace, business interactions and shopping. 

Finally, don’t forget that employer and business obligations regarding reasonable accommodation of disabilities and religious beliefs under the ADA and Title VII are still in place. 

Due to the complexity and interplay of federal, state, local, tribal or territorial laws, rules and regulations, including CDC, OSHA and state and local health departments and governments, it is important to use legal counsel experienced and knowledgeable in labor and employment law to help you navigate these waters.

Health Care Workers and Labor Unions: The COVID “Bump” and the New Administration’s Efforts to Unionize More Workers

Contributed By Beverly Alfon and Michael Hughes, April 28, 2021

COVID-19 Pandemic Allows Unions to Make Inroads with Health Care Workers

For health care workers, the issues of staffing, wages and benefits are typically what unions have focused on in their organizing campaigns. Against the backdrop of the COVID-19 pandemic, these issues are heightened with the added urgency of worker safety. The realities created by the pandemic have and will likely continue to make their impact on health care workers – even prompting some who never may have considered union representation – to reconsider their position. For example, in September 2020, nurses at a hospital in Asheville, North Carolina, voted to become unionized. Yes!  North Carolina, a traditionally red, anti-union state. The union won 70% of the vote. The nurses cited issues related to PPE, testing and exposure notification inconsistencies.

Unions have certainly taken notice of this opportunity to organize and are seizing it. After all, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, by 2028 some 3.4 million new jobs will be added in health care and social assistance. The sector will account for about a third of all new employment in the U.S. by that time. In August 2020, a Colorado state inspection revealed that understaffing led to a patient death at a Denver area hospital. The Service Employees International Union (SEIU) local union – which does not represent the employees at the hospital – nonetheless engaged in an aggressive campaign alleging unsafe practices by the hospital’s parent company.

Health care workers who are already unionized – who in the past may have been complacent about union objectives and work issues – also appear to have become galvanized and willing to take action, including voting to strike. At the end of 2020, health workers in multiple states went on strike over staffing issues and pay. 

  • In Chicago, about 6,000 certified nursing assistants and food service and housekeeping employees at 64 nursing home facilities called off a planned strike after reaching a tentative agreement with employers for higher base pay, hazard pay, adequate personal protective equipment and paid sick days related to COVID-19.
  • In Providence, Rhode Island, about 100 nursing assistants and maintenance workers and other staff at a nursing home began a strike over demands for mandatory minimum staffing levels and pay increases. The strike followed a series of protests following outbreaks of coronavirus in nursing homes in Rhode Island and across country exposed staffing shortages. 
  • Near Philadelphia, nurses went on strike at a hospital. A month later, the owner of the hospital announced a labor agreement with the nurses’ union that gave nurses “a voice in discussions on staffing” while preserving the hospital’s right and authority to make all staffing decisions. 
  • In Chicago, nearly 700 caregivers walked off the job at 11 nursing homes, apparently triggered by the company’s discontinuance of hazard pay during the pandemic. A tentative agreement was reached after a 12-day strike, including significant wage increases, pandemic pay increase, additional five days of COVID-19 related sick time, and significant PPE guarantees and protections.
  • In Albany, New York, hundreds of nurses went on strike, citing issues wages and benefits, understaffing, and the hospital’s handling of the pandemic.
  • In Connecticut, nursing home workers continue to inch towards a major strike with initial union votes at 33 facilities overwhelmingly favoring a strike.

Clearly, COVID-19 is strengthening organized labor’s appeal and lengthening its reach. Couple that with a pro-labor agenda in the Biden administration and in Congress, and we are staring at a galvanized labor movement.

The Pro-Union Agenda at the Biden Administration and the National Labor Relations Board

On the eve of the presidential election in 2020, nominee Joe Biden vowed to be “the most pro-union president you’ve ever seen.” Upon being sworn in, President Biden wasted no time in making headway toward that promise. On his very first day in office, President Biden fired the National Labor Relations Board’s General Counsel, Peter Robb. The NLRB GC determines which cases are prosecuted at the labor board, and in so doing, sets policy initiatives and labor law enforcement guidance. Robb’s term was not set to expire until November 2021, and his firing marked the first time in history that an incoming President fired the sitting NLRB GC without letting him serve out his term. (The next day President Biden also fired the NLRB’s Deputy GC). Union leaders had called for Biden to sack Robb over their disagreement with Robb’s policy prerogatives and what they perceived as an anti-union agenda. Within days, the acting NLRB GC appointed by President Biden issued memorandums reversing many of Robb’s policy directives—unsurprisingly all of those reversals favored labor unions (but not necessarily workers). Among the policy provisions established by the acting GC’s newly issued guidance memos are provisions giving unions wider protection against accountability when they fail to properly represent workers’ rights; allowing unions to hide certain dues information from workers; and allowing unions to limit the time frame for workers to rescind a dues authorization.

In the coming months, the makeup of the 5-member NLRB (the body that makes final determinations in cases of alleged unfair labor practices and union representation issues) will also swing from its current Republican majority, to a Democratic majority, as there currently is one vacant seat waiting to be filled, and another seat will expire on August 27, 2021. With these changes (at the GC and board levels) it is a certainty that the NLRB will begin a period where its policy and enforcement priorities make it easier for unions to organize unrepresented employees; give unions additional ammunition and leverage in organizing campaigns and at the bargaining table; and remove employer tools to resist or counter union organizing.  

Congress Advances Union-Friendly Legislation

Not to be outdone by the Executive branch, Congress also is moving quickly to appease its labor union constituents, mainly through the re-introduction of the Union-friendly, “PRO Act.” We recently wrote about the nuts and bolts of that pending legislation, which has passed the House of Representatives and awaits action by the Senate. Currently, 47 of the 50 Democratic senators support the PRO Act, and labor unions and other organizing groups have set out to bombard the remaining three Democratic senators with an onslaught of demonstrations, phone calls, and other pressure tactics, in order to bring them to heel. The PRO Act would nearly completely re-write labor law as we know it, with an aim to making it a near impossibility for any organization to resist a union organizing campaign. Among the many drastic changes to long-standing labor law, the PRO Act would:

  • Outlaw Right-to-Work laws;
  • Remove any and all restrictions on Union strike activities (including removal of restrictions against intermittent strikes, partial strikes, and slow-down strikes);
  • Allow unions to strike and boycott directly against entities they have no labor dispute with, in order to pressure that entity to stop dealing with a company the Union does have a dispute with;
  • Impose penalties against employers who commit unfair labor practices (up to $50,000 for a first offense);
  • Erode the sanctity of secret ballot elections, allowing the Union alone to name the means and manner of election (mail ballot, off-site election, electronic election) and providing for a second-chance “card-check” election, if the Union loses and alleges an unfair labor practice;
  • Ban an employer’s ability to withdraw recognition from a union, even if 100% of all employees sign a petition saying they no longer want the union; and
  • Many more pro-union provisions.

While the PRO Act is not yet law (and likely will not be enacted wholesale, unless the Senate scuttles the filibuster), it is increasingly likely that certain portions of the PRO Act will find their way in to other legislation in the upcoming legislative sessions. Again, all of these developments are for one simple purpose: making it easier for unions to organize new groups of workers. As noted above, health care facilities, especially including long-term care facilities, have been a special focal point for many union organizing drives of late, with savvy union leaders leaning on the COVID-19 pandemic to make inroads with employees in the industry. A union-friendly Administration, NLRB, and Congress will only aid and embolden the SEIU and other unions seeking to organize health care workers to redouble their efforts.

What to Do?

  1. Get your union avoidance plan in place.
  2. Identify who your “supervisors” are (as defined by the National Labor Relations Act) and get them trained on identifying and dealing with union organizing. A “supervisor” cannot be represented by a union. They are also agents of your company, so training is key. They should be directed on what their role should be in avoiding union organizing and what they can and cannot do and say in the event that union organizing begins.
  3. Review policies for clarity, perceived unfairness, and employee relations. A union will often focus employees on (real or perceived) unfair policies or unequal implementation of work rules.
  4. Benchmark wages and benefits. A union will often promise more money. So, it is best to be prepared with a response.
  5. Identify employee relations problems now and deal with them before employees turn to a union. Get feedback from the group of employees who are vulnerable to union organization. Sometimes, it is as simple as tweaking a supervisor’s management-style.
  6. Train management on positive employee relations. Your supervisors need to know about the importance of providing regular feedback to employees and maintaining open communication with them.
  7. Get a communications plan in place in the event that union organizing begins or has begun.
  8. In light of current union tactics of staging demonstrations and strikes, even in support of organizing efforts, it also is advisable to have a comprehensive strike plan in place, especially once organizing efforts become known.

Being aware of the potential threat of union organizing at your workplace is not enough. Far too often employers are surprised when union organizing begins or a formal petition for recognition is filed. Assessment and planning are necessary now so that if the need arises, a response can be timely, effective, and within the parameters of the National Labor Relations Act. 

US DOL Publishes Model Notices for American Rescue Plan COBRA Subsidy

Contributed By Rebecca Dobbs Bush, April 8, 2021

close up of the hands of a businessman in a suit signing or writing a document

The American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA), signed by President Joe Biden on March 11, 2021, included a COBRA Subsidy covering 100% of COBRA premiums for “Assistance Eligible Individuals” during the period of April 1, 2021 through September 30, 2021.  The 100% premium subsidy will be reimbursed to employers through their quarterly payroll tax returns. 

Pursuant to ARPA, employers are required to notify certain individuals about potential eligibility and details of the subsidy by May 31, 2021. Individuals then have 60-days to elect.  And although Notice 2021-01 described extensions of various plan deadlines for potentially up to 1-year or 60-days after the expiration of the “Outbreak Period,” the US Department of Labor (DOL) now makes clear in its FAQ on COBRA premium assistance under the American Rescue Plan Act of 2021, that this extension of timeframes for employee benefit plans does not apply to notice periods related to the COBRA premium assistance.  Also noted within the published FAQ, a penalty of $100 per qualified beneficiary, not to exceed more than $200 per family, may be assessed on employers for each day they are in violation of the COBRA rules.

Model Notices Available:

The above model notices cannot be used without modification that customizes each with specific information about the relevant individual and the employer’s group health plan. As potential fines for noncompliance can be steep, employers should carefully set procedures for timely distribution of all requisite notices. 

Can I Ask My Employees If They Have Been Vaccinated?

Male doctor hand wears medical glove holding syringe and vial bottle with COVID-19 vaccine

Contributed by Heather A. Bailey, April 6, 2021

The short answer is: Be careful what you wish for!  During this COVID-19 pandemic, vaccinations have been at the front of everyone’s mind. Now, with the mass rollout of vaccinations across the country, employers’ main questions have been: i) Can we mandate vaccinations for our workforce or, alternatively, ii) can we ask employees whether they have been vaccinated or not (and to show proof of vaccination)? Our Labor & Employment blog has been at the forefront for the first question and provides more information on COVID-19 vaccination developments and what legal risks come into play for employers when mandating the vaccine in the workplace.

Whether you’ve chosen to mandate COVID-19 vaccinations or not, you still may be interested in asking your employees to show proof of their vaccination status.  This simple question comes with its own set of risks. The U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) has given additional guidance in this area in Section K.3 of “What You Should Know About COVID-19 and the ADA, the Rehabilitation Act, and Other EEO Laws.”   

The good news is that generally asking your employees for proof of their vaccination status is not considered a medical exam for reasons that include the fact that there are many reasons that are not disability-related that may explain why an employee may or may not have gotten a vaccination.  For example, they may not have one yet because they have been unable to secure an appointment, or they simply do not believe in the vaccination because they think COVID is a hoax.  This is different from someone not getting vaccinated due to a disability or religious belief.  Moreover, this general practice is not a HIPAA violation and HIPAA does not apply in this context.  The rub and risk come if you ask follow-up questions that may elicit whether the employee may have a disability.  Simply following-up with “why do you not have the vaccination yet?” could be treading into that risky territory that touches on whether an employee’s disability is the reason why the employee has not been vaccinated. 

If you find yourself in that territory,  you will have to evaluate the employee’s response within the framework of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) (or Title VII, if the employee’s response implicates religious beliefs) requirement to justify proof of vaccination being “job-related and consistent with business necessity.”  This is the same analysis an employer must undertake when mandating vaccinations, and it can be a tedious and high standard to meet. View the Labor and Employment Blog for more information on the ADA and employers’ efforts to require mandatory vaccinations and health screenings for employees.

The same is true of follow-up questions that may elicit genetic information (e.g., I cannot get the vaccination due to my family’s history of being immuno-compromised).  (See Sections K.8 and K.9 of the EEOC guidance described above).  Once again, simply asking for vaccination proof does not run afoul of the Genetic Information Nondiscrimination Act (GINA) so long as you stop there in your inquiries.

Practice Tips:

  • Again, be careful what you wish for.  It’s one thing to ask the employee whether they were vaccinated and to show proof, and it’s another to ask why they were not vaccinated. Once you start eliciting disability, religious or genetic information with follow-up questions, you are placing your company at risk of knowing more information than you may have bargained for.
  • You need to ask yourself, first, why do I want to know information regarding why my employees have been vaccinated or not?  What are you going to do with this information?  Having a need and plan for this information will help ensure you have a business justification for why this information is necessary. If you don’t have a plan or a need, you may determine that knowing this information is not really necessary after all.
  • When asking employees to show proof of vaccination, it is good to remind them that you do not want them to include any other medical information that may be listed on their vaccination-related documents.
  • If you determine this is the route you want to take, always work with competent labor & employment counsel to help guide you through the process so you do not step on any landmines (even if it’s just a simple follow-up question).