Tag Archives: Coronavirus (COVID-19)

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.

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.

COVID-19 Extension of Group Welfare Plan Benefit Deadlines Clarified Bringing Potential Relief for Employers

Contributed by Rebecca Dobbs Bush, March 9, 2021

hand holding megaphone – benefits

In a previous blog article, we alerted readers to the extension of deadlines related to COBRA, Special Enrollment, Plan Disclosures and more. The prior Joint Notice from the DOL and IRS provided suspension of all deadlines until 60 days after the expiration of the National Emergency, referred to as the “Outbreak Period.”

The issue requiring clarification arose due to the unanticipated length of the Outbreak Period.  Much like all of us, the IRS and DOL did not foresee an Outbreak Period continuing well over a year later.  As the one-year anniversary of the Outbreak Period approached, a conflict began to arise with ERISA section 518 and Code section 7508A(b). Those provisions generally provide that the Secretaries of Labor and the Treasury may prescribe extensions of only up to one-year when it relates to a Presidentially declared disaster. Accordingly, some plans were contemplating a complete disregard of further extensions based on the one-year limitation on the emergency rule-making process.  Anticipating this potential action by plan sponsors, the DOL (also on behalf of the IRS) issued Disaster Relief Notice 2021-01.

However, with Notice 2021-01, the intended “clarification” of the discrepancy has led to a much more administratively complicated process.  Now, plan sponsors and participants must apply the extension on an individual basis for each separate deadline versus the previously declared extension of all deadlines.  Notice 2021-01 confirms that individual deadlines are revised to the earlier of: (1) one year from the date of the original deadline, or (2) the end of the Outbreak Period (previously defined and which has yet to occur).

Several specific examples were provided in Notice 2021-01 to help illustrate the revised administration of plan deadlines:

  • If a qualified beneficiary would have been required to make a COBRA election by March 1, 2020, the Joint Notice delays that requirement until February 28, 2021 – which is the earlier of 1 year from March 1, 2020 or the end of the Outbreak Period (which remains ongoing).
  • If a qualified beneficiary would have been required to make a COBRA election by March 1, 2021, the election deadline is now delayed until the earlier of 1 year from that date (i.e., March 1, 2022) or the end of the Outbreak Period.
  • If a plan would have been required to furnish a notice or disclosure by March 1, 2020, the relief under the Notice would end with respect to that specific notice or disclosure on February 28, 2021.

Note that none of the examples provided allow for a deadline extension of more than 1 year.  For this reason, Notice 2021-01 provides much needed relief for employers that were trying to manage never-ending extensions for COBRA elections, payments, etc. And as additional relief for employers, the DOL specifically indicates that prior notices furnished without relying on the relief set forth in Notice 2021-01, do not need to be reissued.   

Within Notice 2021-01, the DOL also reminds plan sponsors that “The guiding principle for administering employee benefit plans is to act reasonably, prudently, and in the interest of the workers and their families who rely on their health, retirement, and other employee benefit plans for their physical and economic well-being.”  In keeping with this guiding principle, the DOL encourages plan sponsors to consider affirmatively sending notices to those participants that are now facing the end of the relief period advising them of such.  In other words, if you now have COBRA participants or others that will be suddenly subject to election or payment deadlines, it is best practice to provide them with some type of notice or communication to that effect.

URGENT: Workers Can Refuse Work and Receive Unemployment Benefits Due to COVID-19

Contributed by Steven Jados, February 26, 2021

unemployment claim form on desk

On February 25, 2021, the U.S. Department of Labor (DOL) announced three new categories of individuals eligible to collect federally-funded unemployment benefits as the COVID-19 Pandemic continues.  They are:

  • Individuals who refuse to return to work that is unsafe or to accept an offer of new work that is unsafe;
  • Certain individuals providing services to educational institutions or educational services agencies; and
  • Individuals experiencing a reduction of hours or a temporary or permanent lay-off.

These changes are expected to take effect in late March, but could take longer to take hold as each state must adopt and administer to this new guidance in order to receive the additional federal COVID-19 specific funding.

Focusing on the first category, it essentially creates an additional “good cause” reason for an employee to refuse work, but remain eligible for unemployment benefits in situations in which “[t]he individual has been denied continued unemployment benefits because the individual refused to return to work or accept an offer of work at a worksite that, in either instance, is not in compliance with local, state, or national health and safety standards directly related to COVID-19.  This includes, but is not limited to, those related to facial mask wearing, physical distancing measures, or the provision of personal protective equipment consistent with public health guidelines.”

In order to obtain benefits under this provision, the DOL requires individuals to attest, under penalty of perjury, that they have been denied continued unemployment because they “refused to return to work or accept an offer of work at a worksite that, in either instance, is not in compliance with local, state, or national health and safety standards directly related to COVID-19.  This includes but is not limited to, those related to facial mask wearing, physical distancing measures, or the provision of personal protective equipment consistent with public health guidelines.” 

It is unclear exactly how it would be possible for, e.g., an applicant who never set foot on a worksite or an employee who had not been in the workplace since pandemic-related changes were implemented to credibly complete the attestation.

Beyond the attestation under perjury, specific standards and requirements will largely be left to the states.  Many states previously made clear that a generalized fear of COVID-19 in the workplace was an insufficient basis to refuse work and still receive unemployment benefits, and we anticipate many states will continue to require more than generalized fears when determining eligibility under this new DOL category.

The task for employers in light of this expansion is to demonstrate the safety and security of the workplace from a COVID-19 prevention and mitigation perspective.  Step one in that regard is, of course, to ensure that the business has enacted policies and procedures in-line with the most up-to-date guidance from the CDC and other federal, state, and local agencies.  Step two is to make clear to employees (1) what steps have been taken to improve health security in the workplace; (2) the fact that the business is vigilantly monitoring CDC and public health guidance and is ready to implement further protections in accordance with that guidance; and (3) that employees should feel free to express their questions and concerns to management regarding COVID-19 safety in the workplace without fear of adverse consequences or retaliation. This can take the form of e-mailed announcements and bulletin board postings for current employees. 

But for employees away from work because of pandemic-related concerns, more formal, written correspondence aimed at communicating how the business has directly resolved the employee’s concerns may be appropriate.  As always, we recommend drafting such correspondence with an eye toward an interactive process between the business and employee—and with guidance from experienced counsel. 

Check Local and State Health Department Rules: Some Require Reporting of COVID-19 Cases

Contributed by Peter Hansen, Michael Wong and Sara Zorich, February 23, 2020

COVID-19 Screening Questionnaire form with medical mask and a pen on it.

A question that employers often ask when someone in the workplace reports COVID-19 symptoms or a positive test is, who is the employer required to notify? Typically common sense and CDC guidelines have been that employers must engage in contact tracing and notify individuals who were in “close contact” with the person. In recent months and weeks, local and state departments of public health have continued to issue guidance, and mandates, that employers must also identify and observe and sometimes try to interpret despite conflicting statements.

For example, in December 2020, the Illinois Department of Public Health (IDPH) revised its regulations to add COVID-19, SARS and MERS to the list of Class I(a) diseases that “shall be reported immediately (within three hours) by telephone, upon initial clinical suspicion of disease to the local health authority, which shall then report to the IDPH immediately (within three hours.) Ill. Admin. Code tit. 77, § 690.100. For context, Class I(a) diseases include Anthrax, Plague, Smallpox, and suspected bioterrorist threats or events. The reporting of Class I(a) diseases has historically been the responsibility of the hospital, physician or medical provider who treats or confirms an individual’s positive tests result for such a disease. However, the applicable regulation does have a catchall provision that places reporting responsibility on “Any other person having knowledge of a known or suspected case or carrier of a reportable communicable disease or communicable disease death.” Ill. Admin. Code tit. 77, § 690.200.  Taken together, these provisions arguably require employers who know of a “known or suspected case” of COVID-19 to immediately report the information to their local health authority.

To further complicate the matter, the IDPH updated its “Guidance for Employers and Employees on Workers’ Rights and Safety” webpage on or about January 7, 2021 to state the following:

“If two or more employees report having COVID-19 related symptoms or test positive for COVID-19, the employer must notify their local health department within 24 hours of being informed of the presence of COVID-19 symptoms or positive test results.”

This is a pretty significant change as it modifies the reporting from voluntary to mandatory and is unclear regarding the time period for the two cases occurring (e.g. whether it is two cases over 14 days, two months, or since March 2020). That said, under CDC guidelines for contact tracing and the guidelines of some local public health departments it is reasonable to view the applicable time period for determining whether reporting is required under IDPH regulations as a 14 day period.

To add further confusion, local public health departments may have a higher or lower standard. For example, the City of Chicago and Kane County, Illinois health departments still advise businesses that they may voluntarily report employees with symptoms or confirmed cases, but are not required to do so. While in others areas, like Winnebago County, Illinois, the local health department is telling employers that they are required to report when one (1) or more employee develops COVID-19 symptoms or receives a positive test result, and are requiring employers to submit information regarding their businesses and the individual(s) at issue (including their symptoms and demographics).

Ultimately, no matter the standard for reporting, the employer is required to cooperate with local public health authorities in the investigation of cases, suspect cases, outbreaks and suspect outbreaks. This is fairly consistent throughout the United States.

What happens if you do not comply with reporting or an investigation? – It depends on the state and local laws and regulations regarding the violations of public health laws, but generally violations can result in fines, criminal charges and even result in a business being temporarily closed down. For example, under Illinois law, failure to comply may result in a Class A misdemeanor and the IDPH and local health department have the ability to order a business be closed if it deems immediate action is required to protect the public.

BUT WHAT DOES THIS MEAN WITHOUT THE LEGALESE?

  1. Employers MUST be aware of what requirements or guidance their local public health department has regarding reporting cases of COVID-19 AND should take steps to comply with both the state and local requirement regarding reporting when employees are suspected or confirmed to have COVID-19.
  2. Documentation through COVID-19 Questionnaires for employees who report symptoms will become even more important. Questionnaires should include questions not only about what symptoms an employee has, but where the employee has been in the last 14 days; whether the employee or family members have interacted with individuals outside of their home for more than a cumulative 15 minutes in a 24 hour period; whether the employee or family members have visited stores or other locations within 10 or more people; etc.
  3. Employers should recognize the potential risks, which may include fines, criminal prosecution and even being shut down, when responding to state and local public health departments’ requests for additional information and investigations. Any concerns should be vetted through competent risk management consultants and experienced legal counsel.

What President Biden’s American Rescue Plan Could Mean for Employers

Contributed by Suzannah Wilson Overholt, February 17, 2020

COVID-19 stimulus package, US dollar cash banknote on American flag

Congress is turning its attention to President Biden’s $1.9 trillion economic stimulus package, which is called the American Rescue Plan.  Because the package includes enhanced unemployment benefits that are currently set to lapse in mid-March, Congress is under pressure to take action by then.

The following aspects of the proposal have a specific impact on employers:

  • Restoration and expansion of emergency paid leave
    • President Biden has proposed reinstating and expanding the paid sick and family leave benefits passed as part of the Families First Coronavirus Relief Act (FFCRA) which expired in December. The proposal would reinstate those leave provisions through September. (Read more about the FFCRA leave requirements in our previous blog from March 2020).
    • The proposal expands the leave requirements to cover businesses with fewer than 50 and more than 500 employees, as well as first responders and healthcare workers, who could be exempted from the original leave requirements.  (The proposal would also grant leave to federal workers.) 
    • The government will reimburse employers with fewer than 500 workers for the full cost of providing the leave.
  • Restaurant industry:  The proposal includes the FEMA Empowering Essential Deliveries (FEED) Act that uses the restaurant industry to get food to families in need and helps get laid-off restaurant workers back to work. 
  • Minimum wage:  President Biden’s proposal includes raising the minimum wage to $15 an hour over four years and ending the tipped minimum wage and the sub-minimum wage for people with disabilities. Whether this will actually be considered by Congress as part of the stimulus package is uncertain.
  • Worker safety:  The proposal includes provisions regarding worker safety, which we addressed in a previous blog

Other aspects of the proposal that, while not being specifically workplace related, have an impact on workplace issues are as follows:

  • Vaccines and testing:  The proposal seeks $160 billion for vaccines, testing and related programs to fight COVID-19.  It includes $20 billion for a national vaccination program and $50 billion for testing.  Part of the funding would be directed to hiring public health workers to help administer vaccines and tests.  The goal would be for more people to be vaccinated faster, which should allow more employees to return to work and more businesses to re-open.
  • Extension of pandemic unemployment programs
    • President Biden has proposed increasing federal supplemental unemployment assistance by $100 a week, making it $400 a week instead of the $300 a week that Congress approved in December. 
    • The Pandemic Emergency Unemployment Compensation program, which applies to those who have exhausted their regular state jobless payments, and the Pandemic Unemployment Assistance program, which provides benefits to the self-employed, independent contractors, gig workers and certain people affected by the pandemic, would both be extended.
    • These payments and programs would be extended through September. Currently, they are set to expire in mid-March.
  • Child care: President Biden’s proposal creates an emergency stabilization fund for child care providers to allow them to re-open and stay open. It also contains additional funding to assist families with child care expenses. 

We will provide updates about the status of these proposals as they work their way through Congress.

OSHA’s Latest COVID-19 Guidance

Contributed by guest author Matthew Horn, February 10, 2021

In response to an executive order signed by President Biden, OSHA recently issued updated COVID-19 guidance recommending that all employers adopt a formal COVID-19 prevention plan, incorporating the following activities and elements:

  • Conducting a hazard assessment relating to COVID-19 exposure;
  • Identifying control measures to limit the spread of COVID-19 (such as distancing, masks, barriers, work-from-home, staggered shifts, etc.);
  • Adopting policies that encourage sick workers to stay home and not come into work;
  • Communicating and training employees on the policies and procedures implemented (in their native languages); and
  • Implementing protections from retaliation for workers who raise COVID-19 related concerns and issues.

Also note that the updated guidance advises employers to continue to require all employees — even those who have been vaccinated — to comply with all control measures, including the wearing of masks and social distancing, stating “there is no evidence that COVID-19 vaccines prevent transmission of the virus from person-to-person.”

While OSHA rightfully acknowledges that these recommendations do not create new standards or regulations, employers should comply with them nonetheless, with the expectation that OSHA will enforce these recommendations by way of the OSHA General Duty Clause or some other, existing standard. Further, these recommendations will likely become standards within the next thirty days, given the recent executive order directing OSHA to issue any emergency COVID-19 standards by March 15, 2021. We will continue to update you on all developments as that deadline approaches.   

DOL Clarifies that Not All Travel Time is Compensable in the Era of Telework

Contributed by Carlos Arévalo, January 18, 2021

A guy looks at his watch with a train going away in the background.

On the last day of 2020, the US Department of Labor (DOL) issued an opinion letter impacting employers using telework arrangements in light of the COVID-19 pandemic.  While a vaccine is now rolling out and we will hopefully get the pandemic under control in 2021, this opinion letter provides guidance to employers that have had to institute remote and hybrid work policies and/or arrangements with their workforce. 

Specifically, the opinion letter addressed two general scenarios: 

  1. Employee has a parent-teacher conference in the middle of the day and works from the office, attends the conference and then goes home to finish her workday in her “home office”; and
  2. Employee has doctor’s appointment scheduled for mid-morning.  She works a couple of hours from home, goes to her appointment and then travels to her office for the rest of the day.  At the end of the day, she returns home.

So is the employee’s travel time compensable?  The opinion letter concludes it is not.  Travel time under either scenario is deemed “off duty” or normal commuting time.  Even if travel time occurs during the regular work or “office hours,” the employee is interrupting her work time to attend to personal matters.  The time is off-duty and the employee “is free to use her time effectively and for her own purposes before resuming work.” 

The opinion letter also finds that the travel time at issue is not compensable pursuant to the worksite-to-worksite travel or continuous workday doctrine.  First, for the worksite-to-worksite travel analysis to apply travel must be part of the employee’s principal activity – here the employee is not being required to travel as part of her job so it is not compensable. Second, while regulations “contemplate that the period between an employee’s first and last principal activities will ‘in general’ be compensable,” this will not be the case when the employee uses the time for her own purposes.  To support its opinion, the DOL examines a number of court decisions that emphasize the employee’s flexibility and freedom to use time for their own purposes.  As may be appropriate, employers should consult with competent counsel to ensure that these policies and arrangements comply with relevant law.

In light of the “new normal” that has emerged in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, employers are encouraged to examine policies and/or telework arrangement to make sure that despite the flexibility such documents are intended to provide, it is clear to employees that time “effectively used for their own purposes” during their workday will not be compensable. 

STIMULUS 2.0: The Consolidated Appropriations Act 2021 – Key Provisions for Employers

Contributed by Rebecca Dobbs Bush, December 22, 2020

While it has not yet been fully passed and enacted into law, the full text of the Consolidated Appropriations Act, 2021 was released days ago and announced as having bipartisan support. Within the over 5,500-page Act, are several provisions designed to assist smaller businesses and those hardest hit by the economic challenges presented by the COVID-19 pandemic. As is common with legislation, the Act essentially presents only an outline of Congress’ intent and leaves relevant agencies to fill in the details of that outline. Pursuant to mandates in the Act, most agencies, such as the IRS, are directed to publish clarification within weeks of enactment.

While we await further guidance and clarification, the below list highlights those provisions, not specific to particular industries, that businesses should be aware of:

  • Paycheck Protection Program (PPP)
    • Borrowers now have the green light to claim deductions for any and all expenses paid with loan proceeds, regardless of whether or not they obtain forgiveness of their loan amount.
    • Employers are permitted to cover additional categories of non-payroll costs with PPP loan proceeds, such as:
      • “covered operations expenditures” which means “payment for any business software or cloud computing service that facilitates business operations, product or service delivery, the processing, payment, or tracking of payroll expenses, human resources, sales and billing functions, or accounting or tracking of supplies, inventory, records and expenses”
      • “covered property damage costs” which means “a cost related to property damage and vandalism or looting due to public disturbances that occurred during 2020 that was not covered by insurance or other compensation”
      • “covered supplier costs” which means payment to a supplier of goods for goods that are “essential to the operations of the entity at the time at which the expenditure is made; and is made pursuant to contract, order, or purchase order…”
      • “covered worker protection expenditures” which means an “operating or a capital expenditure to facilitate the adaptation of the business activities of an entity” to comply with guidance issued by HHS, CDC, OSHA or any equivalent requirements issued by state or local government since March 1, 2020. This may include expenses to create a drive-through window facility, an indoor, outdoor or combined air or air pressure ventilation or filtration system, a physical barrier such as a sneeze guard, an expansion of indoor or outdoor business space, or onsite or offsite health screening capability.
    • Clarification that “payroll costs” for purposes of PPP loans, includes group life, disability, vision or dental insurance benefit costs.
    • Simplified forgiveness application process for PPP loans up to $150,000.
    • “Second Draw Loans” for the Paycheck Protection Program
      • Eligible entities:
        • includes those employing less than 300 employees (now including nonprofit organizations) AND
        • Those that had “gross receipts” in a quarter during 2020 that represents a 25% reduction from gross receipts of the entity during the corresponding quarter in 2019.
      • Maximum loan amounts are 2.5 times the average monthly payroll costs up to $2 million (NAICS 72 entities can obtain 3.5 times the average monthly payroll costs up to $2 million).
      • An entity that returned all or part of a prior PPP loan has an opportunity to reapply.
      • Entities that did not obtain the maximum amount of PPP loan available to them based upon the regulations in place at the time of their initial application, may request a modification to previous loan amount.
  • Expansion of the Employee Retention Tax Credit
    • Expanded eligibility:
      • Participation in the Paycheck Protection Program does not lead to disqualification where the payroll at issue is not funded by PPP loan proceeds.
      • Gross receipts for the calendar quarter are less than 80% of the gross receipts for the employer in the same calendar quarter during 2019 (was previously required to be less than 50%).
      • Previously, those with more than 100 employees could only take the credit in regard to wages paid to an employee that was not providing services.  Those at or under 100 employees could take the credit in regard to wages paid to any employee. This threshold was increased from 100 to 500 employees.
    • Extension of the program through July 1, 2021
    • 50% credit for qualifying wages increased to 70%
    • Instead of “qualifying wages” capped at $10,000 per employee, revised to $10,000 per employee per calendar quarter.
  • Unemployment Insurance benefits
    • An additional $300 per week for all receiving unemployment benefits through March 14, 2021.

Be assured that we will be providing more insight as more developments unfold to our contacts and clients in the days and weeks to come.