Tag Archives: COVID-19 vaccine

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). 

Yes, Even Vaccinated Employees Must Continue Wearing Masks

Contributed by Peter Hansen, March 3, 2021

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

Now that COVID-19 vaccines are starting to roll out, employees who have been vaccinated are beginning to question whether they are still required to wear face masks, practice social distancing, etc.  In short, yes they are – according to the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, along with numerous state agencies, “it is important to wear a face covering and remain physically distant from co-workers and customers even if you have been vaccinated because it is not known at this time how vaccination affects transmissibility.”

So, the same workplace protocols apply to vaccinated and unvaccinated employees, with one very limited exception: the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention issued guidance providing that vaccinated employees who were exposed to someone with COVID-19 are not required to quarantine if they meet all of the following criteria:

  • The employee is fully vaccinated (i.e., 2 or more weeks following receipt of the second dose in a 2-dose series, or one dose of a single-dose vaccine);
  • The exposure occurred within 3 months following receipt of the last dose in the series; and
  • The employee has remained asymptomatic since the COVID-19 exposure

Accordingly, employers should continue enforcing their existing workplace COVID-19 protocols – and reiterate to their entire workforce that all employees are still required to wear masks, practice social distancing, and report exposure to COVID-19 regardless of whether they have been vaccinated.

Of course, and as with everything else surrounding COVID-19, vaccine-related information available and protocols regarding vaccinated employees is subject to change, so stay tuned.

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.

Update: EEOC Issues Guidance Regarding COVID-19 Vaccines in the Workplace

Contributed by Suzannah Wilson Overholt, December 16, 2020

Doctor hand wears medical glove holding syringe and vial bottle with covid 19 vaccine drug multiple dose for injections.

In follow-up to our previous blog regarding mandating the COVID-19 vaccine in the workplace, the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) has now issued guidance addressing that very issue. According to the guidance, employers may ask employees if they have had the COVID-19 vaccine and require the vaccine pursuant to U.S. Centers for Disease Control (CDC) or other federal or state guidelines. However, any mandates must allow exemptions for employees who are unable to receive the vaccine due to disability or a sincerely held religious belief or practice.

The key takeaways from the EEOC’s guidance are as follows:

  • In order for an employer to require the COVID-19 vaccine, it must show that an unvaccinated employee would pose a direct threat due to a “significant risk of substantial harm to the health or safety of the individual or others that cannot be eliminated or reduced by reasonable accommodation.” Employers should conduct an individualized assessment of four factors in determining whether a direct threat exists:
    • the duration of the risk;
    • the nature and severity of the potential harm;
    • the likelihood that the potential harm will occur; and
    • the imminence of the potential harm. 
  • An employer must provide reasonable accommodations to a vaccine requirement for employees who seek accommodation based on disability or a sincerely held religious belief, practice, or observance. The EEOC has consistently required such accommodations, which we described in an earlier blog.   
  • The administration of a COVID-19 vaccine to an employee by an employer (or by a third party with whom the employer contracts to administer a vaccine) is NOT a “medical examination” for purposes of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). 
  • Pre-screening questions associated with administering the vaccine may implicate the ADA’s prohibition on disability-related inquiries if the employer requires the vaccine and answering the questions is mandatory. If the employer administers the vaccine, it must show that pre-screening questions are “job-related and consistent with business necessity.” This is not a concern if the vaccine and answering the questions are voluntary.
  • Asking or requiring an employee to show proof of receipt of a COVID-19 vaccination is NOT a disability-related inquiry. 
  • Title II of the Genetic Information Nondiscrimination Act (GINA) is NOT implicated when an employer administers a COVID-19 vaccine to employees or requires employees to provide proof that they have received a COVID-19 vaccination because it does not involve the use of genetic information to make employment decisions, or the acquisition or disclosure of “genetic information” as defined by the statute.
  • GINA may be implicated if pre-screening questions include questions about genetic information, such as family medical history. If the pre-vaccination questions include questions about genetic information, employers who want to ensure that employees have been vaccinated may want to request proof of vaccination instead of administering the vaccine themselves.

Due to the evolving nature of this issue, advice of qualified counsel should be sought before implementing any COVID-19 vaccine program in the workplace.