The COVID-19 pandemic has presented unique challenges for company executives and HR teams. Most companies care deeply about putting their employees’ safety and well-being first, but decision-making regarding the pandemic and the workplace can be complex.
The past year, in particular, has produced a shift from in-person to remote work for many industries. However, with the rollout of Covid-19 vaccinations, many companies moved back into their previous in-person work model. Due to the rise of the delta variant and a sudden spike in cases, there are increased concerns about mask-wearing, social distancing, and vaccinations within workplaces.
Here is some insight into navigating masks and vaccinations in the workplace and what you’re responsible for as an employer.
Asking Employees About Their Vaccination Status and Covid-19 Symptoms
According to December guidance from the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, asking an employee to show proof of vaccination would not violate the ADA. Asking for reasons why someone isn’t vaccinated could pose a problem, so be sure to review ‘What You Should Know About COVID-19 and the ADA, the Rehabilitation Act, and Other EEO Laws’ on their website to know all of your rights as an employer.
Additionally, during a pandemic, ADA-covered employers may ask such employees if they are experiencing symptoms of the pandemic virus. For COVID-19, these include symptoms such as fever, chills, cough, shortness of breath, or sore throat. Employers must maintain all information about employee illness as a confidential medical record in compliance with the ADA. (Source: U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission)
Recommending Vaccinations for Your Employees and Providing Solutions for Those Who Cannot
It’s natural to inquire about your work environment’s safety, especially if you share a workspace with multiple people. As an employer, it’s part of your responsibility to protect your employees as well. It is within your rights to encourage your team members to get fully vaccinated. While this topic can be controversial and respecting all employees’ privacy should continue to be a concern for business owners, it’s essential to make sure all employees recognize that your decisions on this topic are being made to protect everyone.
In the instance where an employee chooses not to disclose information about their vaccination status or cannot be vaccinated for any particular reason, do not pry or ask specific questions as to why. Instead, consider offering them the option to work from home if possible.
Requiring masks in your workplace
As businesses begin to reopen and vaccinations continue to be administered to those eligible, face masks and coverings are likely to remain popular as a preventative measure. You may require and mandate the use of facemasks in the workplace, particularly as a preventative measure in the spread of COVID-19. In fact, the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) has issued guidelines that indicate an employer may require employees to wear a face mask to reduce transmission.
Although you can generally require your employees to wear a face mask, there are a few instances where an employee may reasonably refuse to wear a face mask:
1. The mask interferes with the performance of the employee’s job. For example, if the mask fogs up and the employee is unable to see to work.
2. The mask creates a hazard in the workplace. See OSHA guidelines (29 C.F.R. 1910.134(c)(2)(i)), which indicates that respirators can be a hazard. For example, if the mask impedes hearing or smelling a hazard, or if there is a risk the mask will get caught in machinery.
3. The mask aggravates a medical condition. For example, if an employee has a pre-existing respiratory condition that makes it unsafe to wear a mask.
Given those circumstances, here are a few best practices to help keep employees safe while maintaining normal work operations.
Choose Policies That Protect Everyone
As an employer, the Occupational Health and Safety Administration (OSHA) requires you to have standards that provide “safe and healthy” work conditions. When it comes to COVID-19, OSHA recommends vaccination, mask-wearing, and testing used in combination to mitigate the spread of COVID-19. By applying these measures in combination, you have the best chance at keeping employees, staff, and visitors safe.
Follow Local Laws and Mandates
Next, make sure to keep an eye on your local laws and mandates. State, city, and county measures often change on a day-to-day basis, don’t overlook your local mandates simply because you’re complying with federal guidelines. You can find your state’s health department site here for more information.
Give Employees Choices
Because people have different priorities regarding COVID-19 safety, the more options you can offer to employees, the better. For instance, you could allow unvaccinated employees to continue to work from home, for example, to respect their decision while still keeping on-site employees safe.
Respect Differences of Opinion
Respect differences of opinion when it comes to COVID-19 safety measures. There are many reasons why team members might have the beliefs they have. At the end of the day, employees have the choice of whether or not to work for a company if they disagree with the policies set in place.
Protection surrounding COVID-19 is complex, and your role as an employer is likely to continue to shift over time. We have the continued moral and legal responsibility to protect the health of all our employees with a standard set of rules in the workplace. Be open to new information and keep your employees in the loop to know what to expect long-term.