The Occupational Safety & Health Administration (“OSHA”) has suspended implementation and enforcement of COVID-19 Vaccination and Testing Emergency Temporary Standard(“Rule”) in response to the November 12, 2021 5th Circuit Court of Appeals order staying implementation of the Rule – for now. While the action delays the deadline for covered employers to comply with the Rule, employers still remain exposed to other COVID-related discrimination, retaliation, safety and other claims.
One of a series of new federal rules adopted over the past few months that require businesses employing more than 100 employees, government contractors and subcontractors and health care providers participating in Medicare or Medicaid to implement and enforce COVID-19 vaccination and other safeguards, the Rule ordered covered employers to adopt and enforce requirements that employees to get vaccinated or undergo regular testing and wear masks unless the employee qualifies for a religious or disability exception. Similar but tighter vaccination mandates are required in a separate OSHA emergency temporary standards for health care workers, a new condition of participation requirement for covered health care organizations to participate in Medicare or Medicaid, and conditions of eligibility to enter into federal government contracts over $250,000.
Last week, the 5th Circuit ordered that OSHA “take no steps to implement or enforce” the ETS “until further court order.” The Rule also faces challenges in several other Circuit Courts of Appeals. Ultimately, the Supreme Court is expected to decide the fate of the Rule.
While OSHA remains confident in its authority to protect workers in emergencies, OSHA has suspended activities related to the implementation and enforcement of the ETS pending future developments in the litigation.
Pending final resolution of court challenges to the Rule, the 5th Circuit stay temporarily puts on hold the Rule OSHA published November 5, 2021, which generally requires employers with at least 100 employees to adopt and enforce COVID-19 vaccination or alternative testing and masking requirements for all employees in their workplaces by December 4, 2021.
Regardless of the ultimate outcome of challenges to the OSHA Rule, employees face significant risk negotiating vaccine and other COVID-19 safety policies from employee discrimination, retaliation and safety challenges and inquiries. The suspension adds more uncertainty and controversy to employers struggling to develop and administer Covid-19 vaccination and other safety policies around often conflicting federal and state rules in a highly charged political and litigious environment fraught with discrimination and retaliation claims risks fueled to new heights by new OSHA and EEOC retaliation guidance published last week.
Aside from OSHA’s announced confidence that the 5th Circuit’s temporary stay will be removed as litigation over the Rule progresses, the 5th Circuit order technically does not stop implementation of OSHA’s separate emergency temporary standard requiring vaccination for health care workers or new rules adding COVID-19 vaccination requirements as conditions of program participation for government contractors and Medicare participating health care providers.
Regardless of the outcome of the 5th Circuit ordered stay, the uncertainty created from differences among these federal and state rules and the 5th Circuit ordered stay provides tinder for retaliation claims against employers regardless of how the business chooses to respond to the stay.
Even if the mandates are enjoined are inapplicable to an organization, opposition to compliance, questions, expressions of concern, and other activity can support retaliation claims. That means retaliation and interference claims present as big or bigger threat as the rules themselves and last beyond the reach and validity of the rules.
Facing peril from all sides, employers must tread carefully in developing and administering their workplace COVID-19 vaccination and other safety policies to manage the exposures created from the resulting Catch-22 legal and political environment. Employees of course must will monitor the litigation and other regulatory developments. At the same time, employers should use when dealing with worker and other inquiries, expressions of concern and other dealings with employees and applicants regarding COVID-19 SAFETY, leave, accommodation and other concerns as well as to document carefully and preserve other evidence necessary to support performance and other business justified employment actions against potential retaliation or discrimination challenges.
The author of this update, employment lawyer Cynthia Marcotte Stamer, conducted a briefing on these and other federal COVID-19 vaccination and other workforce requirements as a panelist on the “COVID-19 Vaccination Mandates & Incentives” virtual seminar the American Bar Association Joint Committee on Employee Benefits hosted on November 12, 2021. To purchase a recording of the program, see here. For information about obtaining Ms. Stamer’s slides, email here.
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About the Author
For help developing, administering or defending your organization’s COVID-19 Mandatory Vaccine Policy or other workforce, employee benefits, compensation or compliance practices, contact the author. Recognized by her peers as a Martindale-Hubble “AV-Preeminent” (Top 1%) and “Top Rated Lawyer” with special recognition LexisNexis® Martindale-Hubbell® as “LEGAL LEADER™ Texas Top Rated Lawyer” in Health Care Law and Labor and Employment Law; as among the “Best Lawyers In Dallas” for her work in the fields of “Labor & Employment,” “Tax: ERISA & Employee Benefits,” “Health Care” and “Business and Commercial Law” by D Magazine, Cynthia Marcotte Stamer is a practicing attorney board certified in labor and employment law by the Texas Board of Legal Specialization and management consultant, author, public policy advocate and lecturer widely known for 30+ years working as an on demand, special project, consulting, general counsel or other basis with domestic and international business, charitable, community and government organizations of all types, sizes and industries and their leaders on labor and employment and other workforce compliance, performance management, internal controls and governance, compensation and benefits, regulatory compliance, investigations and audits, change management and restructuring, disaster preparedness and response and other operational, risk management and tactical concerns.
For more information about these concerns or Ms. Stamer’s work, experience, involvements, other publications, or programs, see www.cynthiastamer.com, on Facebook, on LinkedIn or Twitter or e-mail here.
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