Employers that employ more than 100 employees, are in the health care industry or that are federal government contractors or subcontractors should begin preparing to comply with impending Occupational Health and Safety Administration (“OSHA”) emergency rules that will require employers to enforce vaccine mandates for their employees and possibly a paid time off mandate for workers taking off to get vaccinated.
Along with the impending mandates for large and other employers, OSHA recommends employers use “multiple layers of protection,” including mask-wearing, distancing and testing, to safeguard unvaccinated and otherwise at-risk workers and to mitigate the spread of COVID-19. It remains to be seen whether the Administration will tighten these restrictions if the virus spread continues or fails to abate.
President Biden announced last week that OSHA would issue the emergency rules as part of his use of regulatory powers to substantially increase the number Americans covered by vaccination requirements.
Impending Federal Mandates
Although the actual requirements won’t be confirmed until the regulations are published, the vaccination plan calls for
- OSHA to issue emergency rules that would require all employers with more than 100 employees to get vaccinated or be tested at least weekly;
- OSHA and other federal regulations to require vaccinations for all federal workers, contractors and subcontractors;
- OSHA and the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (“CMS”) rules to require COVID-19 vaccinations for all health care workers at Medicare and Medicaid participating hospitals and other health care settings;
- Using Department of Education and federal funding measures to support vaccination and masking in schools; and
- Calling on large entertainment venues to require proof of vaccination or testing for entry.
Employment Focused Mandates
Regarding the OSHA mandate, President Biden’s “Path out of the Pandemic COVID-19 Action Plan” states OSHA is developing an Emergency Temporary Standard (ETS) that will require all employers with 100 or more employees to ensure their workforce is fully vaccinated or require any workers who remain unvaccinated to produce a negative test result on at least a weekly basis before coming to work.
Concerning federal workers and employees of federal contractors and subcontractors, the plan notes the President has signed an Executive Order to require all federal executive branch workers to be vaccinated. The President also signed an Executive Order directing that this standard be extended to employees of contractors that do business with the federal government. As part of this effort, the Department of Defense, the Department of Veterans Affairs, the Indian Health Service, and the National Institute of Health will complete implementation of their previously announced vaccination requirements that cover 2.5 million people.
Along with ordering the vaccine mandates, the plan also calls for ensuring that no worker loses any pay for taking time off too get vaccinated, OSHA is developing a rule that will require employers with more than 100 employees to provide paid time off for the time it takes for workers to get vaccinated or to recover if they are under the weather post-vaccination. Statutory basis for this new paid leave requirement remains to be specified.
Because it appears the emergency rule calls for covered employers go require employees either to be vaccinated or submit a weekly testing, employers should still be prepared to evaluate request for waivers of these requirements by persons claiming to be disabled for purposes of the Americans With Disabilities Act by offering reasonable accommodation.
These new mandates are in addition to continuing to encourage employers to use and train workers on usingmultiple safeguards to avoid And contain the spread of COVID-19 in their workplaces.
Noncompliance with the mandates could put covered employers at significant risk.
First, of course, is the potential OSHA liability. OSHA already has made clear it’s willingness to sanction employers for violating CoVID emergency standards by nailing AMA Health Holdings LLC, for and Lakewood Resource and Referral Center Inc. (“CHEMED”) for failing to comply with COVID-19 safety protocols issued in June.
In June OSHA issued an emergency temporary standard to protect healthcare workers from contracting coronavirus. In March, OSHA launched a national emphasis program focusing enforcement efforts on companies that put the largest number of workers at serious risk of contracting the coronavirus. The program also prioritizes employers who retaliate against workers for complaints about unsafe or unhealthy conditions, or for exercising other rights protected by federal law.
OSHA cited the facility’s operator, AMA Health Holdings LLC, with two citations for failing to develop and implement effective measures to mitigate the spread of the virus and not recording each work-related illness.
The AMA Holdings OSHA actions demonstrate OSHA’s commitment to investigate complaints of violations is its COVID emergency standards and fine employers that violate them.
The citations against AMA Health Holdings follow OSHA’s earlier citation of CHEMED for retaliating against employees for questioning the adequacy of COVID safety at the dental practice where they worked.
Government contractor and healthcare employers also could face program exclusions or penalties.
Additionally, employers should keep in mind that improperly handled employee questions or statements of concern about the adequacy of workplace COVID -19 safeguards could create retaliation or whistleblower risks. The threat for retaliation liability extends well beyond employers actually covered by the impending mandates. Regardless of what the rules actually eventually provide, employees of covered and uncovered employers are likely to have questions about the adequacy of safeguards and their workplace rights. These questions could come from people believing their entitled to work without being vaccinated, employees a certain rate to takeoff time for vaccination or other reasons with or without pay, employees asking or asserting rights to paid time off for vaccination or other reasons or a host of other matters. Retaliation protections can arise even when the employee doesn’t qualify for the rights asserted as long as the employee can demonstrate that the request is based in a good faith belief that the right might exist. Consequently, employers should use care to investigate and respond carefully to these concerns.
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About 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.
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