OSHA COVID-19 rule: Sixth Circuit case status update

On November 16, 2021, the Sixth Circuit was selected via a lottery to hear the consolidated challenges made against the recent OSHA Emergency Temporary Standard (the ETS). As background, on November 5, 2021, OSHA published the ETS that would require most private employers with 100 or more employees to establish either (1) a mandatory vaccination policy requiring that all covered employees be fully vaccinated against COVID-19, or (2) a vaccination policy that requires that employees choose between being fully vaccinated or submitting to regular and recurring COVID-19 testing.

While all eyes had previously been on the Fifth Circuit, it is now the Sixth Circuit that’s in the spotlight. Not surprisingly, there has been a flurry of activity in the case. There are currently two main issues pending before the court that will certainly shape the dispute: (1) several petitioners have asked for an initial hearing en banc (i.e., requesting that the full court – and not just a three-judge panel – decide the case initially); and (2) the government has asked the court to dissolve the Fifth Circuit’s stay. Continue Reading

Illinois limits conscience-based vaccine objections, while other states allow them

On November 8, 2021, Governor J.B. Pritzker signed into law an amendment to the Illinois Health Care Right of Conscience Act (the Act) that will prevent employees from relying on the Act to avoid employer COVID-19 vaccine or testing mandates. The amendment goes into effect on June 1, 2022.

Overview of the Illinois Health Care Right of Conscience Act

The Act was first passed in 1977 and was meant to protect from discrimination health care workers who participated in, or refused to participate in, the delivery or receipt of health care services that were “contrary to their conscience.”

Recently, however, some non-health care workers in Illinois have relied on the Act to claim an exemption from their employers’ COVID-19 vaccination or testing requirements based on the Act’s broad language prohibiting discrimination “against any person in any manner” who refuses to “obtain, receive or accept” health care services or medical care. In fact, several lawsuits have recently been filed by employees claiming that their employers’ policies violate the Act. Continue Reading

New York becomes latest state to legislate workplace privacy protections

Monitoring employee communications – particularly electronic communications – is standard practice for most U.S. employers. Beginning in May 2022, however, employers in New York state who engage in electronic monitoring of employee communications will be required to make certain disclosures to their workers.

Pre-employment written notice for new hires

More particularly, on November 8, 2021, Governor Kathy Hochul signed into law state Senate Bill S2628 requiring that all Empire State employers – regardless of size or location within the state – provide prior written notice to newly hired employees if they intend to monitor or otherwise intercept employee emails, text messages, telephone conversations, Internet access, or usage of an electronic device or system. The notice must be provided in writing, in an electronic record, or in another electronic form, and must be acknowledged by each employee either in writing or electronically.

Notably, notice only needs to be provided “upon hiring.” This means that notices only need to be given to employees hired on or after May 7, 2022 – the law’s effective date – but not to existing employees. In addition to this notice, employers must post a notice of electronic monitoring in a conspicuous location within the workplace that is readily available for viewing by all employees who will be subject to the monitoring. Continue Reading

Real Time Video Chat: The nitty, gritty details of the OSHA ETS (Part 2)

Next up in the series, Reed Smith lawyers continue the discussion regarding the OSHA ETS that requires companies in the U.S. with 100 or more employees to implement either a mandatory vaccination policy or a policy that allows employees to choose between vaccination or COVID-19 testing. Specifically, the chat focuses on the current status of legal challenges to the ETS and what actions employers should take in light of the legal challenges and the ETS’s upcoming deadlines.

Tune in to future episodes on further developments and issues surrounding the ETS and other legal developments in the employment law space across the country.

What does the booster jab mean for vaccine policies in the UK?

Whether employers can require evidence of vaccination as a condition of employment or attendance in the workplace has been a hot topic in recent months, with many employers (having weighed up various legal obligations and risks) introducing a policy featuring vaccination status to some extent. Yet vaccination status is not stable and the dilemma now facing these employers in the UK is whether to revisit their policy requirements due to the rollout of booster jabs. Put simply, should employers with a vaccine policy now require vaccinated individuals to have the booster?

Full vaccination is currently seen as having completed the full course of an approved vaccine (i.e., being ‘double jabbed’, unless in receipt of an approved one-dose vaccine). At the moment there is no mention of the booster on the NHS Covid pass, receipt of the booster is not a pre-requisite for activities such as travel or attendance at venues, nor is it a requirement of deployment for care home staff (where there is a legal requirement for full vaccination, unless exempt, in England). On this basis, employers may be minded to maintain the same stance and ignore the boosters for any workplace policies too.

It will certainly be appealing to employers to maintain the status quo from a practical perspective. The administration of assessing whether staff eligible for a booster have had it is likely to be a particular challenge, both keeping track of who is eligible when (as although all UK adults have been offered the full course of an approved vaccine, the booster is only currently available to vulnerable groups and to those aged over 40, six months after their final jab), and what ‘evidence’ an individual has of a booster (as until this appears on the NHS Covid pass the individual will have little by way of proof that they have received it). Further, employers are likely to want to avoid having to update and communicate a change in policy so soon after introducing it, and dealing with any engagement issues or disputes arising from a change in approach. Continue Reading

Real Time Video Chat: The basics of the OSHA ETS on vaccination and testing requirements (Part 1)

Reed Smith’s Labor & Employment group is proud to announce the launch of our video chat series, Employment Law Watch: Real Time. The series will focus on new developments and hot topics that employers around the world need to know about. Tune in for regular 10 to 15 minute chats led by the firm’s labor & employment lawyers where they discuss relevant issues employers are facing and provide practical advice.

First up in the series, Reed Smith lawyers team up to discuss how companies should get ready to comply with the new OSHA ETS vaccination and testing requirements. Please access our Real Time video chat.

Complying with OSHA’s ETS? Don’t forget about your duty to bargain, says NLRB

Since its publication on November 5, 2021, employers have been reviewing the Occupational Safety and Health Administration’s (OSHA) 490-page Emergency Temporary Standard (ETS) and taking steps to create and update their employment policies to comply with it.

The National Labor Relations Board (NLRB or the Board) has added another item to the to-do lists of those employers covered by the ETS with unionized workforces. On November 10, 2021, NLRB’s operations management division issued a memo reminding unionized employers of their bargaining obligations under the National Labor Relations Act in connection with policy changes being contemplated in light of the ETS.

Continue Reading

Employers subject to OSHA ETS must be mindful of OSH Act whistleblower protections

Under the Occupational Safety and Health Act (OSH Act or the Act), employees who raise concerns regarding safety or health in the workplace are protected against retaliation from their employer. With the publication of the Occupational Safety and Health Administration’s (OSHA’s) emergency temporary standard (ETS), employers should be mindful that the Act’s whistleblower protections extend to employees who raise concerns about their employer’s compliance with the ETS.

OSHA ETS 

On November 5, 2021, OSHA published its much-anticipated ETS designed to minimize the risk of COVID-19 transmission in the workplace. We have previously discussed the requirements of the ETS, but generally speaking, the ETS requires employers with 100 or more U.S. employees to implement a policy that either (i) mandates COVID-19 vaccination for all employees, or (ii) encourages vaccination for all employees and requires testing of unvaccinated employees. The ETS also requires paid time off for vaccination and recovery from the side effects of vaccination, and it imposes recordkeeping obligations on employers.

Given OSHA’s limited number of workplace safety inspectors and the large number of employers subject to the ETS, employees will be key in enforcement of the ETS as suggested by recent remarks by the Biden administration. Jim Frederick, Deputy Assistant Secretary of Labor for Occupational Safety and Health, recently stated that OSHA will focus on job sites “where workers need assistance to have a safe and healthy workplace … [t]hat typically comes through in the form of a complaint.” And, on November 10, 2021, in the announcement of a joint initiative between the Department of Labor (DOL), the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), and the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) to increase protections for whistleblowers, Solicitor of Labor Seema Nanda remarked: “[i]n the U.S. Department of Labor’s fight against … unsafe or unhealthy workplaces, and other unlawful employment practices, we will use all tools available to protect workers from retaliation.”

Further, while employees previously could file complaints with OSHA raising workplace safety and health concerns related to COVID-19 under the Act’s General Duty Clause, the ETS makes it easier for OSHA to establish a violation of the Act. Unlike the amorphous General Duty Clause, the ETS sets out specific standards for employers and penalties for failure to comply. Moreover, the ETS obviates the need for OSHA to establish a recognized hazard – that is, the workplace condition or practice to which employees are exposed has the potential for death or serious physical harm – for each General Duty clause violation since OSHA has already determined that COVID-19 constitutes a recognized hazard determination in issuing the ETS. Continue Reading

New York enacts sweeping expansion of state’s whistleblower law

Although New York has had an employment-related whistleblower statute for decades, many employers may not have been aware of it. That is because the statute itself – N.Y. Labor Law section 740 – has been fairly limited in its scope and application. Indeed, it has only protected employees who disclose employer activity that violates laws relating to public health and safety or to health care fraud. Disclosures of other unlawful activities have not been protected by section 740.

That will no longer be the case, however, starting next year. Late last month, New York Governor Kathy Hochul signed a bill that will amend and effectively overhaul section 740. The amended law, which is scheduled to take effect on January 26, 2022, drastically expands the breadth and scope of section 740 by making it significantly easier for New York workers to bring a claim, lengthening the statute of limitations, and imposing a notice requirement on employers.

Overview of key updates to section 740

  • Independent contractors can bring claims too: As a starting point, under the amended law, not only will current and former employees be able to assert legal claims against the employer, but so too will independent contractors.
  • Broad expansion of protected activity: Perhaps the most noteworthy aspect of the amendment is how it expands the types of employee activities that are protected under section 740 of the Labor Law.

Previously, section 740 was a narrow statute that primarily barred employers from taking retaliatory action against employees only where the employee had disclosed or threatened to disclose to a supervisor or public body, or had objected to or refused to participate in “an activity, policy or practice of the employer that is in violation of law, rule or regulation which violation creates and presents a substantial and specific danger to the public health or safety, or which constitutes health care fraud.” The prior version of the law thus required that an actual legal violation have occurred – i.e., an employee’s reasonable belief that a violation had occurred was insufficient – and was intended to curb only activities that posed a substantial and specific danger to public health or safety or that constituted health care fraud.

The amended statute, however, broadly expands this scope of protected activity. Specifically, the law now bars employers from taking retaliatory action where the employee discloses or threatens to disclose to a supervisor or public body, or objects to or refuses to participate in “an activity that the employee reasonably believes is in violation of law, rule or regulation or that the employee reasonably believes poses a substantial and specific danger to the public health or safety.” The new definition, therefore, essentially protects, and bars employers from retaliating against, workers who report any actual, or reasonably perceived by the employee, violation of any law, rule, regulation, executive order, or judicial or administrative decision, ruling, or order at all, regarding of its subject matter. To say that this is a dramatic expansion of Section 740 would be an understatement.

Continue Reading

New York confirms that paid leave for COVID-19 vaccination may be used for booster shots

As we previously reported, earlier this year New York lawmakers passed a law requiring that all Empire State employers provide their employees with up to four hours of paid time off to receive the COVID-19 vaccine. Shortly thereafter, the New York State Department of Labor (NYSDOL) published guidance on the measure, clarifying that: (i) the leave is only available for an employee’s own receipt of the COVID-19 vaccine; (ii) the leave must be paid at an employee’s regular rate of pay; and (iii) the law does not permit employers to substitute other existing leave options available to the employee, including New York State Paid Sick Leave.

Just recently, however, the NYSDOL revised its guidance to confirm that, even though the CDC has not yet incorporated booster shots into its definition of “fully vaccinated” against COVID-19, paid COVID-19 vaccination leave nevertheless “applies to any COVID-19 vaccination received by an employee, including booster shots.” New York employers should immediately update any COVID-related paid sick leave policies to reflect this change.

We will continue to monitor employer obligations and vaccine updates related to COVID-19 in New York. If you have any questions about how these measures impact your workforce, Reed Smith’s experienced Labor & Employment Group is ready to speak with you.

LexBlog