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
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…
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.
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.
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Texas executive order restricts mandatory vaccination policies for employers
Most Texas employers are likely already familiar with Texas Governor Greg Abbott’s Executive Order GA-39 that prohibits state and local governments from requiring (1) individuals to receive a COVID-19 vaccine, or (2) documentation proving vaccine status (that is, “vaccine passports”) as a condition to receive any service or enter any place.
Building upon Executive Order GA-39, on October 11, 2021, Governor Abbott issued Executive Order GA-40 (the Texas EO), which prohibits private employers in Texas from requiring that employees receive a COVID-19 vaccination. Specifically, the Texas EO prohibits any Texas entity from “compel[ling] receipt of a COVID-19 vaccine by any individual, including an employee or a consumer, who objects to such vaccination for any reason of personal conscience, based on a religious belief, or for medical reasons, including prior recovery from COVID-19.” Texas entities that violate the Texas EO can be fined up to $1,000 (it is unclear whether the fine will be per violation). The Texas EO does not create any private cause of action, nor does it call for retroactive application.
The Texas EO creates three bases for employees to object to vaccination: (1) personal conscience; (2) religious belief; and (3) medical reasons. The Texas EO also specifically states that prior recovery from COVID-19 is a valid basis for an individual to object to a COVID-19 vaccine. The objections permitted under the Texas EO go far beyond the religious and medical exemptions to vaccine mandates under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act and the Americans with Disabilities Act, respectively. Moreover, the Texas EO does not contain an undue burden exception or mention any other grounds that would permit an employer to deny an employee’s objection to a mandatory COVID-19 vaccine that is made under the three bases in the Texas EO.…
Continue Reading Texas executive order restricts mandatory vaccination policies for employers
Federal contractors and subcontractors receive guidance on President Biden’s vaccine mandate, including December 8, 2021 compliance date
On September 24, 2021, the Safer Federal Workforce Task Force issued guidance for federal contractors and subcontractors concerning various safety protocols (the Guidance) as required by President Biden’s Path Out of the Pandemic and Executive Order 14042 (the Order). The stated purpose of the safeguards set forth in the Guidance are to decrease the spread of COVID-19, which will decrease worker absences, reduce labor costs, and improve the efficiency of contractors and subcontractors performing work for the Federal Government.
As a threshold matter, the Order does not apply to all federal contractors. Specifically, the Order applies to contracts for services, construction, or leasehold interest in property; services covered by the Service Contract Labor Standards; concessions; and work relating to federal property lands and related to offering services for federal employees, their dependents, or the general public. The Order specifically excludes grants, contracts or contract-like instruments with Indian Tribes, contracts with a value equal to or less than the FAR simplified acquisition threshold (currently $250,000), employees performing work outside the United States, and subcontracts solely for the provision of products. However, the Guidance also strongly encourages agencies to incorporate clauses requiring compliance with the Order into contractors that are not covered or directly addressed by the Order.
Further, the requirements apply only to a covered contract, which is defined as one that includes a provision that the contractor will “comply with all guidance for contractor or subcontractor workplace locations published by the Safer Federal Workforce Task Force.” Stated differently, simply being a federal contractor does not mean all employees must be vaccinated by the deadline. Instead, the requirements apply to any new solicitations issued on or after October 15, 2021, the option to extend an existing contract on or after October 15, 2021, and new federal contracts awarded on or after November 15, 2021. However, agencies are again strongly encouraged to incorporate a clause requiring compliance with the Order into existing contracts and contract-like instruments prior to the date upon which the Order requires inclusion of the clause.…
Continue Reading Federal contractors and subcontractors receive guidance on President Biden’s vaccine mandate, including December 8, 2021 compliance date
To mandate or not? FAQs on mandatory vaccine programs for employers
Late last year, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (the FDA) issued the first approvals for a COVID-19 vaccine. Shortly thereafter, the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (the EEOC) issued guidance on the interplay between federal anti-discrimination law and vaccine-related issues, including the permissibility of mandatory employer vaccination policies. The below FAQs address some of the more salient questions surrounding such policies and their implementation, as well as other workplace issues triggered by the vaccine. There are undeniably more questions than answers at present with respect to vaccine-related workplace issues. Before taking any material workplace action with respect to the vaccine, therefore, please consult with a Reed Smith employment lawyer. We also have a downloadable version of our FAQs.
Q: Can employers adopt a mandatory employee vaccination policy?
A: Generally speaking, yes. In guidance issued in late May 2021, the EEOC took the position that mandatory vaccination policies are generally permissible under federal anti-discrimination laws. Just a few weeks later, in June 2021, a federal court – in the first ruling on this issue – echoed this sentiment in concluding that such policies are generally permissible. The following month, the U.S. Department of Justice issued a detailed memo reaching the same conclusion.
The two primary exceptions to the general permissibility of employer-mandated vaccination policies are for employees with disabilities and for those with a sincerely held religious belief, practice, or custom. If an employee refuses to be vaccinated and objects to a mandatory vaccination policy on one of these grounds, the employer must engage in the so-called interactive process with the employee and, subject to the “undue hardship” standards discussed below, provide the employee with a reasonable accommodation in line with applicable law.
In addition to legally required accommodations, the EEOC also cautions employers to be cognizant of any potential disparate impact created by a vaccine mandate.
Q: Are there state or local laws that address mandatory COVID-19 vaccination policies?
A: Employers must pay attention to state laws in the jurisdiction(s) where they operate. Several states have introduced legislation attempting to limit private employers’ ability to mandate COVID-19 vaccines. To date, such efforts have been without success other than in Montana.
Q: If an employer adopts a mandatory employee vaccination policy, how should it respond to an employee who indicates that they are unable to receive a COVID-19 vaccination because of a disability or a sincerely held religious belief, practice, or custom?
A: As noted, the employer must engage in an interactive process with the employee. When an employee objects to vaccination, they are requesting an accommodation under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 (Title VII) (for a sincerely held religious belief, practice, or custom) or the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) (for a disability). The employer must provide a reasonable accommodation unless the accommodation would pose an undue hardship. Undue hardship is defined under Title VII as an accommodation that poses a “more than de minimis” cost or burden. For the ADA, undue hardship is more onerous to establish and is defined as creating significant difficulty or expense for the employer.
Continue Reading To mandate or not? FAQs on mandatory vaccine programs for employers
Dallas County issues new mask mandate to address increased transmission levels of COVID-19
On August 11, 2021, Dallas County Judge Clay Jenkins issued an order requiring masks in Dallas County businesses, schools, and county buildings. Judge Jenkins’ order comes on the heels of a Dallas County state court issuing a temporary restraining order of Texas Governor Greg Abbott’s July 29, 2021 order barring mask mandates by local governmental…
CDC releases new guidance for fully vaccinated individuals as COVID-19 rates continue to climb nationwide
On July 27, 2021, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) updated its COVID-19 guidance. The revised guidance, which has significant implications in the employment context, recommends that fully-vaccinated individuals wear masks in “public indoor settings in areas of substantial or high transmission.” The guidance further recommends that vaccinated persons be tested after a known or suspected COVID-19 exposure. The CDC’s guidance reverses its May 2021 guidance, which advised that fully-vaccinated individuals could generally stop wearing masks and cease social distancing. The CDC’s new guidance comes amidst a recent uptick in COVID-19 cases stemming from the highly-infectious Delta variant and is already complicating employers’ COVID-19 policies and return to work plans.
Updated masking recommendation
The CDC’s revised guidance acknowledges that fully vaccinated individuals can become infected with COVID-19 despite being vaccinated in a “breakthrough” infection. The CDC further acknowledges that, while breakthrough infections “happen in only a small proportion of the people who are fully vaccinated,” individuals with breakthrough infections can spread COVID-19. As a result of these concerns, while not referencing the workplace specifically, the CDC now recommends that all individuals, regardless of vaccination status, wear masks in public indoor settings in areas of substantial or high transmission.…
Continue Reading CDC releases new guidance for fully vaccinated individuals as COVID-19 rates continue to climb nationwide
Attention Texas employers: Starting September 1, 2021, companies with just one employee—as well as individual supervisors and coworkers—can be liable for sexual harassment
The effects of the #MeToo movement for employers continue with Governor Abbott recently signing two new bills into law (effective September 1, 2021) that greatly amplify legal protections against sexual harassment. One bill extends the statute of limitations for sexual harassment claims from 180 days to 300 days. The other opens the door for small employers, and even individual supervisors and coworkers, to be held liable for sexual harassment. Also, Texas employers must now take “immediate and appropriate corrective action” to avoid liability for sexual harassment. We explain these new laws in more detail below, and discuss steps Texas employers may want to consider before the new laws go into effect.
Statute of limitations lengthened for sexual harassment claims (House Bill 21)
Currently, employees must file a charge of discrimination with the Texas Workforce Commission within 180 days of the alleged harassing conduct. House Bill 21, which Governor Abbott signed into law on June 9, 2021, lengthens the statute of limitations for filing sexual harassment claims from 180 days to 300 days from the date of the alleged harassment. The longer limitations period applies only to sexual harassment claims based on conduct that occurs on or after September 1, 2021. The current 180 day statute of limitations remains unchanged for other types of alleged discrimination (e.g., based on race, age, etc.).
Because the statute of limitations under federal law for sexual harassment claims is 300 days, plaintiffs who miss the 180-day deadline under Texas law were typically only able to pursue their sexual harassment claims in federal court (assuming, of course, they initiated legal proceedings within the 300-day federal deadline). Beginning this fall, those plaintiffs will be able to pursue such claims in either federal or state court. …
Continue Reading Attention Texas employers: Starting September 1, 2021, companies with just one employee—as well as individual supervisors and coworkers—can be liable for sexual harassment
In first-of-its-kind decision, federal court rules that mandatory workplace COVID-19 vaccine policies are lawful
As states and localities lift COVID-19 restrictions, the business community continues to grapple with the interplay between the COVID-19 vaccine and workplace operations. To address this, some U.S. employers have elected to adopt mandatory vaccination policies. These policies, in essence, require that, subject to exceptions for sincerely-held religious beliefs and disabilities, all employees receive the COVID-19 vaccine as a condition of continued employment.
Not entirely surprisingly, there have been a smattering of legal challenges to mandatory COVID-19 vaccination policies across the country. And on June 12, 2021, a federal court in Texas became the first to rule on the permissibility of such policies. In a landmark ruling, the court concluded that mandatory workplace vaccination policies are lawful under Texas and federal law and may be enforced as a condition of continued employment. The court’s specific findings are discussed below.
Continue Reading In first-of-its-kind decision, federal court rules that mandatory workplace COVID-19 vaccine policies are lawful