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

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 entities. The future of the Dallas County order is unclear with a permanent injunction hearing set for August 24, 2021 and Governor Abbott already filing a petition with the Fifth Court of Appeals of Texas challenging the order.

Under the Dallas County order, all commercial entities providing goods or services to the public must implement a health and safety policy that, at minimum, requires “universal indoor masking for all employees and visitors” and that may include other mitigating measures designed to reduce the transmission of COVID-19. Given the breadth of the order’s definition of “commercial entities,” the order arguably applies to all Dallas County employers, not just employers with worksites that are open to the general public. Businesses must post their health and safety policy in a “conspicuous location sufficient to provide notice to employees and visitors.” The Dallas County order took effect at 11:59 p.m. on August 11, 2021, and businesses have three calendar days from the effective date (i.e., until Saturday, August 14, 2021) to comply. Violations of the order may result in a fine of up to $1,000 per violation.

The rapidly changing legal landscape is one of the biggest risks facing employers as COVID-19 transmission levels ebb and flow. Employers should endeavor to adjust their workplace policies on short notice – three calendar days in this instance – to comply with health and safety requirements. Businesses should consult legal counsel to ensure compliance with state and local requirements related to COVID-19.

ADA likely to protect COVID long-haulers, Biden says

On July 26, 2021, President Biden announced that individuals with long COVID (referred to as COVID long-haulers) could be protected under several federal civil rights laws, including the Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA).

While some individuals fully recover from COVID, others experience debilitating symptoms that last long after first developing COVID-19 (long COVID), including extreme fatigue, shortness of breath, chest pain tightness, and brain fog.

The U.S. Department of Justice and the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services issued joint guidance on this issue explaining that long COVID can be a disability under Titles II (state and local government) and III (public accommodations) of the Americans with Disabilities Act , Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 (Section 504), and Section 1557 of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (Section 1557) if it substantially limits one or more major life activities. The guidance noted that the term “substantially limits” is construed broadly under these laws and should not demand extensive analysis, and provided examples of when long COVID can substantially limit a major life activity:

  • A person with long COVID who has lung damage that causes shortness of breath, fatigue, and related effects is substantially limited in respiratory function, among other major life activities.
  • A person with long COVID who has symptoms of intestinal pain, vomiting, and nausea that have lingered for months is substantially limited in gastrointestinal function, among other major life activities.
  • A person with long COVID who experiences memory lapses and “brain fog” is substantially limited in brain function, concentrating, and/or thinking.

The guidance clarified that long COVID is not always a disability and that an individualized assessment is necessary to determine whether a person’s long COVID condition, or any of its symptoms, substantially limits a major life activity. Notwithstanding this clarification, if an employee suffering from long COVID appears to be struggling and/or requests an accommodation, employers should err on the side of caution and engage in the interactive process to see whether they can provide the employee with a reasonable accommodation without causing undue hardship.

Overview of the governments’ ‘Consultation on sexual harassment in the workplace: government response’

The UK government’s long awaited response to its 2018 consultation on sexual harassment in the workplace has now been published. In this update, we look at the findings made and what may be coming down the line for employers as a result.

  1. Introduction

The 2018 Women and Equalities Select Committee (WESC) report on sexual harassment in the workplace revealed clearly that it was a persistent and important issue, despite the existence of current legal protections. As a result, the government committed to consult on the issue and have produced an official response to the 2018 report.

The government undertook a consultation from 11 July to 2 October 2019, on sexual harassment in the workplace. This consultation took a two-part form, consisting of: 1) a technical consultation with employers on the functionality of the legal framework designed to prevent sexual harassment, and 2) a public questionnaire aimed at gathering insight into the experiences of individuals.

The consultation was designed to explore:

  1. The evidence for the introduction of a mandatory duty on employers to protect workers from harassment and victimization in the workplace
  2. How best to strengthen and clarify the laws in relation to third-party harassment
  3. Whether interns are adequately protected by the Equality Act 2010 (the Act) and the evidence for extending the protections of the Act to volunteers
  4. The views of stakeholders on extending employment tribunal time limits in the Act from 3 months.

Continue Reading

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

Sweeping amendments to New York City’s “Ban the Box” law are now in effect

Back in 2015, New York City joined the “Ban the Box” bandwagon and passed a law that delays when criminal background checks can be run on most Big Apple job applicants. Specifically, the Fair Chance Act (FCA) prohibits NYC employers from inquiring about a job applicant’s criminal conviction history until after a conditional offer of employment is extended and requires that employers undertake a multi-step process if they want to rescind a job offer based on the results of a criminal history inquiry.

Against this backdrop, on January 10, 2021, the New York City Council passed important amendments to the FCA, which amendments went into effect July 29, 2021. As detailed below, the amendments significantly expand the scope of the FCA and impose additional affirmative obligations on New York City employers. Continue Reading

What’s all this talk about federal regulation of non-compete agreements?

On July 9, 2021, the Biden Administration issued a sweeping Executive Order called Promoting Competition in the American Economy (Order). Although it does not immediately change the current legal landscape governing non-compete agreements (or any other aspects of U.S. antitrust enforcement), the Order encourages the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) to “curtail the unfair use of non-compete clauses and other clauses or agreements that may unfairly limit worker mobility”. In the wake of the Order and other calls for more rigorous enforcement of employee non-compete and similar restrictive covenants, many within the business community wonder if a federal crackdown on non-compete agreements is coming. We address this issue below, and discuss steps employers may want to consider in light of the potential changes ahead.

Brief summary

According to the Fact Sheet accompanying the Order, roughly half of private-sector businesses require at least some employees to sign post-employment non-compete agreements, affecting an estimated 36 to 60 million workers. On multiple occasions over the past decade-plus, there have been calls for federal agencies to investigate and curtail the use of such agreements. President Biden’s Order is the most recent, and potentially significant, development in this area. He had vowed during his campaign to “eliminate all non-compete agreements, except the very few that are absolutely necessary to protect a narrowly defined category of trade secrets.” The Order is a further step towards fulfilling his campaign promise.

According to the White House, the Order “includes 72 initiatives by more than a dozen federal agencies to promptly tackle some of the most pressing competition problems across our economy.” One provision in the Order takes direct aim at non-competes:

. . . the FTC is encouraged to consider working with the rest of the Commission to exercise the FTC’s statutory rulemaking authority under the Federal Trade Commission Act to curtail the unfair use of non-compete clauses and other clauses or agreements that may unfairly limit worker mobility.

The language in the Order is not as strident as the wording in the Fact Sheet (which encourages the FTC to “ban or limit” non-compete agreements). But it certainly is expansive, targeting any “other clauses or agreements that may unfairly limit worker mobility.” We do not know if the FTC will follow the President’s lead and issue regulations addressing non-compete and similar agreements. But, at a minimum, we anticipate that employee non-compete, non-solicitation, no-rehire, and similar restrictive covenants will receive closer scrutiny by the Biden Administration, and that stricter enforcement of such agreements is very possible. Continue Reading

California Supreme Court: Meal and rest break premiums must be paid at regular rate of pay; applies retroactively

In Ferra v. Loews Hollywood Hotel, LLC, the California Supreme Court departed from the longstanding view that non-exempt employees’ meal and rest break premiums are paid at the employee’s base hourly rate, rather than the employee’s regular rate of pay used to calculate overtime pay. Instead, the Court held that the phrase “regular rate of compensation” used in Labor Code section 226.7 (requiring employers to pay meal and rest break penalties) is synonymous with the phrase “regular rate of pay” used in Labor Code section 510 (requiring employers to pay overtime). The Court further held that the requirement to pay meal and rest break premiums at an employee’s regular rate of pay applies retroactively because the law was not previously settled on this issue given the divided authority from the California Court of Appeal and conflicting opinion of different federal district courts. Thus, employers cannot claim “reasonable reliance on settled law.”

What is the regular rate of pay?

The “regular rate of pay” encompasses not only an employee’s base hourly rate, but also any non-discretionary bonuses, commissions, and certain other amounts that an employee earned in a given work week. The regular rate of pay is calculated by dividing an employee’s total earnings for the workweek (including, but not limited to, any commissions, nondiscretionary bonuses, and piece rate hours) by the total hours worked during the workweek, including the overtime hours, to come up with the regular rate.

What should employers do?

Employers should immediately update their meal and rest break policies to reflect that any meal or rest break premiums will be paid at an employee’s regular rate of pay. In addition, employers should contact an employment attorney to not only evaluate how best to mitigate any potential exposure from this decision from the California Supreme Court, but also how to ensure compliance from an administrative standpoint moving forward.

Preparing for a return to the workplace in the UK after 19 July 2021

With the lifting of COVID-19 legal restrictions in England on 19 July 2021, David Ashmore (Partner) and Alison Heaton (Knowledge Management Lawyer) from the Reed Smith employment team comment on the key issues/hot topics for employers.

What is changing on 19 July for employers?

The instruction to work from home if you can is being lifted from 19 July 2021. From this date it will be up to employers to decide whether employees should return to working in line with pre-COVID arrangements, retain the current work-from-home set-up, or move towards hybrid working.

Can an employer impose new arrangements from 19 July?

Although employers could require a return to a contractual place of work from 19 July, mandating an immediate change to current work-from-home arrangements is not recommended – not only does it run contrary to the government’s advice to implement any return to the workplace gradually, but is unlikely to be well-received by employees. Instead, employers are advised to prepare for a transition to new/previous arrangements over a period of weeks and months. Having a clear, robust and well-communicated health and safety and return-to-work plans, and adopting a flexible approach wherever possible, will allow for an easier adjustment. Where the employer wants to make changes to contractual arrangements, they will need the employee’s consent.

What if an employee does not want to return to the workplace – is that redundancy?

No. Where the employee is not willing to return to work, and alternative arrangements cannot be agreed, this will not be a redundancy situation (as redundancy only arises if the business closes, there is a closure of the workplace, or where there is a reduced need for employees).

How should employers deal with return-to-office anxiety?

Numerous circumstances may make some individuals reluctant to return to the workplace or previous working arrangements, certainly in the near term. Employers are encouraged to have an open dialogue with staff, taking time to understand each individual’s unique challenges and preferences, and to provide a supportive and flexible approach to find a mutually agreeable solution. They will need to be particularly vigilant in circumstances where the reluctance to return is linked to concerns about health and safety, and act reasonably when responding to concerns. Where it is not being offered, employers can perhaps expect to see a surge in flexible-working requests, and will need to treat these with care – where employees have successfully worked from home and/or flexibly during the pandemic, it may be harder to justify rejecting requests seeking to make that a more permanent arrangement.   Continue Reading

Texas employers now shielded from most COVID-19 liability

Texas recently enacted the Pandemic Liability Protection Act (PLPA) joining a number of other states that have passed statutory liability protections for businesses against claims arising during a pandemic including the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. The new law, which has been signed into effect by Governor Abbott, grants retroactive liability protections for both small and large businesses. Under the PLPA, businesses of all sizes are protected from nearly all claims of injury or death from exposure to a pandemic disease regardless of whether the person injured was an employee.

The PLPA does not, however, provide Texas businesses an absolute shield from liability. Under limited circumstances a claim may still be brought for a pandemic-related injury or death:

  1. Where the business knowingly failed to warn the individual of, or fix, a condition within the business’ control, despite having a reasonable opportunity to do so, with the knowledge that the individual was more likely than not to come into contact with or be exposed to the pandemic disease, and the failure to warn or fix the condition was the cause in fact of the individual contracting the disease; or
  2. Where the business knowingly failed to implement, refused to comply with, or acted in flagrant disregard of the standards, guidance, or protocols put forth by the government that are intended to lower the likelihood of exposure to the pandemic disease, despite having a reasonable opportunity to do so, and this failure or refusal to comply was the cause in fact of the individual contracting the pandemic disease.

Continue Reading

LexBlog