chaos to clarityThis post is courtesy of guest blogger, Lori Goldstein. Much of the nation has been full vaccinated, pandemic numbers are decreasing, and reopening with few restrictions is the norm. Some employees are anxious to return, have lunch out with colleagues and visit clients. Others appreciate the benefits of remote work or remain concerned about health and safety at the workplace.

Businesses are exploring whether, when and how to reopen and/or bring workers back to the office. Many companies still have no timeline or plan, and some are renegotiating or ending leases. Many have hybrid telecommuters with phased or alternate schedules. Not everyone is vaccinated or comfortable with commuting. Depending on the nature of the work, continuing remote work is a real possibility. But then there are concerns about integrating new hires into the workplace culture and the loss of physical collaboration and socialization. Employers and workers will continue to face questions as circumstances and legal regulations change.

Restrictions and guidance differ from one jurisdiction to another. Here’s a summary of the CDC and Illinois Phase 5 Reopen guidelines:

  • No Capacity Restrictions – Businesses, large-scale events, conventions, and seated-spectator venues can operate at full capacity for the first time since the pandemic began.
  • Social Distancing – Mandatory social distancing in seated venues will end. But businesses and venues should continue to allow for social distancing to the extent possible, especially indoors.
  • Masks – Per the CDC, everyone (regardless of vaccination status) must wear masks on planes, buses, trains, and other forms of public transportation; in transportation hubs, such as airports and train and bus stations; in congregate facilities such as correctional facilities, veterans’ homes, and long-term care facilities, group homes, and residential facilities; and in healthcare settings.

Unvaccinated people should continue to wear face masks in large crowds, especially when children are present. At outdoor businesses, unvaccinated people may choose not to wear a face mask if they can maintain a six-foot social distance while outdoors.

Immunocompromised people should also continue to wear face masks and practice social distancing.

Fully vaccinated people need not wear masks except where required by federal, state, local, tribal, or territorial laws, rules and regulations, including local business and workplace guidance.

If you’re fully vaccinated, you can also:

  • Resume domestic travel and refrain from testing before or after travel or self-quarantine after travel
  • Refrain from testing before leaving the United States for international travel (unless required by the destination) and refrain from self-quarantine after arriving back in the United States
  • Refrain from testing following a known exposure, if asymptomatic, with some exceptions for specific settings
  • Refrain from quarantine following a known exposure if asymptomatic
  • Refrain from routine screening testing if feasible

Practical Tips for Employers on Vaccines and Masks

  • An employer can ask employees if they’ve been vaccinated and to show proof, but they can’t disclose private medical information to other employees.
  • An employer can mandate that employee get vaccinated, but not those unable to do so for disability or religious reasons.
  • Employers can require fully vaccinated employees who develop symptoms to use masks, get tested and follow quarantine protocols.
  • Even in venues where masks aren’t required by CDC, it is at the employer’s option whether to continue to require (even fully vaccinated) employees and customers to mask and social distance.
  • Employers may choose to allow fully vaccinated individuals to not wear masks, even in office common areas. But in meetings in conference rooms, private offices or cubicles, companies should be sensitive to people who request that the other participants wear masks. Policy should require everyone to respectfully comply when asked, even if fully vaccinated, and to make sure to have a mask available.
  • Be aware of and promptly resolve possible disability, age or other discrimination based on reality or perception that others are vaccinated.
  • Review and update policies, screening forms and procedures.

 

What Are the Federal Health and Safety Requirements for Businesses?

There are temporary special rules for healthcare workers and new guidance for other industries.

In early June, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) issued an emergency temporary COVID workplace health/safety standard (“ETS”) to protect healthcare workers, who face elevated exposure risks. It applies to hospitals, nursing homes, assisted living facilities; ambulatory care facilities; emergency responders; and home healthcare workers.

The general COVID guidance for other businesses focuses on protecting unvaccinated or otherwise at-risk workers in the workplaces, or well-defined portions of the workplace.  Except for workplace settings covered by OSHA’s ETS and mask requirements for public transportation, most employers no longer need to take steps to protect their workers from COVID exposure in the workplace, where all employees are fully vaccinated.

More details here:

How Do Businesses Get Employees to Return in the face of Supplemental Unemployment Benefits?

Many employers continue to face the challenge of getting their laid off or furloughed employees back to work. Workers have been enjoying extended state unemployment benefits as well as federal supplemental benefits ($600/week last year and now $300/week.) While several states recently ended the federal supplement, others like Illinois, did not.

However, the federal benefits will expire on September 6. In addition, if an employee refuses an “offer of suitable employment,” the employer can treat it as a voluntary resignation and the unemployment agency will likely deny benefits. These employees may find themselves without a job or unemployment benefits.

What about COBRA for Employees with Reduced Hours or Terminated?

During this challenging economy, some businesses have had to downsize or reduce schedules. For employees with reduced hours or who were fired other than for misconduct, there is now significant federal help with COBRA continuation coverage (or state mini-COBRA for employers with less than 20 employees.)

The American Rescue Plan Act provides a 100% subsidy for COBRA premiums from April 1, 2021 through September 30, 2021. Employers (or insurers) who pay the premiums will be eligible for a full tax credit.

The subsidy applies to any COBRA qualified beneficiary who elects COBRA between April 1 and September 30, 2021, due to a reduction in hours or an involuntary termination of employment. It covers employees who did not elect continued coverage last year, or discontinued it, because they could not afford it, as well as those who have been paying for their continuation.

The subsidy ends on September 30, 2021, or earlier if the employee becomes eligible for other group health plan coverage or Medicare.

Employers should follow up with their COBRA administrators and insurers to provide required notices to former and current eligible employees.

Bio: Lori Goldstein, a passionate employment lawyer since 1984, has a unique business and perspective, representing both employers/business owners and employees through her solo practice, the Law Office of Lori A. Goldstein LLC. Lori is practical and passionate about helping organizations and individuals achieve peaceful solutions to workplace issues, find closure, and move forward.

 

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