The Big Question: Can Employers Require Workers to Vaccinate?

COVID-19 vaccine

As the COVID-19 pandemic rages on and more employers bring staff back to the workplace, many businesses are considering implementing mandatory vaccination policies for seasonal flus as well as the coronavirus.

A safe and widely accessible vaccine would allow businesses to open their workplaces again and start returning to a semblance of normalcy. But employers are caught in the difficult position of having to protect their workers and customers from infection in their facilities as well as respecting the wishes of individual employees who may object to being required to be vaccinated. 

The issue spans Equal Opportunity Employment Commission regulations and guidance, as well as OSHA workplace safety rules and guidance. With that in mind, employers mulling mandatory vaccination policies need to consider:

  • How to decide if such a policy right for the company,
  • How they will enforce the policy,
  • The legal risks of enforcing the policy, and
  • Employer responsibilities in administering the policy.

Proceed with caution

A number of law firms have written blogs and alerts on the subject of mandatory vaccinations, and the overriding consensus recommendation is to proceed with caution.

In 2009 pandemic guidance issued during the H1N1 influenza outbreak, the EEOC stated that both the Americans with Disabilities Act and Title VII bar an employer from compelling its workers to be vaccinated for influenza regardless of their medical condition or religious beliefs — even during a pandemic.

The guidance stated that under the ADA, an employee with underlying medical conditions should be entitled to an exemption from mandatory vaccination (if one was requested) for medical reasons. And Title VII would protect an employee who objects due to religious beliefs against undergoing vaccination.

In these cases, the employer could be required to provide accommodation for these individuals (such as working from home).

Additionally, the employer would have to enter into an interactive process with the worker to determine whether a reasonable accommodation would enable them to perform essential job functions without compromising workplace safety. This could include:

  • The use of personal protective equipment,
  • Moving their workstation to a more secluded area,
  • Temporary reassignment,
  • Working from home, or
  • Taking a leave of absence.

One issue that employment law attorneys say may not have any legal standing is if an employee objects to inoculation based on being an “anti-vaxxer,” or someone who objects to vaccines believing that they are dangerous. In this case, depending on which state your business is located, you may or may not be able to compel an anti-vaxxer to get a vaccine shot.

Protecting your firm

To mount a successful defense of a vaccination policy if sued, you would need to be able to show that the policy is job-related and consistent with business necessity. And that the rationale is based on facts, tied to each employee’s job description and that you enforce the policy consistently without prejudice or favoritism.

Also, you must ensure that any employee who requests accommodation due to their health status or religious beliefs does not suffer any adverse consequences. In other words, you cannot punish someone that is covered by the ADA or Title VII for refusing a vaccine.

Also, you will need to project and safeguard your employees’ medical information, under the law.

The takeaway

A number of employment law experts say that once a vaccine is widely available, most employers will likely have the right to require that workers get it, as long as they heed the advice above about the ADA and Title VII. Until then, you may want to consider following the 2009 guidance.

If you do implement a policy requiring vaccination, consider:

  • Fully covering vaccine costs if they are not fully covered by your employees’ health insurance.
  • Allowing employees to opt out entirely if they have medical or religious objections.
  • In the event of a medical or religious objection, you must engage in an interactive process to determine whether the individual’s objections can be accommodated.
  • Including safeguards for keeping your employees’ medical information confidential.
  • Not abandoning your other efforts to keep your workplace safe, such as the use of social distancing, regular cleaning and disinfecting, and the use of personal protective equipment.

Alert: New Law Creates COVID-19 Workers’ Comp Framework

outdoor workers

Governor Newsom has signed legislation that creates a new framework for COVID-19-related workers’ compensation claims.

SB 1159, which takes effect immediately, partly replaces an executive order that Newsom made on March 18 and which expired on July 5. That order required all employees working outside the home who contracted COVID-19 be eligible for workers’ compensation benefits.

The new law also creates a rebuttable presumption that all cases of COVID-19 among front-line workers be considered work-related for workers’ compensation purposes. Finally, the law creates a rebuttable presumption that a workers’ COVID-19 diagnosis is work-related when there was an outbreak in their workplace during the prior 14 days.

The new law is retroactive to July 6, the day after Newsom’s executive order expired, and is set to expire Jan. 1, 2023.

SB 1159’s presumption that an illness or death resulting from COVID-19 has arisen out of and in the course and scope of employment, can be disputed by the employer if they have:

  • Proof of measures they put in place to reduce the potential transmission of COVID-19 in the workplace,
  • Evidence of the employee’s non-occupational risks of contracting COVID-19,
  • Proof of statements made by the employee, or
  • Any other evidence normally used to dispute a work-related injury.

Employers with fewer than five employees are exempt under the statute.

The law also requires new reporting provisions to allow workers’ compensation claims adjusters to track cases to know when the presumption applies and requires a faster review of claims to accept or deny compensability than is typical.

SB 1159’s three parts

The first part codifies Newsom’s prior executive order that provided a rebuttable presumption of work-relatedness to all employees working outside of the home that contracted COVID-19.

The second provides a rebuttable presumption that front-line workers (like firefighters, law enforcement officers, health care workers, home care workers, and IHSS workers) who contract COVID-19, contracted it in the workplace.

The third creates a rebuttable presumption that worker’s COVID-19 diagnosis is work-related within 14 days of a company outbreak. Under SB 1159, an outbreak is defined as when four employees test positive at a specific place of employment with 100 or fewer employees and, for larger places of employment, when 4% of the employees test positive.

It’s also deemed a workplace outbreak if the employer had to shut down due to a coronavirus outbreak.

Reporting requirements

Under the new law, when an employer “knows or reasonably should know that an employee has tested positive for COVID-19,” they must report to the insurer the following information within three business days, via e-mail or fax:

  • The date the employee tested positive.
  • The address or addresses of the employee’s specific place(s) of employment during the 14-day period preceding the date of their positive test.
  • The highest number of employees who reported to work at the employee’s specific place of employment in the 45-day period preceding the last day the employee worked at each specific place of employment.

The Rossi Law Group has the following recommendations for employers in California:

  • Keep track of all locations each employee works at, the number of employees on each day at each location, as well as a log of those that test positive (including the date the specimen was collected).
  • If you are aware of any staff who have tested positive between July 6 and Sept. 17, you have 30 days after Sept. 17 to report the positive test to the administrator and include the same information as in the bullet points above.
  • You must also report to the administrator positive COVID-19 results for employees that are not filing claims. In that case, you must omit personal identifying information of the employee.
  • Provide any factual information to the administrator that could help rebut any claim of work-relatedness.

The law also has some teeth: Anyone who submits false or misleading information shall be subjected to a civil fine up to $10,000.

One last thing…

The governor also signed into law AB 685, which requires employers to report an outbreak to local public health officials. Employers must also report known cases to employees who may have been exposed to COVID-19 within one business day.

Cal/OSHA Requires Employers to Protect Workers from Wildfire Smoke

wildfire smoke

As wildfires continue raging throughout California, Cal/OSHA has issued a reminder to employers that they are required to protect their outdoor workers from smoke if the air quality index exceeds 151.

Cal/OSHA has extended an emergency regulation it put in place in August 2019 through January 2021 as it works on a permanent regulation on wildfire smoke protection for outdoor workers in California.

For the safety of your workers and to comply with the regulation, it’s important that you follow the regulations and know when you will need to take action to protect them from outdoor smoke.

The regulation applies when the Air Quality Index (AQI) for airborne Particulate Matter (PM) 2.5 microns (PM2.5) or smaller is 151 or greater in an area where employees are working outdoors. Here are the details of the regulation: 

Identification – When wildfire smoke affects a worksite, employers must monitor the air quality index (AQI) for PM2.5. Employers can monitor the AQI using the following websites:

Communication – Employers must implement a system for communicating wildfire smoke hazards in a form readily understandable by all affected employees, including provisions designed to encourage employees to inform the employer of wildfire smoke hazards without fear of reprisal.

Training and instruction – Employers with outdoor workers need to provide training that covers at least:

  • The health effects of wildfire smoke.
  • The right to obtain medical treatment without fear of reprisal.
  • How employees can obtain the current Air Quality Index (AQI) for PM2.5.
  • Possible actions they must take if the AQI exceeds 150 PM 2.5

Options for protecting workers – The regulation provides three ways employers can protect their workers:

  1. Modifications – If possible, employers should implement modifications to the workplace, to reduce exposure. Examples include providing enclosed structures or vehicles for employees to work in, where the air is filtered.
  2. Changes to procedures and schedules – Another option is to change work procedures or schedules. Examples include changing the location where employees work or reducing the amount of time they work outdoors or exposed to unfiltered outdoor air.
  3. Respiratory protection – Employers also have the option to provide proper respiratory protection equipment, such as disposable respirators, for voluntary use without fit-testing.

To filter out fine particles, respirators must be labeled N-95, N-99, N-100, R-95, P-95, P-99, or P-100, and must be labeled as approved by the US National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health.

If the AQI is above 300, fit-testing and a medical examination prior to use would be mandatory.

The takeaway

If you do have outside workers who are confronted with working in smoky conditions, you should start stockpiling two-week supply of N95 masks for all of your workers if you are unable to implement other controls to reduce their exposure.

Cal/OSHA is in the rule making process to make the emergency regulations permanent and has sent out public comment notices on the proposed regulation. We will continue monitoring the agency’s progress on the rules and update you when they have been completed.

New Law Adds Independent Contractor, Freelance Exemptions to AB 5

A new law has come to the rescue of a number of freelance professions by exempting them from the onerous requirements of AB 5, which required most independent contractors to be classified as employees in California.

Governor Gavin Newsom on Sept. 1 signed AB 2257 as an urgency measure, so that it took effect immediately after it passed unanimously in both houses of the state Legislature.

If you remember, AB 5 set a new standard for hiring independent contractors, requiring many to be reclassified as employees covered by minimum wage, overtime, workers’ compensation, unemployment and disability insurance. It created a three-pronged test that needs to be satisfied to determine if someone is an independent contractor or an employee.

To be independent contractors under AB 5’s “ABC test,” workers must (A) work independently, (B) do work that is different from what the business does, and (C) offer their work to other businesses or the public. All three conditions must be met.

It is prong B that’s problematic, as for example, a freelance writer working for a publication would not be doing something different than the business does. The law sets limits on the amount of income someone can receive while doing this kind of work before being considered an employee.

 

Exemptions under new law

AB 2257 preserves the ABC test for independent contractor classification but adds a number of exemptions from this test. Here are the professions now exempt from AB 5, meaning that they can be considered independent contractors and not have to be treated as employees under the law:

  • Youth sports coaches
  • Specialized performers
  • Home inspectors
  • Insurance industry field service contractors
  • Appraisers
  • Underwriting inspectors
  • Premium auditors
  • Risk management, or loss control specialists
  • Sports competition judges, umpires and referees
  • Graphic design
  • Web design
  • Tutoring
  • Consulting
  • Caddying
  • Wedding planning and event vending
  • Yard cleanup
  • Captioning, and
  • Interpreting and translating services.

AB 5 also has a freelancer exemption, which has been expanded by the new law to include:

  • Fine artists
  • Freelance writers
  • Translators
  • Editors and content contributors
  • Advisors, narrators, cartographers, producers and copy editors, and
  • Illustrators, and newspaper cartoonists working under written contracts.

AB 2257 also expands the “business-to-business” definition in AB 5 to cover a relationship between two or more sole proprietors.

COVID-19 Claims Growing Among California Workers

workers' compensation claims

The number of COVID-19 workers’ compensation claims in California has seen a steady climb, reaching a total of 31,612 from when the pandemic started until the end of July, according to the latest figures from the Division of Workers’ Compensation.

In July, 9,515 California workers filed COVID-19 workers’ compensation claims, as well as 74 coronavirus-related worker deaths ― bringing the total to 140 fatalities. The total claims account for 10% of all claims filed between January and July, despite the first claims being filed only in March.

These numbers are fluid and are certain to grow as more claims are filed after the fact, as there are often time lags in claims filings.

For example:

May claims ― As of July 6, there were 3,889 claims, but as of Aug. 10 the number had risen to 4,606.

June claims ― As of July 6, there were 4,438 COVID-19 workers’ comp claims. But as of Aug. 10, that figure for June claims had more than doubled to 10,528. 

Based on these claims development stats, the California Workers’ Compensation Institute projects there could ultimately be 29,354 COVID-19 claims with July injury dates and 56,082 COVID-19 claims with January through July injury dates.

Who is filing claims?

The top five sectors reporting COVID-19 workers’ compensation claims during the first seven months of the year are:

  • Health care workers (40% of all claims)
  • Public safety/government workers (6%)
  • Retail workers (8%)
  • Manufacturing (7%)
  • Transportation (5%).

Handling workers’ comp claims

In early May, Governor Gavin Newsom signed an executive order extending workers’ compensation benefits to California employees who contract COVID-19 while working outside of their homes during the state’s stay-at-home order.

To qualify for the presumption, all of the following conditions must be met:

  • The worker must test positive for or be diagnosed with COVID-19 within 14 days after a day they worked at your jobsite at your direction.
  • The day they worked at your jobsite was on or after March 19.
  • Your jobsite is not their home or residence.
  • If your worker is diagnosed with COVID-19, the diagnosis was done by a medical doctor and confirmed by a positive test for COVID-19 within 30 days of the date of the diagnosis.

Even when an employee is presumed to have become ill from COVID-19 at work, the employer may dispute that conclusion. In such a case, however, you bear the burden of proving that the injury or illness did not occur at work.

The executive order does not apply to COVID-19-related claims, regardless of date of injury, that were accepted by the claims administrator as compensable prior to May 6.

All of the typical workers’ compensation benefits apply:

Medical care ― Reasonable and necessary medical treatment paid for by your employer to help you recover from an injury or illness caused by work.

Temporary disability benefits ― Payments if you lose wages because your injury prevents you from doing your usual job while recovering.

Permanent disability benefits ― Payments if you don’t recover completely.

Supplemental job displacement benefits ― Vouchers to help pay for retraining or skill enhancement if you don’t recover completely and don’t return to work for your employer.

Death benefits – Payments to your spouse, children or other dependents if you die from a job injury or illness.

The takeaway

If you have an employee who is working on site and who tests positive for COVID-19, you should let them know about their rights to file for workers’ compensation if they miss work and/or need treatment.

The state’s insurance commissioner has approved new rules that bar insurers from using any COVID-19 claims against your experience modifier (X-Mod), so it won’t hurt your workers’ compensation experience if a worker files a claim.