Updated October 21, 2021.

Employers implementing mandatory COVID-19 vaccination programs are no doubt starting to feel the pressure resulting from an influx of religious and disability accommodation requests. In all the internal commotion (and resulting strain on human resources departments), employers must remember that failing to implement an adequate process for evaluating and responding to accommodation requests can have real legal consequences.

An action just filed in the U.S. District Court for the District of Massachusetts illustrates just this point. See, Together Employees et al. v. Mass General Brigham Inc., case number 1:21-cv-11686. Mass General, the hospital network employer in that case, implemented a mandatory vaccination program, announcing that employees who failed to receive the vaccination would be placed on unpaid leave and, ultimately, could be terminated. The hospital network, as the EEOC recommends, invited employees to apply for medical and/or religious exemptions.

According to the complaint, the lawsuit arises from the hospital’s decision to deny the exemption requests of 229 employees. The plaintiff Together Employees, an unincorporated association of the impacted employees, seeks injunctive relief, claiming that the hospital did not really analyze their requests, and engaged in a wholesale denial of accommodations without any showing of undue hardship by Mass General. The employees allege that the hospital network’s accommodations process was designed to hinder employees from adequately supporting their requests for an accommodation, resulting in denials for almost all who applied. Among other issues with the process, the employees claim that the forms did not give them space to explain the need for the exemption, or allow them to attach supporting documentation.

Continue Reading The Accommodation Process Requires More Than Lip Service

The COVID-19 pandemic has laid bare the serious threat posed by unchecked airborne infectious diseases, and has prompted New York to pass the Health and Essential Rights Act (aka the “HERO Act”), which serves to establish health and safety protocols for workers across the state. Like we said in our coverage back in June, the mandatory safety standards set forth by the act apply to all airborne diseases, not just COVID-19, and as such are intended to remain a permanent feature of the employee safety measures established by virtually all private employers across the state.

As with the introduction of any new piece of legislation, questions remained even after the law came into effect. At the end of September, the Department of Labor issued an updated FAQ to address lingering and emergent issues with Section 1 of the Act, which relates to the implementation of safety plans.

Until at least October 31, COVID-19 continues to be classified as a “highly contagious communicable disease that presents a serious risk of harm to the public health” under the HERO Act.

That means that before October 31, private employers must:

  1. Draft a plan that complies with DOL guidance on the HERO Act;
  2. Put that plan into effect; and
  3. Give employees (and contractors!) a verbal review of the plan.

Continue Reading Show Me a HERO: Department of Labor Clarifies New York’s HERO Act

On September 9, 2021, President Biden issued Executive Order 14042, requiring federal contractors to be vaccinated against COVID-19. On September 24, 2021, the Safer Federal Workforce Task Force issued its 14-page guidance on the order, detailing the new obligations and responding to some frequently asked questions. These obligations and FAQs will be incorporated into federal government contracts and subcontracts and require vaccination of covered employees by December 8. Kelley Drye’s government contracts group prepared a comprehensive summary of the recent federal contractor and subcontractor vaccine mandate, which has broad implications for many companies within the federal government supply chain. For answers to any questions specific to your business and legal obligations, contact Kelley Drye & Warren LLP.

Continue Reading Top 10 Takeaways from Federal Contractor and Subcontractor Vaccine Mandate

Do you have 100 or more employees? Are you a federal government contractor? A healthcare provider? A large entertainment venue? If the answer to any of these questions is yes—and as you’ve already probably heard—President Biden has instructed the Occupational Health and Safety Administration (OSHA) to exercise its rulemaking authority to require all such employers to either mandate COVID-19 vaccination or to require weekly COVID-19 testing. You should review your current COVID-19 policies and President Biden’s COVID-19 Action Plan, particularly the new executive orders and mandates announced this past week, which cover about 100 million Americans, or two-thirds of the U.S. workforce.

For the moment, covered employers have to sit tight: Biden’s announcement last week was simply that OSHA will issue the new vaccination rule “in the coming weeks.” We will continue to update this blog on the many complicated issues arising from the anticipated OSHA rules, including how to comply with the rule when various Republican state governors and right-leaning interest groups have already promised litigation to challenge the rule from the moment the rule is implemented.

For now, however, here are the key takeaways for employers:

  • Employers (100+ Employees): OSHA is developing a rule that will require all employers with 100 or more employees to ensure their workforce is fully vaccinated or to require any workers who remain unvaccinated to produce a negative test result on at least a weekly basis before coming to work. Given the practical challenges with implementing weekly testing, many employers may simply mandate vaccination to comply with this new rule—and many already have. What happens if they don’t? This requirement is to carry substantial fines to be enforced by OSHA. In addition to the mandate, OSHA is developing a rule that will require employers with 100+ employees to provide PTO for the time it takes workers to get vaccinated and to recover.  
  • Federal Workers & Contractors: The President also signed an Executive Order (EO) to require all federal executive branch workers and contractors that do business with the federal government to be vaccinated. This EO eliminates the exception to the July vaccination mandate for federal employees and contractors that allowed them to opt out if they wore masks, socially distanced, and were tested for COVID-19 at least weekly. 

Continue Reading Vaccinating the Unvaccinated: Employers Take Heed

What to expect from the projected increase in vaccine requirements, restrictions, and lawsuits in the months ahead.

With the highly transmissible Delta variant surging, and vaccination rates stagnating, employers are facing new pressures to reinstate mask mandates for everyone, regardless of vaccination status, and encourage COVID-19 vaccines through workplace mandates.

On August 23, 2021, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) fully approved the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine for use in those age 16 and older. This upgrade to full approval from “emergency use” status is predicted to lead to a rise in vaccine requirements from employers, schools, and local governments. Health officials are also hopeful that the approval will lead to higher vaccination rates. Note that the Pfizer vaccine is only one of  three COVID-19 vaccines to receive full approval. The Moderna and Johnson & Johnson vaccines remain in emergency use status only.

Even under the FDA’s prior emergency use approval, major companies – including Google, Facebook, BlackRock, and Morgan Stanley – initiated policies insisting that workers get vaccinated before returning to the office. Meanwhile, California and New York City became the first state and major city, respectively, to require public workers to be vaccinated. Illinois very recently joined the returning wave of COVID-19 related restrictions by enacting another statewide mask mandate and requiring all teachers and healthcare workers be vaccinated or subject to weekly testing. The Biden administration also requires all federal workers to attest to being vaccinated or face strict testing protocols. Continue Reading The New Employee Status: Vaccinated or Unvaccinated

Wednesday, September 22nd at 12:30pm ET

President Biden promised a 2021 “Summer of Joy” as the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic is brought under control. Instead, employers face continuing unpredictability in the face of a pandemic—and CDC guidance—that just keeps changing. With a pandemic that is not nearly behind us, what should an employer do now? Mandate vaccinations? Require proof of vaccination? Return full-time to the office? Postpone reopening plans?

Our past webinars addressed the basics of navigating the pandemic: how and whether to work remotely, what to do when an employee tests positive, how to comply with applicable law and CDC guidelines, and many other issues.  We invite you to join the Kelley Drye L&E team on September 22, 2021 for a refresh on the basics and—most importantly—to mark a clear path forward for employers amid the moving targets of the pandemic.

This program is appropriate for in-house counsel, management, and HR professionals.

Click here to register.

 

On August 24, 2021, Kathy Hochul was sworn in as the first female governor of New York, assuming office in the wake of the resignation of Andrew Cuomo. The former Governor, a once-powerhouse politician with a decade in the executive office, departed Albany in disgrace.

Cuomo did not leave office alone—at least four former senior aides and state officials have also resigned, as well as several prominent supporters who found themselves caught up in the scandal created by his conduct. That number does not include those who left their positions due to the harassment they allege to have faced. Hochul must now rebuild from the rubble left behind by her predecessor, as the leadership team in the executive branch, as well as those of prominent organizations throughout New York, have been left in disarray.

The allegations against Cuomo are voluminous, and range in severity from his usage of “pet names” to his inappropriate touching of female subordinates. The report concluded that beyond the Governor himself, “the Executive Chamber’s culture” was “filled with fear and intimidation, while at the same time normalize[ed] the Governor’s frequent flirtations and gender-based comments[.]”

Cuomo’s downfall was shocking on one level, as he was long seen (or wanted to be seen) as a champion of women’s rights. In fact, on August 12, 2019, he signed groundbreaking legislation establishing some of the strongest anti-harassment legislation in the country. However, it may not have shocked many who knew him, as the report commissioned by Attorney General Letitia James’ detailed years of questionable behavior and cover-ups by those around Cuomo. Continue Reading Lessons From a Former Governor

U.S. employers have known for a while that they can require their employees to get an FDA-approved Covid-19 vaccine. As recently as a couple of months ago, however, most employers weren’t doing that, with a few exceptions in healthcare and on Wall Street that were either celebrated or notorious, depending on your view.

The balance has clearly shifted now.

One survey in February 2021 found that almost 80% of employers chose not to mandate vaccination because their employees were personally opposed to it. As one of our clients put it: “If we mandated, half our workforce would quit.” So the initial stance taken by most employers was essentially an employee relations choice, and employers “strongly encouraged,” but didn’t require, vaccination.

It looks like months of “strong encouragement” didn’t move the needle one way or the other. Our unscientific guess (but one generated by endless discussions with our clients) is that employees who were personally inclined to get vaccinated with or without a mandate got vaccinated, and those who were opposed didn’t—which is to say that, arguably, few were “encouraged” to do anything they weren’t going to do anyway. Result: only about 50% of the US population has been fully vaccinated, according to the CDC. Continue Reading Vaccination: To Mandate or Not to Mandate?

It seems that at every turn, COVID-19 is keeping employers from catching their breath. We’ve discussed on this blog how employers should navigate having employees work from home, reopening and remaining compliant with the law and CDC guidelines, mask and vaccine mandates, and what to do when an employee tests positive for the virus. Now another issue confronts employers: how to best accommodate employees who are suffering from COVID symptoms months after having been infected with the virus—long COVID.

On July 26, 2021, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Office for Civil Rights (HHS) and the U.S. Department of Justice Civil Rights Division (DOJ) jointly published guidance on whether long COVID may qualify as a disability subject to the nondiscrimination requirements of the ADA, Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act, and Section 1557 of the Affordable Care Act. They concluded that certain cases it does. Continue Reading COVID CONSIDERATIONS: Long COVID Now a Disability

As PRIDE month concludes, we look back at a historic year for the rights of LGBTQ+ employees, and ahead for what this means for employers as they manage their workforce.

Looking back, it was June 2020 when the Supreme Court held that discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation and transgender status constitutes unlawful sex discrimination under Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act. We’ve discussed the landmark Bostock v. Clayton County decision in-depth before. Fast forward, one year later on Bostock’s first anniversary, the EEOC issued a slate of new resources to help employers comply with new LGBTQ+ protections.

According to Catalyst.org, members of the LGBTQ+ community still face high rates of discrimination in the workplace. At least 20 percent of LGBTQ+ employees report being discriminated against when applying for jobs and 52 percent report having been subjected to lesbian or gay jokes in the workplace.

Discrimination is bad for business, as it impacts employee retention. Nearly half of LGBTQ+ workers in the United States are closeted at work with 10 percent having left a job because of an intolerant environment. Meanwhile, 25 percent reported staying in a job because of an inclusive culture.

As discrimination in the workplace persists, so too do related lawsuits. In fact, before we were able to finalize this short blog, two new cases hit the press. One involved a former Boeing contractor’s suit against a staffing agency claiming she was fired for being a transgender woman. The other involved a former Iowa Democratic official’s suit against the state’s prior Republican governor alleging the governor cut his salary and urged him to resign because he was gay. Without commenting on those claims, no employer wants to be in that headline.

So how do you avoid being in the headlines? Start by knowing the law. Here’s what you need to know about the new EEOC guidance: Continue Reading Pride at Work: What Employers Need to Know about LGBTQ+ Rights