COVID-19 Federal Government Response

Last week, the Supreme Court issued two opinions on COVID regulations impacting employers and workers across the country.

  • In the first, the Court stayed OSHA’s “vaccine or test” mandate for employers with 100 or more employees, finding that OSHA had overstepped its authority in promulgating the rule.
  • In the second, the Court allowed a rule implemented by the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (“CMS”), requiring healthcare facilities to ensure vaccination of their entire workforces, with no testing alternative.

The seemingly contradictory opinions have set the world of legal commentary aflame, but more importantly, have left employers asking: what do we do now?

Here’s our brief guide.

Blocking OSHA

On September 9, 2021, President Biden announced his plan to increase vaccination rates among Americans. Two months later, on November 5, OSHA issued its emergency temporary standard (“ETS”), mandating workforce vaccination for all employers with 100 or more employees across the country. In lieu of vaccination, an employee might submit to masking and testing, at their own expense. By OSHA’s estimate, 84.2 million employees, or roughly half the U.S. workforce, would be subject to its mandate. Across the country, legal challenges to the ETS were filed almost simultaneously with the rule.

Continue Reading Supreme Court Splits on Vaccine Mandates

UPDATE: December 17, 2021

In a move that comes as no surprise, the EEOC has updated its COVID-19 technical assistance to provide guidance on when COVID-19 may be considered a “disability” under the ADA, making specific reference to the DOJ/HHS guidance discussed in the original blog below. The EEOC’s technical assistance focuses “more broadly on COVID-19” beyond just “long COVID,” and does so “in the context of Title I of the ADA and section 501 of the Rehabilitation Act, which cover employment.” However, the EEOC’s guidance clearly echoes the DOH/HHS guidance and states that long COVID or sustained symptoms of COVID may be a “disability” under the law.

In many states, long COVID could also qualify as a disability under state laws. So, employers should be ready for more claims into the future, even when the pandemic (finally) ends – from employees who suffer symptoms of COVID as a chronic illness.

THE GUIDANCE

What is Long COVID and when is it a disability?

The EEOC has reemphasized that determining whether COVID may be considered a “disability” under the law is a fact-intensive question, requiring an analysis of the extent to which COVID’s symptoms, its long-term effects, or the manner in which it exacerbated the symptoms of another condition “substantially limit a major life activity,” as discussed in the original blog below. This means that an individual suffering, even intermittently, from certain symptoms relating to long COVID can be considered to be “disabled” under the law.

The EEOC provides several examples of these impairments, including: “brain fog” and difficulty remembering or concentrating; substantially limited respiratory function; chest pains; or intestinal pain.

Importantly, the EEOC distinguishes these “substantially limiting” conditions from less-serious symptoms, such as “congestion, sore throat, fever, headaches, and/or gastrointestinal discomfort, which resolve within several weeks,” which would not create a “disability.” But make no mistake: even these relatively insignificant symptoms may constitute a disability if they last or are expected to last for a significant period of time (i.e. more than six months).

Continue Reading UPDATE ON COVID CONSIDERATIONS: Long COVID Now an ADA Disability

In a one-line ruling on Monday, December 13, 2021, the U.S. Supreme Court dismissed the last of the legal challenges to the vaccine mandate for health care workers in New York. It also dismissed a challenge to a similar mandate for New York City Education Department employees, denied challenges to similar mandates for employees at Massachusetts General Hospital, and a challenge against a Maine mandate.

The New York plaintiffs, two groups of health care employees, sought an injunction against the mandate after the Second Circuit found it lawful. These Suits were brought in two courts, the Eastern and Northern Districts in New York, and ultimately were consolidated into one challenge. The argument was, by excluding religious exemptions, the New York mandate infringed on religious freedom. These New York plaintiffs claim that the vaccines offend certain religions, because they used fetal cell lines during testing. This theory has now been rejected by several courts.

This signals a trend by the high court, which is to honor mandates issued by individual state governments. This decision also clears the way for New York health care providers to confidently enforce the vaccine mandate, knowing that it has now been backed by the courts.

Continue Reading The Latest on Vaccines and Other COVID News

Where the Mandate Stands and Current Considerations for Contractors and Subcontractors

The federal contractor vaccine rollout continues to present thorny issues for federal contractors.  President Biden issued Executive Order (“E.O.”) 14042 in early September 2021, requiring federal contractor employees to get vaccinated against COVID-19.  The E.O. was followed by guidance issued by the Safer Federal Workforce Task Force (“Task Force”) in late September 2021, which has been frequently updated in the months since.

As described more fully in our prior post, under the mandate, implemented through the Task Force guidance incorporated into clauses issued by federal agencies, vaccines are mandatory for federal contractor employees working on covered contracts, those who perform duties in connection with a covered contract, and those working at the same workplace as covered employees. Contractors must also comply with masking and physical distancing requirements.  The mandate applies to subcontractors at any tier, and applies to contractors of all sizes — small, medium or large.  The E.O. and Task Force guidance immediately gave rise to many compliance questions and concerns over impact on contract or subcontract performance.  Legal challenges to the contractor vaccine requirement and actions by numerous states have further complicated an already difficult compliance landscape.

Continue Reading Uncertainty with the Federal Contractor Vaccine Mandate

In September, as the Delta variant was sweeping the nation, President Biden announced a comprehensive national strategy to get more Americans vaccinated and to set the path out of the pandemic. As part of this plan, the President announced that OSHA would be issuing regulations requiring any employer with 100 or more employees to ensure that workers are vaccinated.

In addition, the Centers for Medicaid and Medicare Services (CMS) and President Biden’s Safer Federal Workforce Task Force (SFWTF) have issued their own rules requiring the vaccination of healthcare workers and federal contractors, which we have covered previously here and here. Those employers covered by the CMS and SFWTF rules do not have to comply with the new OSHA mandate.

Today, OSHA promulgated this rule, via an Emergency Temporary Standard (ETS), covering employers with 100 or more employees. OSHA estimates this will cover approximately 2/3 of all workers in the United States.

Continue Reading The Federal COVID Vaccine Rule is Here

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

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?

On January 21, 2021, President Biden enacted the Executive Order “Protecting Worker Health and Safety” which tasked OSHA with developing safety measures to help protect workers as the nation continued its post-pandemic reopening. On June 10, 2021, in response to that direction, OSHA issued an emergency temporary standard (“ETS”) focused on healthcare settings where workers are most likely to have contact with individuals infected by the virus.

Below are some of the salient points of the ETS:
Continue Reading OSHA’s Emergency Temporary Standard for Healthcare