COVID-19 Labor & Employment

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

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

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?

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 COVID CONSIDERATIONS: Long COVID Now a Disability

Sending a clear message to employers and employees alike on the prickly subject of mandatory vaccination programs, Texas federal Judge Lynn N. Hughes just dismissed outright a lawsuit brought by 117 employees of a Houston hospital, challenging their terminations for refusal to be vaccinated. The court rejected the employees’ wrongful termination claims under Texas state law as well as their arguments that the Hospital’s policy violated federal law.

It’s also not just the result, but the strong language of the decision, which should give employers comfort that a mandatory vaccination program is lawful.

Background

On April 1, 2021, the Houston Methodist Hospital announced a policy requiring all employees be vaccinated against COVID-19 at the Hospital’s expense by June 7, 2021. As that date approached, Plaintiff Jennifer Bridges and 116 other Hospital employees who had refused that vaccine, filed suit in the Southern District of Texas to block the Hospital’s vaccination requirement and their terminations, arguing that the Hospital’s mandatory vaccination program was unlawful.

Plaintiffs argued that the vaccination program constituted wrongful termination under Texas law and that the injection requirement also violated public policy. The Court rejected these arguments because the Plaintiffs did not establish the essential elements of the wrongful termination claim and because Texas does not recognize a public policy exception to an at-will employment relationship. Among the more absurd arguments advanced by the plaintiffs were that under the Hospital employees were being treated as participants in a human trial in violation of the Nuremburg Code.
Continue Reading Judge Holds that a Hospital can Fire Employees Who Refuse the Vaccine