By: Chris Fontan
On Thursday, November 4, 2021, the Occupational Health and Safety Administration (“OSHA”) finally released its anticipated, and already controversial, emergency temporary standard (“ETS”) addressing COVID-19 testing and vaccination. The ETS—which is a “mandate-or-test” workplace vaccine rule—applies to most employers with 100 or more employees (“Employers”). The ETS does not apply to: (1) employers who are covered by the recently-released Executive Order mandating vaccinations for federal employees and employees of federal contractors; (2) healthcare employers covered by the prior healthcare ETS; and/or (3) employees working from home or exclusively outdoors. After weeks of speculating over what was likely to be in the proposed rule, Employers are now left with the task of navigating their way through this new mandate.
Here is a general overview of the OSHA ETS:
100-Employee Threshold. In general, the OSHA ETS applies to employers with 100 or more employees. Unlike other OSHA standards that count employees on an “establishment” basis, the ETS covers any private employer with 100 or more employees across the entire company. This broad definition is much more inclusive and will affect many more employers than many previous OSHA standards. The ETS also expressly covers part-time, full-time, and remote employees in its “100 employee” count.
Vaccination Requirement. The ETS requires Employers develop, implement, and enforce a written, mandatory COVID-19 vaccination policy. To meet this requirement, the policy must require vaccination of all employees, other than those for whom a vaccine is medically contraindicated, for whom a medical necessity requires a delay in vaccination, or who are otherwise entitled to a reasonable accommodation under the Americans with Disabilities Act or Title VII of the Civil Rights Act because they have a disability or sincerely held religious beliefs that conflict with the vaccination requirement.
As part of the required policy, the ETS requires Employers determine the vaccination status of each employee, obtain acceptable proof of vaccination, maintain records of each employee’s vaccination status, and maintain a roster of each employee’s vaccination status. At the same time, Employers must remain cognizant of their obligations to maintain the confidentiality of employee medical information, since OSHA and the EEOC view vaccine-related information like all employee medical information.
Testing Alternative. Consistent with President Biden’s initial announcement, the OSHA ETS also includes an exception from the vaccine mandate for Employers that instead establish, implement, and enforce a written policy allowing employees who are not fully vaccinated to elect to undergo weekly COVID-19 testing and wear a face covering at the workplace. Those employees who are not fully vaccinated (including those entitled to reasonable accommodations for religious or medical reasons) must be tested for COVID-19 at least weekly (if in the workplace at least once a week) or within 7 days before returning to work (if away from the workplace for a week or longer).
Employers must maintain a record of each test result. Employees who fail to provide documentation of a COVID test result must be excluded from the workplace until they provide such test result. Notably, the ETS excuses any employees who test positive or are diagnosed with COVID-19 from these testing requirements for 90 days following their positive test or diagnosis.
Face coverings. The ETS requires Employers to ensure that each employee who is not fully vaccinated (thus, those opting for the testing alternative) wears a face covering when indoors or when occupying a vehicle with another person for work purposes, except in certain limited circumstances, including: when an employee is alone in a room with floor to ceiling walls and a closed door; for a limited time while the employee is eating or drinking at the workplace, or for identification purposes in compliance with safety and security requirements; when an employee is wearing a respirator or facemask; or where the employer can show that the use of face coverings is infeasible or creates a greater hazard that would excuse compliance. In addition, employers must not prevent any employee, regardless of vaccination status, from voluntarily wearing a face covering unless it creates a serious workplace hazard (e.g., interfering with the safe operation of equipment).
Paid Leave. As part of the ETS, Employers are required to provide employees “reasonable time”—defined as up to four hours of paid time, to receive each vaccination dose, including travel time. Employers may not require use of accrued sick or personal time for these purposes. In addition, Employers must provide reasonable time and paid sick leave to recover from side effects experienced following each dose. Employers may require use of accrued sick or personal time for these purposes.
Positive COVID-19 tests and employee removal. The ETS also mandates that Employers require their employees to promptly provide notice when they receive a positive COVID-19 test or are diagnosed with COVID-19, regardless of vaccination status. Once such notice is provided, the Employer must immediately remove the employee from the workplace, regardless of vaccination status and the worker must remain removed from workplace until they meet specified criteria for returning to work. Importantly—the ETS does not require that Employers provide paid leave to employees who are removed from the workplace because of a COVID-19 positive result or diagnosis, though paid time may be required by other laws, or by a collective bargaining agreement.
Notice to employees. Under the ETS, Employers are required to provide employees the following (in an appropriate language and at a literacy level):
- Information about the requirements of the ETS and workplace policies and procedures established to implement the ETS;
- The CDC document “Key Things to Know About COVID-19 Vaccines”;
- Information about protections against retaliation and discrimination; and
- Information about laws that provide for criminal penalties for knowingly supplying false statements or documentation.
Interaction with OSHA and Recordkeeping. As an OSHA requirement, the ETS requires Employers to report work-related COVID-19 fatalities to OSHA within 8 hours of learning about them, and work-related COVID-19 in-patient hospitalizations within 24 hours of the employer learning about the hospitalization. In addition, at OSHA’s request, an Employer will have four (4) business hours to provide its policy on vaccination/testing, and until the end of the next business day to provide all other records that must be maintained (i.e. proof of each employee’s vaccination status or test results as required by the ETS). Employees also have the ability to request their own vaccination or testing records, and may submit requests for the aggregate number of fully vaccinated employees in the workplace along with the total number of employees at that workplace.
Key Dates. Employers are required to be in compliance with the bulk of the ETS by Sunday, December 5, 2021. Employers must begin obtaining weekly test results for employees who have not received all doses required for primary vaccination no later than Tuesday, January 4, 2022.