After another difficult COVID winter, many US businesses have already returned to their physical offices and to some semblance of normal operations. Although there are still thousands of Omicron cases here in the US, a recent drop in COVID numbers could mean that the pandemic is starting, ever so slowly, to recede.
Unfortunately, the virus isn’t going to completely disappear any time soon, so many businesses are adopting measures to live and work alongside the virus. So, it is more important than ever that business leaders look after their staff and follow workplace guidelines on health and safety as they make a tentative office return.
Of course, when it comes to workplace safety, it’s important to follow the guidelines of the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA). But those guidelines have been in a confusing state of flux.
In 2021, the Biden Administration originally issued a vaccination mandate for all businesses with more than 100 employees. Any unvaccinated people would be required to undergo regular workplace COVID tests. However, this order was struck down by the Supreme Court, which prompted OSHA to back down from the mandate at the end of January 2022.
Despite this, OSHA also released a statement in which they “strongly encouraged” that workers get vaccinated against the “continuing dangers posed by COVID-19 in the workplace.”
What does this mean for employers?
In the absence of a government-imposed mandate, employers can still require employees to be vaccinated, according to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC).
That is, as long as those businesses provide accommodations for employees based on disabilities or religious beliefs. Employers do have the right to ask for further information to verify an employee’s claim, but they must accept valid exemptions and provide alternative working options for unvaccinated staff members.
In the absence of valid exemptions, employers do have the right to dismiss employees who have refused the vaccines. What’s more, those fired employees are unlikely to be able to claim unemployment benefits.
As you can see, it’s quite a minefield out there.
Although OSHA did rescind the blanket vaccination mandate, the agency has said that it will attempt to bring about a “permanent COVID-19 Healthcare Standard.” So, this might not be the last that we’ve heard from OSHA on this subject.
Other ways to keep staff safe
Beyond vaccination requirements, OSHA recommends other ways for businesses to keep their employees safe. One way is to provide paid leave for employees to go and get vaccinated when looking at how to reduce COVID risks in the workplace. Some employees may want to get the vaccine, but feel that they can’t afford to take time off from work.
Employers can also create an environment of regular testing within the office. While some businesses might balk at the price tag that comes with on-site testing, this practice will help identify potential outbreaks much more quickly and reduce the need for staff members to isolate.
On-site testing also reduces any concerns about the effectiveness of at-home tests, which aren’t as reliable as lab-based tests. Rapid tests can be scheduled into the working day with a minimal impact on people’s schedules.
The bottom line…
As COVID workplace guidelines evolve, and government battles engage in ongoing and vociferous debate, it’s understandable that employers could feel confused and frustrated trying to figure out what’s best for their businesses and their employees.
If there’s one thing that you should take away, it is this. Under the General Duty Clause of the OSHA Act, employers are responsible for providing a safe workspace, one that is free from hazards. And the best way to achieve this is to adopt a multi-layered approach to COVID safety.