May 19 Reopening: Employers Should ‘Tread Lightly’
The May 19 full reopening of the state’s economy has many implications for Connecticut employers.
That date became a little more challenging with Gov. Ned Lamont’s May 13 decision that the indoor mask mandate will be lifted for fully vaccinated people May 19, along with the lifting of all other restrictions, as announced last month.
Lamont’s decision followed new guidance released earlier that day by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention that “fully vaccinated people can resume activities without wearing a mask or physically distancing, except where required by federal, state, local, tribal, or territorial laws, rules, and regulations, including local business and workplace guidance.”
There will be some exceptions, with vaccinated people still required to wear masks in high-risk spaces such as nursing homes and schools.
The state Department of Public Health is expected to issue additional guidance within the next week.
The CDC also still recommends that masks be worn on buses, trains, airplanes, and in transit stations and airports.
“Indoor masking will still be required for the unvaccinated for a little while longer,” Lamont said during his daily COVID-19 briefing May 13. “I think that’s the right thing to do.”
Face masks have been a part of Connecticut’s pandemic landscape since April 17 last year, when the governor issued an executive order mandating their use.
Lamont said the state will not enforce the requirement that unvaccinated people wear masks in indoor settings, leaving those decisions to businesses and property owners.
“If you’re fully vaccinated, you don’t have to wear a mask,” he said. “If you’re not fully vaccinated, you’ve got to wear a mask indoors.
“I think every store, business, restaurant may have their own rules that way. At this point, I think people are going to self-attest. We hope they are going to do the right thing.
“I hope that people in Connecticut understand why the CDC set those guidelines. They probably make a certain amount of sense, and I think the vast majority of people will follow that.”
CBIA HR Counsel Diane Mokriski notes that business owners have struggled with the implementation of mask rules, particularly as more employees are vaccinated.
“So it’s great to get some guidance from the state on that issue,” she said.
“The challenge now for employers will be deciding on their own company policy, using the discretion that Gov. Lamont has provided to individual businesses.
“Will each business use the honor system with their employees, as to who has, and has not, been vaccinated? Will they survey their workforce and keep records?
“Or perhaps they’ll decide to maintain their mask rules despite the new guidance, for the sake of everyone’s safety?
“These are some of the questions that Connecticut business owners now face, and it’ll be interesting to see what decisions people make in the next few weeks and months.”
As of May 13, 3.6 million COVID-19 vaccine doses have been administered in Connecticut, with 58% of the state’s population receiving at least one shot and 47% now fully vaccinated.
Anyone aged 12 or older who lives, works, or attends school in Connecticut is eligible to be vaccinated.
“The good news is that Connecticut continues to rank in the top three states for administering the vaccine per capita,” says Nick Zaino, a labor employment law attorney with Carmody Torrance Sandak & Hennessey.
“And of the approximate 1.5 million people who are vaccinated, less than one-tenth of one percent of those individuals have contracted COVID.”
Zaino was speaking with Mokriski and colleague Vincent Farisello during CBIA’s May 11 HR Hotline Live: Prepare for May 19 Reopening webinar.
But Zaino urged employers to tread lightly.
“An employer mandating their employees be vaccinated really needs to weigh the morale issue,” he said. “Some employees will view it as being rather Draconian or too aggressive.
“And what are you going to do if employees don’t get vaccinated?”
He wondered whether employers will treat an executive who refuses to get vaccinated the same way as a frontline worker who declines the shot.
“Is there a possibility for adverse publicity for employers who terminate employees for refusing to get vaccinated? There’s a lot more at play for employers to consider,” Zaino said.
Mokriski noted there are many questions about how employers can incentivize workers to get the vaccine.
“How do you give the impression that you really want people to get vaccinated?” she asked.
One possibility is for employers to use paid leave allowed under the Families First Coronavirus Response Act as an incentive for employees to get a vaccine.
The FFCRA provides employers with tax credits against time off given to employees sickened by the virus.
“It can be sold to folks that if you have to miss work due to [vaccine] side effects, we’re going to offer this and you’re going to be covered,” Farisello said.
He endorses using the FFCRA tax credit as a carrot to encourage vaccinations.
Employers can also tell workers who refuse to get a vaccine that they will have to use personal time if they get sick from the virus.
But he again cautioned employers against using the stick approach—noting they have to make accommodations for someone who refuses the vaccine for medical reasons—because of concerns about running afoul of “those more general discrimination rules.”
Despite the changes that will go into effect May 19, Zaino advises employers to maintain the COVID-19 protocols their employees like.
“If cleaning with greater frequency than you did pre-COVID is important to your employees, continue to do that and follow the CDC guidelines,” he said.
“You know which protocols matter to your employees the most.”
Another thing for employers to consider is whether COVID protocol signs for handwashing and social distancing are still needed in the workplace.
“I think some of the measures employers have taken can stop if it’s not something that’s important in that particular workplace,” Zaino said.
But Zaino recommends continuing contact tracing, noting that vaccinated people can still get the virus, although the CDC says vaccines are 100% effective at preventing COVID-19 related hospitalizations and deaths.
“If there’s someone with COVID, they still have to isolate so you’re going to continue to do contact tracing,” he said.
He also recommends keeping plenty of hand sanitizer available.
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