By Tracey I. Levy
Perpetually changing requirements with regard to face coverings, vaccinations, and testing following close contact with someone who tested positive for COVID-19 present thorny challenges for employers looking to bring their workforces back into offices. While many scuttled their post-Labor Day return-to-office plans due to the proliferation of the COVID-19 Delta variant, employers are once again revisiting and even moving forward with bringing employees back in physical proximity with one another, at least through hybrid work schedules. For employers in New York, any such initiatives require revisiting (and continually monitoring) the most current federal, state and local guidance with regard to protecting workers against the spread of COVID-19.
OSHA’s Safe Work Guidance and the New York State HERO Act
Updated Safe Work Guidance issued by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) on August 13, 2021 draws distinctions in face covering, testing and quarantine requirements based on employees’ vaccination status. The OSHA guidance references the latest guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), and applies to employees outside the healthcare industry, who are separately covered by the OSHA Emergency Temporary Standards for Healthcare.
Distinctions Based on Vaccination Status
The Safe Work Guidance currently advises that fully vaccinated people should:
- wear a mask in public indoor settings in areas of substantial or high transmission, and may choose to wear a mask in areas with lesser levels of transmission;
- get tested three to five days following a known exposure to someone with suspected or confirmed COVID-19; and
- wear a mask in public indoor settings for 14 days after exposure to COVID-19 or until a negative test result.
In contrast, the guidance advises that those workers who are not fully vaccinated should:
- wear a mask in public indoor settings at all times;
- maintain social distancing whenever possible;
- get tested immediately following a known exposure to someone with suspected or confirmed COVID-19 and,
- if the first test following exposure is negative, get tested again in five to seven days after last exposure or immediately if symptoms develop during quarantine.
Federal vs. NYS Face Mask Standards
OSHA’s guidance with respect to face covering defines “areas of substantial or high transmission” not just by geography, but by industry as well. Regardless of community transmission rates, OSHA recommends mask-wearing for all employees in manufacturing, meat, seafood and poultry processing facilities, high-volume retailers and grocers, and agriculture processors.
New York State also has once again updated its guidance with regard to face covering. The general expectation under the standard Model Airborne Infectious Disease Exposure Prevention Plan (HERO Act Plan) issued by New York is that employees will wear appropriate face masks in accordance with applicable guidance from the State Department of Health or the CDC. Presently, the New York State Department of Health has not issued any such requirements applicable to general office settings (outside select industries like healthcare), which therefore should leave employers to follow the CDC’s guidelines and the OSHA Safe Work Guidance.
However, a mid-September 2021 revision to the HERO Act Plan provides that if all individuals on premises in the workplace (not just the employees) are fully vaccinated, then appropriate face coverings are recommended, but not required. Past guidance from the CDC with regard to masking had been predicated on whether everyone in the location was vaccinated, but that is not the most current CDC standard. As New York State is currently designated by the CDC as a high transmission state, the new exception in the HERO Act Plan is arguably more lenient than the OSHA/CDC position on face masks for areas of substantial or high transmission. This leaves New York employers in something of a quandary as to whether to excuse face masks when the individuals in their workplace are all fully vaccinated.
The OSHA guidance additionally encourages employers to make it easier for workers to get vaccinated by offering paid time off for the vaccine and any recovery from its effects, and it further suggests that employers consider mandating vaccination or regular COVID-19 testing for employees. New York State employers do not have much optionality on this, as the state has already separately mandated that employers provide paid leave for employees to get vaccinated, and the state has further designated recovery from the effects of a vaccine to be a permitted use under the state’s general paid sick leave law.
Additional Precautions and Accommodating Disabilities
OSHA’s Safe Work Guidance retains the now relatively familiar recommendations with regard to social distancing, educating and training workers on safe work protocols, maintaining ventilation systems, and performing routine cleaning and disinfection. All of those factors similarly comprise elements that employers need to have addressed in their HERO Act plans.
Finally, OSHA’s guidance reminds employers of their obligation to take steps to protect those who cannot be vaccinated or cannot use face coverings due to a disability. While not expressly stated in the Safe Work Guidance, this obligation similarly extends to those who decline to be vaccinated based on sincerely held religious beliefs, and is consistent with the requirements of New York State law.
If Someone in the Office Tests Positive for COVID-19
Once employees have actually returned to the office, current guidance from the CDC on Quarantine and Isolation provides that someone who thinks or knows they have COVID-19 (that is not a severe case and who is not immunocompromised) should self-quarantine and get tested. That individual can be around others and return to work after:
- 10 days from when symptoms first appeared and
- 24 hours with no fever without the use of fever-reducing medications and
- Improvement of other symptoms of COVID-19 (i.e.: loss of taste and smell, which can linger for weeks).
If the individual who tested positive had no symptoms, then the individual can be around others and return to work after 10 days from the initial positive COVID-19 test, unless symptoms later develop. Someone who was severely ill with COVID-19 or is immunocompromised may need up to 20 days to recover from the date symptoms first appeared and, if immunocompromised, the individual should consult with their healthcare provider about possible additional testing or precautions before returning to work.
New York State currently defers to the CDC guidance with regard to these quarantine and isolation periods. Employers are reminded that, while the program offering federal tax credits for providing paid leave when an employee is unable to work due to quarantine for COVID-19 has now expired, New York State has a separate COVID-19 paid leave law. As we discussed in a series of COVID-19 leave articles on our blog earlier this year, the state law may require paying employees full salary for all or a portion (depending on the size of the employer) of their quarantine or isolation period if an employee is unable to work remotely, and this payment obligation is separate from other paid leave entitlements the employee may have under the paid sick leave law or the employer’s policies.
Keep Checking for New Legal Standards
These remain challenging times in many respects, and the legal landscape continues to be turbulent ground for employers as governing bodies at the federal, state and local levels each endeavor to balance competing considerations. Reopening plans developed over the summer or earlier are likely no longer compliant with current requirements, and employers should look to the dedicated COVID-19 government websites and get legal advice to ensure they are meeting their obligations.