HR Annie Consulting gives us insight on some legalities around vaccines, masks, and COVID tests to help you navigate hiring in the time of COVID.
Hiring during the pandemic has been like everything else — the only certainty is uncertainty. But, when you’re an employer, you need clarity while navigating the legalities around hiring. There hasn’t been much guidance on what employers can and cannot ask their employees regarding masks, the vaccine, or what to do if an employee calls in sick. To clear up some of the fog, we reached out to the team at HR Annie Consulting — a Human Resource consulting firm helping small to mid-sized businesses. Here is what you need to know while hiring to follow employment laws while keeping your work environment safe.
First things first, the mask. The mask is one of those requirements that hasn’t been consistent across the board. Some states removed a mask mandate long ago, and others lifted the mask mandate then quickly reimplemented it. No matter what your state is doing — as a business, you have the right to request customers continue to wear a mask.
But, can you require your employees to wear a mask, even when there isn’t a mask mandate? According to Linda Addy, Senior HR Consultant at HR Annie, the answer is yes! It’s important to note that an employee can have a legitimate medical reason that may require some alternative to wearing a mask. Addy explained that if an employee requests an accommodation, some options could be wearing a face shield or shifting to remote work if the position permits.
As the vaccination has become more accessible, there’s been some concern over whether it’s okay to ask someone if they’re vaccinated in an interview or if it would somehow violate employment and medical laws. Rather than asking straight out if someone is vaccinated, Addy suggests, “a better method is to share your vaccination policy, and then ask if the employee could meet the requirements of the policy if they were offered the job.” Being straightforward with your policy creates a context for the question and its necessity for the job. Keeping the question relevant to the job is critical to ensure that you’re are not overstepping and violating some discrimination law under the Equal Employment Opportunity Act.
Employers of the food and beverage industry do have the right to require that employees be vaccinated. Still, like wearing masks, employees can ask for an exemption due to religious and medical reasons. Addy suggests speaking with an employment lawyer or reaching out to HR Annie for more in-depth information on the ordinances set out by the healthcare industry. It’s wise to seek guidance and create a vaccination policy that is documented and available to all employees if you do require that they are vaccinated.
Masks and the vaccine are the best preventive tools to make it out of this pandemic, but no matter the precautions, it’s still possible to contract COVID-19. As an employer of the food and drink industry, you should be prepared to handle employees who test positive with COVID.
“You are responsible for keeping the team safe from severe harm,” Addy said. “And you should have an Infectious Disease Plan that is known to your leadership team. If someone is positive, conduct a risk assessment. Depending on risk and close contact, you may need to inform the team of their exposure.” Addy continued to explain that if someone at your establishment tests positive for COVID-19, you should conduct a deep clean and sanitation of your workplace. You should instruct the employee to not return to work until they’ve completed quarantine, have a doctor’s note, or can provide a negative COVID test 3-5 days after exposure with a return date no sooner than ten days after exposure.
If an employee who tests positive for COVID-19 was in close contact with other staff, you must inform those staff members. Addy states that for employers to stay compliant with laws, they have 24 hours to notify employees who may have been exposed. As you make that dreaded call, you should avoid sharing the employee’s name who tested positive, as it’s your responsibility to protect their confidential medical information.
If an employee calls in sick with COVID-19 symptoms, “You can and should require that they quarantine for 14 days and return to work if they have no symptoms without a fever reducer,” Addy states. “Or, the employee can quarantine for ten days from exposure and return to work if they have a COVID negative test and no symptoms without a fever reducer.” It’s important to note that with the overwhelmed healthcare system, it could be difficult for an employee to get a COVID test, or doctor’s note — so asking an employee to undertake a quarantine period should be a part of your return to work plan for employees.
So much has changed due to the pandemic, it can be overwhelming to keep up. But, as an employer, your legal responsibilities should not be something taken lightly. Knowing how to move forward with hiring and employing legally during the pandemic is critical. If you don’t have a policy in place for masks, vaccinations, or how to handle employees who contract COVID-19 — you should consider building one today. Take Linda Addy’s advice and reach out to an employment lawyer or HR Annie Consulting for help navigating hiring in the time of COVID.