EEOC’s New COVID-19 Guidance: Employee Caregivers and Religious Exemptions

The EEOC recently revised its What You Should Know About COVID-19 and the ADA, the Rehabilitation Act, and Other EEO Laws guidance document to address two issues: the treatment of pandemic-related caregivers (Section I), and religious objections to the COVID-19 vaccine (Section L).

With respect to pandemic-related caregivers, referring to employees who are caring for their family members and loved ones, the new EEOC guidance confirms:

  • Employees do not have a right to any accommodations to handle caregiving duties under federal EEO laws. However, they may have rights under the FMLA or analogous state leave laws.
  • Employers need not excuse poor performance that results from caregiving duties. However, performance standards must be applied consistently to all employees.
  • Employers may not treat female employees better or worse because of gender-based assumptions about pandemic-related caregiving responsibilities. For example, an employer may not:
    • pass women over for promotions or high-profile projects requiring overtime or travel out of fear they will need more time off;
    • require pregnant workers to telework or limit contact with colleagues or customers;
    • grant male employees less flexibility than females to care for family members infected by COVID-19.
  • Employers must require the same process for employees of any race, gender, national origin, etc. who request COVID-19 related schedule changes or leaves.
  • Employers may not discriminate against caregivers based upon their association with an individual with a disability. For example, an employer may not:
    • refuse to hire an applicant out of fear that their caregiving responsibilities for a person at high risk of COVID-19 complications will increase healthcare costs;
    • refuse an employee’s request for leave to care for a parent with long-COVID while approving other employees’ leave requests to handle other personal responsibilities.
  • Employers may not assume that older workers with caregiving responsibilities need special treatment or lack the stamina to perform their job while providing caregiving duties.
  • Employers must take steps to prevent and respond to workplace harassment or retaliation based upon an employee’s pandemic-related caregiving responsibilities.

Additional examples and details may be found in the related EEOC technical assistance document.

On the issue of religious objections to the COVID-19 vaccine, the new EEOC guidance clarifies:

  • Employees must tell employers that they are requesting an exception to a COVID-19 vaccine mandate based upon a sincerely held religious belief, but they need not use any “magic words.”
  • Objections to a COVID-19 vaccination requirement that are based on social, political, economic views, or personal preferences do not qualify as religious beliefs or justify an exemption.
  • The EEOC’s internal religious accommodation request form is one example of a form employers could use for employee requests. This form is just an example and not required in this format.
  • Employers should normally assume that a religious accommodation request is based upon a sincerely held religious belief, but it may ask for additional information if it has an objective basis for doing so (i.e., suspicious timing or inconsistent behavior), and employees must cooperate with the inquiry.
    • While prior inconsistent conduct by the employee may be relevant to the question of sincerity, it is not conclusive because a person’s beliefs may change over time.
    • No one factor is determinative on the question of sincerity, and employers should evaluate objections on an individual basis.
  • Employers should consider reasonable accommodations to vaccinations, including telework and reassignment, if they do not impose an undue hardship. If there is more than one possible accommodation, the employer may choose which one to offer.
  • Employers need not bear more than a  minimal cost to accommodate an employee’s religious belief. Costs include both monetary costs and any burden on the employer’s business (i.e., where it would impair workplace safety, diminish the efficiency of other jobs, or cause coworkers to shoulder too much of the hazardous or burdensome work). Another relevant consideration is the number of other employees who are seeking a similar accommodation, thus resulting in a burdensome cumulative cost to the employer.
  • An undue hardship assessment must be based on objective information, not speculation or hypotheticals.

While serious COVID-19 infection rates are falling nation-wide, complicated issues may arise as more employees return to the physical workplace. Please reach out to your Lake Effect partners for any help you may need.

Lake Effect is here to answer your questions about COVID-19 compliance and will continue to monitor important legal and HR developments, as well as COVID-related updates from federal, state, and local authorities. Please watch our blogs and emails for these important updates, as well as discussions of how compliance meets culture. To dive into these issues, contact us at info@le-hrlaw.com or 1-844-333-5253.

Biden Administration Bans Arbitration of Workplace Sexual Harassment Claims

On March 4, 2022, President Biden signed ithe “Ending Forced Arbitration of Sexual Assault and Sexual Harassment Act,” a new law banning mandatory arbitration for workplace sexual assault and sexual harassment claims. Arbitration is a form of dispute resolution outside of the court system. Many employment contracts broadly require employees to resolve claims against employers in arbitration.

This legislation makes language in existing and future employment contracts related to compulsory arbitration of sexual harassment and sexual assault claims unenforceable, at the option of the person bringing the claim. The law does not impact arbitration of other types of employment disputes, and applies to claims and disputes going forward, not past or pending claims. A person bringing a workplace sexual harassment or assault claim may still choose to resolve the claim through arbitration, or they may elect an alternative forum such as mediation, administrative agency proceedings, and/or state or federal court.

In light of this new law, employers should consider the following steps:

  • Review Employment agreements
    Employers should review employment agreements for language about mandatory arbitration. We can assist in this review.
  • Evaluate voluntary mediation services
    Nothing in the new legislature prohibits an employee from resolving disputes outside of court voluntarily. If disputes arise in the workplace, mediation is often a good option for all parties. Mediation is voluntary, confidential, and self-determined, meaning the parties come up with solutions to resolve the dispute. If you would like to learn more about Lake Effect’s mediation services, please contact us.
  • Reiterate your commitment to creating a harassment-free environment 
    Kindness is part of our mission and core values at Lake Effect. Our passion is helping employers cultivate kind environments, where workplace harassment has no place. Contact us to assist with leadership training, employee training, workshops, coaching, and other options that may fit your needs.

Lake Effect is here to answer your questions about compliant employment agreements and workplace dispute resolution. We continue to monitor important legal and HR developments, as well as COVID-related updates from federal, state, and local authorities. Please watch our blogs and emails for these important updates, as well as discussions of how compliance meets culture. To dive into these issues, contact us at info@le-hrlaw.com or 1-844-333-5253.

CDC’s Latest Guidance: To Mask or Not Mask

On February 25, 2022 the CDC updated its masking guidance. The new recommendations are customized according to community risk. Each county across the US is designated “high,” “medium,” or “low” risk.

  • “High” risk counties: residents are advised to mask indoors in public.
  • “Medium” risk counties: residents should mask in some situations, including in high risk settings (for example in schools, indoor crowds, and congregate settings), if around individuals who are at high risk of severe illness, or if an individual’s doctor recommends masking.
  • “Low” risk counties: residents need not mask.

Regardless of risk designation, the CDC recommends testing if symptomatic, vaccinating if eligible, and improving ventilation in indoor settings if possible.

CDC guidance is not mandatory, but it may assist employers as they establish and implement their own COVID related safety policies for the workplace. Following CDC guidance may also assist in demonstrating compliance with OSHA’s “general duty” clause, which requires all employers to provide a workplace free from known health and safety hazards.

Each employer will be faced with challenging decisions about whether and how to implement the new CDC masking guidelines into workplace safety policies. Soliciting input from your leadership team and employees may be helpful as you continue to manage changes brought about by the COVID-19 pandemic. Renew your commitment to a respectful workplace and encourage your employees to treat one another accordingly during these times of transition. If you need help navigating these changes, please reach out to any of the Lake Effect attorneys or HR professionals.

Lake Effect is here to answer your questions about COVID protocols and mitigation in the workplace. We continue to monitor important legal and HR developments, as well as COVID-related updates from federal, state, and local authorities. Please watch our blogs and emails for these important updates, as well as discussions of how compliance meets culture. To dive into these issues, contact us at info@le-hrlaw.com or 1-844-333-5253.

Share the Love with Your Employees

It’s Valentine’s Day, the day we show a little extra love to those who are special to us. After the last two years, we all need a few more candy conversation hearts. Take a few moments today to take care of yourself and encourage your team to do the same. As we move through 2022, continue to practice self-care and provide your staff with resources to support their mental wellness, engagement, and professional development.

Take time for self-care. Leaders, we see you taking care of your staff, customers, and families. Thank you for all you do! Please keep your tank filled and battery charged so you can continue to take care of others. Take a moment for you!

Tell your staff you appreciate them. Everyone wants to be seen and appreciated. A heartfelt thank you can go a long way. You know your staff the best, so make the message meaningful to each recipient.

Provide your team members with the resources they need. More than ever before, employees are seeking flexible work schedules, hybrid work environments, professional growth, a supportive workplace culture, and relevant benefits. Ask your employees what they need to be successful in their roles while balancing their personal responsibilities. Here are a few ideas to bring that to life:

  • Remind your team members to take time for self-care – and remind them again
  • Lead by example by taking care of yourself
  • Implement a flexible work schedule
  • Consider a 4-day work week or reduced schedule
  • Review workloads, including the leaders within your organization
  • Develop a buddy system to check in on each other, especially in a remote or hybrid work environment
  • Create an environment where it feels safe to say “I need help on a project” or “I need a break to step away for an hour”
  • Encourage staff to volunteer in the community to support causes that are important to them
  • Post your Employee Assistance Plan (EAP) access information so it is easily accessible
  • Remind your employees about some of the hidden perks within your benefits plans: discounts on massage, credits for workouts, wellness resources and apps, and the like
  • Partner with local nonprofits to provide mental wellness resources to your staff
  • Implement or expand a coaching and development program to help employees align their professional development goals with your organization’s strategic initiatives
  • Practice empathic leadership, fostering a sense of meaningful connection and belonging

During the past two years, the Lake Effect team has been doing something together every month. We have done virtual 5K’s, laughed while attempting to do virtual workouts together, shared reading suggestions, and even tried cooking the same recipe together via Zoom. This month, we are challenging ourselves to do three things every day and we would LOVE you to join us in the challenge: do something each day for yourself physically, mentally, and professionally.  

As we close on this Valentine’s Day, Jane is supporting a local restaurant, Sheila is heading out for a run, Holly is making memories with her kids, Leann is taking a vacation with her family, Jenn is volunteering her time delivering flowers, and Tricia is playing outside soaking up the sunshine. Tell us how you are taking care of yourself this month.

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OSHA Formally Withdraws COVID-19 Vaccination and Testing ETS

On the heels of the US Supreme Court’s recent ruling blocking enforcement of its COVID-19 Vaccination and Testing Emergency Temporary Standard (ETS), OSHA issued a statement formally withdrawing the ETS as an enforceable temporary standard effective January 26, 2022. OSHA stated that it will continue to pursue the ETS as a proposed rule and focus on finalizing a permanent COVID-19 Healthcare Standard. OSHA continues to encourage COVID-19 vaccination of workers to minimize workplace health risks posed by the virus.

For a complete discussion and history of this issue, please see Lake Effect’s prior blogs on the ETS and the Supreme Court's recent decision.

Lake Effect is here to answer your questions about COVID-19 compliance and will continue to monitor important legal and HR developments, as well as COVID-related updates from federal, state, and local authorities. Please watch our blogs and emails for these important updates, as well as discussions of how compliance meets culture. To dive into these issues, contact us at info@le-hrlaw.com or 1-844-333-5253.

Milwaukee Institutes New Mask Ordinance

Starting January 22, 2022, Milwaukee’s new mask ordinance will go into effect until March 1, 2022.  While similar to the previous Milwaukee Cares mask ordinance which expired on June 1, 2021 (see Lake Effect’s prior blog), the new ordinance has some distinct differences. 

Supreme Court Decision on Vaccine Mandate

Supreme Court: OSHA Exceeded Its Authority by Requiring Large Employers to Adopt Mandatory Vaccination Policies, But Healthcare Providers Can Require Employee Vaccinations

On January, 13, 2022, The US Supreme Court issued its much anticipated decision on two Biden Administration initiatives aimed at increasing COVID-19 vaccination rates across the nation: (1) OSHA’s Emergency Temporary Standard, which requires large employers (100+ employees) to adopt mandatory vaccination policies; and (2) the Center for Medicare and Medicaid Services’ (CMS’) Interim Final Rule, which requires certified healthcare entities to mandate employee vaccinations. For a detailed discussion of OSHA’s ETS for large employees, please see Lake Effect's prior blog on this topic.

As to the first, the Supreme Court reinstated a nationwide stay of OSHA’s ETS, finding that parties challenging OSHA’s vaccine mandate will likely prevail on the merits of the case. The Supreme Court explained that OSHA is tasked with regulating workplace health and safety. However, allowing OSHA to regulate the hazards of Americans’ daily lives would significantly expand its regulatory authority in a manner not authorized or intended by Congress. Under the Supreme Court’s ruling, the case will be sent back to the Sixth Circuit for a final decision on the merits, and OSHA cannot enforce the ETS in the interim. Given the Supreme Court’s decision, however, it is highly unlikely that the Sixth Circuit will uphold the ETS.

As to the second initiative, the Supreme Court upheld CMS’ ability to enforce its vaccination mandate for certified health care providers. The Court found that the US Secretary of Health and Human Services is authorized to impose detailed conditions on the receipt of Medicare and Medicaid funds, and those conditions are often aimed at preventing and controlling the transmission of communicable diseases. The Court concluded that requiring healthcare providers to mandate employee vaccinations as one such condition is well within the authority of CMS.

What Should Employers Do Now?
At this time, large employers need not implement OSHA’s detailed vaccination and testing requirements, and it is highly unlikely that the ETS will be upheld at all. However, employers of any size may lawfully implement their own vaccination and testing policies, as long as accommodations for eligible employees are granted in accordance with Title VII (religion) and the ADA (disability).

CMS can enforce its Interim Rule as to covered healthcare provider employers nationwide. Although further litigation on the Rule is likely, covered healthcare providers should prepare to meet upcoming compliance deadlines in January and February 2022.

Lake Effect is here to answer your questions about federal, state, and local regulations that impact employers across all industries. We continue to monitor important legal and HR developments, as well as COVID-related updates from federal, state, and local authorities. Please watch our blogs and emails for these important updates, as well as discussions of how compliance meets culture. To dive into these issues, contact us at info@le-hrlaw.com or 1-844-333-5253.

CDC Shortens Recommended COVID-19 Isolation and Quarantine Periods

On December 27, 2021, the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) revised recommendations for people who test positive for or are exposed to COVID-19. The updated guidelines reflect recent evidence that transmission of the now-prevalent Omicron variant typically occurs 1-2 days prior to the onset of symptoms and 2-3 days after. The recommendations are also aimed at returning people to work as quickly and safely as possible in the face of nationwide staffing shortages. The CDC’s updated recommendations provide:

After positive COVID-19 test (regardless of vaccination status) Isolate at home for 5 days

If you have no symptoms or symptoms have fully resolved after 5 days, you may leave your home but continue to mask for 5 more days.

After COVID-19 exposure for people who are not vaccinated or who are more than 6 months out from their second dose of vaccine and not yet boosted Quarantine for 5 days and then mask for 5 more days

If quarantine is not feasible, mask for 10 days.

Note: the day of exposure is considered day zero (0)

After COVID-19 exposure for people who are boosted or completed the primary Pfizer or Moderna vaccine series within the last 6 months, or who completed the J&J vaccine series within the last two months Mask for 10 days

Note: the day of exposure is considered day zero (0)

After COVID-19 exposure (regardless of vaccination status) If possible, take a COVID-19 test on day 5 following exposure.

If you develop symptoms at any time during the quarantine or masking period, get a test and begin isolation at home.

Note: the day of exposure is considered day zero (0)

The new CDC recommendations should provide some relief to the many US employers dealing with staffing challenges related to COVID-19.

Lake Effect is here to answer your questions about federal, state, and local regulations that impact employers across all industries. We continue to monitor important legal and HR developments, as well as COVID-related updates from federal, state, and local authorities. Please watch our blogs and emails for these important updates, as well as discussions of how compliance meets culture. To dive into these issues, contact us at info@le-hrlaw.com or 1-844-333-5253.

I-9: Extension to Remote Validation

** Update December 2021**

The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) and U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) have extended the flexibility in complying with requirements related to Form I-9 until April 30, 2022. See our earlier blog for more information on how to obtain, remotely inspect, and retain copies of the identity and employment eligibility documents to complete Section 2 of Form I-9.

We continue to monitor important legal and HR developments, as well as COVID-related updates from federal, state, and local authorities. Please keep watching our blogs and emails for these important updates, as well as discussions of how compliance meets culture. To dive into these issues, contact us at info@le-hrlaw.com or 1-844-333-5253.

Lake Effect HR & Law, LLC
(844) 333-5253 (LAKE)
info@le-hrlaw.com

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