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.

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.

Update on OSHA’s Vaccination and Testing Emergency Temporary Standard

On December 17, 2021, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit lifted the stay placed by the Fifth Circuit and cleared the way for OSHA’s Emergency Temporary Standard (ETS) to proceed.  A coalition of trade groups quickly appealed the decision to the U.S. Supreme Court for final determination.

Almost immediately, OSHA updated its site as follows:

Litigation Update
OSHA is gratified the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit dissolved the Fifth Circuit’s stay of the Vaccination and Testing Emergency Temporary Standard. OSHA can now once again implement this vital workplace health standard, which will protect the health of workers by mitigating the spread of the unprecedented virus in the workplace.

To account for any uncertainty created by the stay, OSHA is exercising enforcement discretion with respect to the compliance dates of the ETS. To provide employers with sufficient time to come into compliance, OSHA will not issue citations for noncompliance with any requirements of the ETS before January 10 and will not issue citations for noncompliance with the standard’s testing requirements before February 9, so long as an employer is exercising reasonable, good faith efforts to come into compliance with the standard. OSHA will work closely with the regulated community to provide compliance assistance.

Per OSHA’s statement, employers will now have until January 10, 2022 to develop compliant policies and until February 9, 2022 to begin testing programs. Additionally, OSHA noted that no enforcement will start before January 10, 2022.

Lake Effect recommends that all covered employers (defined as those with at least 100 employees firm or corporate-wide at any time the ETS is in effect) proceed as if the ETS will be implemented, but recognize there may be further delays pending a decision from the U.S. Supreme Court.   Please see Lake Effect’s prior blogs on OSHA’s ETS for more complete information about the provisions of the standard.

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.

EEOC Clarifies When COVID-19 Condition May Be a “Disability” Under the ADA

The EEOC updated its COVID-19 Technical Assistance Guidance on December 14, 2021. The Guidance’s new Subpart N discusses when COVID-19 or a post-COVID condition may qualify as an ADA covered “disability” triggering the statute’s anti-discrimination and reasonable accommodation requirements. Key points include:

  • Not every COVID-19 related impairment constitutes a disability under the ADA, and the determination must be made on a case-by-case basis.
  • Like a person with any other medical condition, a person with a COVID-19 condition may have a “disability” under the ADA in one of three ways:
    1. The person has an “actual” disability: a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits a major life activity. This requires an individualized assessment of the effects of COVID-19 on the specific individual.
    2. The person has a “record of” a disability: a history or record of an actual disability; or
    3. The person is “regarded as” having a disability: the person is subject to an adverse action because of an actual or perceived impairment, unless the impairment is both transitory and minor.
  • Someone with COVID-19 who is asymptomatic or who has mild cold or flu-like symptoms that resolve in a matter of weeks is not substantially limited in a major life activity and thus does not have an “actual” disability under the ADA.
  • An individual with COVID-19 conditions that last or are expected to last for several months, such as ongoing neurological issues, breathing difficulties, heart palpitations, or gastrointestinal pains associated with “long COVID,” may be substantially limited in a major life activity and have an “actual” disability under the ADA. This requires an individualized assessment.
  • A person who has or had COVID-19 can have “record of” a disability if they have a history of symptoms that substantially limited one or more major life activities. Again, this requires an individualized assessment.
  • A person may be “regarded as” an individual with a disability under the ADA if they are subjected to an adverse employment action because they had non-minor symptoms of COVID-19 or minor symptoms that were expected to last more than six months.
  • Regardless of whether a person’s initial case of COVID-19 is itself an ADA covered “disability,” they may develop related health complications that qualify as disabilities under the ADA, such as heart inflammation, reduced brain function, or diabetes.
  • A person must establish they have “actual” or “record of” an ADA covered disability to be eligible for a reasonable accommodation from their employer, and the employer may ask for supporting medical documentation before granting any accommodation request.
  • Note that the EEOC’s COVID-19 Technical Assistance Guidance Subpart D confirms that an employer is not required to accommodate an employee without an ADA covered disability based on the disability-related needs of a family member or other person with whom they are associated.

The EEOC Technical Assistance guide includes additional details and examples. Determinations about whether an individual with a COVID-19 related condition has an ADA-covered disability or is entitled to a reasonable accommodation are fact-specific and must be made on a case-by-case basis. Contact your partners at Lake Effect for help with these complex situations.

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.

EEOC Provides Additional Guidance on Religious Objections to Vaccine Mandates

On October 25, 2021, the EEOC updated its COVID-19 Technical Assistance to specifically address religious objections to employer vaccine mandates. The update provides employers with additional guidance regarding their Title VII obligation to accommodate employees who request exceptions to vaccination requirements based upon religious beliefs. Key updates in Section L. Vaccinations – Title VII and Religious Objections to COVID-19 Vaccine Mandates include the following:

  • Employees must tell their employer if they are requesting an exception to a COVID-19 vaccination requirement based upon a “sincerely held religious belief.” Employers should inform employees about proper procedures for requesting such an exception, and employees need not use any “magic words” to express the request.
  • An employer should normally assume a request for religious accommodation is based upon a sincerely held religious belief. However, if there is an objective basis for questioning the religious nature or sincerity of an employee’s belief, an employer may seek additional information. An employee who fails to cooperate with a reasonable request for additional information jeopardizes a later claim that they were improperly denied an accommodation.
  • Title VII protects nontraditional religious beliefs, but it does not protect social, political, or economic views or personal preferences. Objections to COVID-19 vaccination requirements that are based on these views or nonreligious concerns about the possible effects of the vaccine do not qualify as “religious beliefs” under Title VII.
  • An employer may consider factors bearing on an employee’s credibility when assessing the sincerity of the employee’s stated religious belief, including the consistency of the employee’s prior actions, the timing of a request, etc. The employer may also ask for an explanation of how the employee’s religious belief conflicts with the employer’s vaccination requirement.
  • If an employer shows it is unable to reasonably accommodate an employee’s religious beliefs without suffering “undue hardship,” it is not obligated to provide the accommodation under Title VII. Requiring the employer to bear more than a “de minimis” cost constitutes an undue hardship. Such costs can include direct monetary costs, as well as an indirect burden on the employer’s business, including the risk of spreading COVID-19 to other employees or members of the public. Undue hardship must be assessed based upon specific facts of each situation.
  • An employer who grants some employees a religious accommodation from a vaccine requirement for religious reasons is not required to grant the same accommodation to all employees. The determination is made on a case-by-case basis. Furthermore, an employer need not grant the religious accommodation preferred by an employee if there is another that would resolve the conflict between the vaccination requirement and the religious belief.

If an exception is granted, employers should put in place measures to protect the unvaccinated employee, other employees, and the public, as noted in Section K.6 of the EEOC guidance.  Possible accommodations include wearing of face masks, frequent COVID-19 testing, change in work location or duties.

Employers who receive employee requests for exceptions to vaccination requirements based upon religious beliefs should work closely with HR and legal counsel to assess their accommodation obligations under Title VII.

Lake Effect continues to monitor important legal and HR developments, including 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.

Provisions of Final Tip Pool Rule Effective November 23, 2021

The U.S. Department of Labor’s latest final tip pool rule provisions will take effect on November 23, 2021. For further discussion on other provisions of the final rule that were implemented in April 2021, please see Lake Effect’s prior blog on this topic.

The following provisions of the final tip pool rule will take effect on November 23, 2021:

  • Managers and supervisors may keep tips they receive for services provided “solely” by the manager or supervisor and “directly” to customers. This clarification to the traditional prohibition on managers and supervisors receiving tips in a tip pool or tip sharing arrangement recognizes the reality that managers and supervisors are often called upon to perform tipped duties in the course of their workday. This means, for example, when a bar manager is working as a bartender to fill in for an absent bartender or during a slow shift, the bar manager may keep tips received directly from patrons at the bar. Similarly, when a salon manager receives tips from a client for a haircut done by the salon manager, the salon manager may keep the tips.
  • Managers and supervisors may contribute some of their tips received from their “sole” and “direct” work into mandatory tip pools or sharing, but they may not receive any tips from a tip pooling or tip sharing arrangement. Further, an employer may require (or may allow) managers and supervisors to contribute part of their “sole” and “direct” tips into tip pooling or sharing arrangements, but, again, managers and supervisors may not keep or receive employees’ tips, or other managers’ and supervisors’ tips, in any arrangement.
  • Employers may face fines up to $1,100 for each instance that the Department of Labor finds an employer took an employee’s tips, regardless of whether the violation was repeated or willful. This now encompasses employer behavior that is in “reckless disregard” of the FLSA regulations and situations when an employer should have explored if its behavior was compliant but failed to do so.

Lake Effect is here to answer your questions about federal and state wage and hour laws 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.

Dane County Face Covering Emergency Order #2

Public Health Madison & Dane County (PHMDC) has issued Face Covering Emergency Order #2, effective September 10, 2021 through October 8, 2021.

The new order is substantially the same as the previous order issued last month. The only changes are two exceptions have been added to the situations in which an individual may remove their face covering. Those two additional situations are:

  • While playing a wind instrument that has a cover on it as long as all individuals in the room are spaced six feet apart from one other
  • While presenting or performing a religious, political, media, educational, artistic, cultural, musical, theatrical, or any other type of presentation for an audience as long as
    • everyone at the presentation or performance is fully vaccinated, and
    • the presenters or performers maintain at least six feet from all attendees

All other requirements from the previous order remain in effect, including the requirement that employers develop a policy providing and requiring face masks, and post a sign mandating a face covering indoors.

Lake Effect is here to answer your questions about how local and state public health orders apply to employers. 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.

Updated OSHA Guidance to Continue Workplace Health and Safety Measures

On August 13, 2021, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) updated its guidance for all employers to reflect the CDC’s July 27, 2021 recommendations on masks and testing for fully-vaccinated individuals. As with the prior guidance on COVID-19, this updated OSHA guidance is not a standard or regulation and creates no new legal obligations. However, the guidance is likely to be relied on to measure employer compliance with OSHA’s “General Duty Clause.” That clause requires employers to provide a workplace free from recognized hazards that cause or are likely to cause death or serious harm.

To reduce the risk of spreading COVID-19 among employees, especially the Delta variant, OSHA recommends that employers:

  • Require all employees, including those who are fully vaccinated, to wear a face covering, or other appropriate PPE, when indoors with other people in areas of substantial or high transmission.
  • Encourage or require all customers, visitors, and guests to wear face coverings when indoors in areas of substantial or high transmission.
  • Adopt policies that require employees to get vaccinated or, if they remain unvaccinated, get regularly tested for COVID-19 plus continue wearing a face covering and physical distancing.
  • Require fully vaccinated employees who have been exposed to COVID-19 to be tested three to five days after exposure and wear a face mask when indoors for 14 days unless they test negative.

The above precautions are in addition to measures included in OSHA’s previous guidance. See Lake Effect’s blog on OSHA’s guidance for employers.

Employers should work closely with legal counsel and HR to implement an updated COVID-19 workplace program consistent with this new OSHA guidance and any applicable local guidance and orders. Lake Effect is here to help you through this process.

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.

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