With the announcement of President Joe Biden’s new National COVID-19 Preparedness Plan, employers may need to review their workplace policies and protocols.
The stated goal of the plan is to “enable America to move forward safely” from the COVID-19 pandemic.
The plan covers:
- Protecting against and treating COVID-19,
- Preparing for new variants,
- Preventing shutdowns, and
- Continuing vaccination efforts across the board.
As it relates to businesses, the plan lays out how employers can be ready to respond to outbreaks and new variants while moving on from the pandemic.
Overall, it discusses the use of preventative tools, such as masking, when the community’s risk level is high. The plan talks about studying the effect on health care providers and hospitals to help make informed decisions about what restrictions should be implemented and when, and not simply looking at the case counts in the area. The Biden administration said it is planning to create a public health website to identify risk levels and recommend preventative measures.
In the plan, the administration calls on Congress to reinstate a paid leave program for small and mid-size businesses so that workers can take care of themselves and their loved ones if they contract COVID-19.
It is expected that this paid leave program will align with the one created under the Families First Coronavirus Response Act (FFCRA), enacted in March 2020. Like the FFCRA, this new paid leave program would provide tax credits for employers.
The plan makes clear that employees who suffer from long COVID or mental health conditions related to COVID-19 could be entitled to reasonable accommodations under the ADA and/or state law.
Immunocompromised employees might require accommodations as well.
As part of the plan, Biden announced that OSHA will be issuing further guidance for employers related to increasing employees’ vaccination/booster rates, supporting employees’ choice to wear high quality masks, especially if they are high-risk, improving ventilation in office buildings and other ways to keep COVID-19 to a minimum in the workplace.
OSHA has already reported more than $4 million in employer penalties resulting from COVID-related violations of OSHA’s General Duty Clause, which requires companies to provide a safe work environment for employees.
What employers should do
Given this new plan, employers should be prepared to:
- Review and modify workplace policies related to masking, social distancing, and vaccination.
- Implement a paid leave policy similar to the one under the Families First Coronavirus Response Act (FFCRA).
- Stay aware of the requirements of OSHA’s General Duty Clause and follow all federal or state OSHA guidelines.
- Implement any new guidance OSHA might issue related to masking, reducing transmission in the workplace, protecting immunocompromised employees, and improving workplace ventilation. It is unknown whether a future OSHA standard will apply only in specific industries or to all private employers.
- Follow all EEOC guidance in handling requests for accommodation related to mental health or long-term effects of COVID-19.