Q: My employer’s “back to the office” email informs us we’re required to wear face masks any time we’re not at least 6 feet away from any coworker or customer. That doesn’t help my office mate or I who sit at adjoining desks just 3 feet from each other.
I called her and she doesn’t want to wear a mask all day long either. I told her I didn’t plan to wear one. She says she will since she doesn’t want to get in trouble but doesn’t mind if I don’t wear one.
I’ve tried several masks and they’re all uncomfortable. I don’t feel like I breathe well in them, and I fatigue on days when I’m forced to wear one because I’m near someone who insists I do. How do I talk my employer into giving me an exclusion for myself and maybe for my coworker? If I say nothing but don’t wear one unless I’m in the breakroom or at the copier, can my employer fire me if I’m spotted not wearing one in my office?
A: First, you need to talk to yourself. How will you feel if you interact with a coworker or customer whose family member contracts COVID-19? While we still know little about COVID-19, we know you might carry the virus and yet be asymptomatic. If so, you might infect anyone with whom you interact and they may infect others, some of whom might die or face a lifetime of COVID-19-related problems. Masks help prevent those who wear them from spreading respiratory droplets and remind wearers not to touch their faces. For these reasons, the Center for Disease Control encourages everyone to wear a face covering when near others to prevent spreading COVID-19.
Unless you have a more compelling reason for avoiding wearing masks than discomfort, your employer can’t allow you to potentially infect others. If your employer does, they may take on liability for what results. Further, your lack of a face mask may worry other employees and customers or even shut down your employer’s business if you infect someone else. Some states require employees in certain occupations, particularly public-facing ones such as bus drivers or hair stylists, wear masks.
Because the CDC’s guidance supports employers who set policies that require employees to wear masks, employers can fire employees who refuse to wear them unless the employee has a lawful reason for refusing. Employers whose employees refuse to wear masks should first ask employees to better understand their reasons.
Most mask-wearing regulations make exceptions for individuals for whom mask-wearing have legally protected reasons for their refusal, such as when masks create health problems, when an employee already has preexisting respiratory problems such as asthma or COPD, when the mask creates or exacerbates a hazard or when the mask interferes with legitimate job duties.
Examples of hazards include when masks might become contaminated with chemicals, causing employees to inhale the collected chemicals, or when a mask might get caught in machinery.
Job duty issues include when the masks steam up the employee’s goggles, impeding the precision sight needed for some job functions, or interfere with communication for employees who rely on lip reading. In the latter instance, OSHA recommends using masks with clear plastic windows around the mouth.
Employers may need to provide employees with instructions or training on how to wear, maintain and clean their face coverings. Masks must securely cover their wearers’ noses and mouths and fit snugly on all sides. Once employees put their masks on, they shouldn’t remove them unnecessarily.
Employees need to wash their hands before putting on or removing masks. They should wash cloth masks after each use, either in a washing machine or by soaking them in a bleach solution for five minutes and then air-drying them in the sun or on a high setting.
Employees need to discard single-use face coverings after each use, and employers need to provide employees a sufficient supply so that employees can replace them as needed, potentially more than once a day.
You can, of course, petition your employer to allow you to work from home, find a medical provider who may document that you fatigue due to an underlying health condition that mask-wearing exacerbates, or decide you’ll return to the workplace and hope to hide out in your office. If you choose the latter course, you place both yourself and your coworker at risk, as you’ll violate the policy and she’ll be complicit. Worse, you might risk others’ health. Is your “comfort” worth what it might cost?
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