Most of your employees have received vaccines. Those who remain unvaccinated either haven’t decided whether they will or have refused to get vaccinated.
What’s next? Can you relax your workplace protocols? How do you handle the skirmishes between vaccinated and unvaccinated employees and those who differently interpret safety protocols?
New CDC guidance
Last week, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention provided new COVID-19 guidance for fully vaccinated individuals. Fully vaccinated individuals may interact indoors with other vaccinated individuals without wearing masks or physical distancing. Fully vaccinated individuals no longer need to quarantine and test if they’ve been around someone who has COVID-19 (except for those who live in a group setting or experience COVID-19 symptoms).
Fully vaccinated individuals do need to wear a well-fitted mask, physically distance and practice other prevention protocols when interacting with unvaccinated individuals from multiple households or in public. They also need to avoid medium- and larger-sized in-person gatherings, to watch out for COVID-19 symptoms and to get tested if they experience COVID-19 symptoms.
Employer protocol modifications
As an employer, how should you modify your workplace protocols to account for this new guidance?
Even if your workplace includes both vaccinated and unvaccinated individuals, you need to maintain all COVID-19 protocols, including masking and distancing. This protects your unvaccinated employees.
If, however, all employees in a particular enclosed workspace have received both vaccinations and no others (customers, vendors, clients, unvaccinated coworkers) enter their workspace, these employees need not wear masks nor stay 6 feet apart, unless a state or local masking mandate exists.
If all employees in a meeting have been vaccinated, they don’t need to wear masks or remain 6 feet apart during the meeting. New OSHA standards are expected soon, and employers need to consult those standards as well as any new state or local rules. Employers may also want to obtain a signed vaccination status acknowledgement from all meeting attendees, along with a waiver related to misrepresentation of vaccination status.
Fully vaccinated employees may eat together.
The CDC advises that all individuals, even those fully vaccinated, not travel. As a result, employers need to minimize required travel and listen and thoughtfully respond to employees who express concerns about required travel.
Because vaccinations don’t offer 100% protection, vaccinated employees can still get COVID-19. If a vaccinated employee develops COVID-19 symptoms following exposure, they need to isolate and may need to work remotely or take leave (potentially under the Families First Coronavirus Response Act if this leave is available and the employer allows it through March 31).
Employees with disabilities or other underlying health conditions that put them at higher risk of a serious illness if they contract COVID-19 may still need a reasonable accommodation such as teleworking.
Employers may adopt stricter protocol than those required by law or recommended by the CDC. The CDC does state that employees need to observe employer protocols. While employees or visitors to a workplace may resist stricter protocols, employers generally can discipline employees who don’t comply with their protocols.
Last week, an employer client called me concerning two employees that had argued all day. That morning, after five employees entered an elevator, two other employees attempted to get on as well. One of the first employees on the elevator scolded the new arrivals. “We can’t stay 6 feet apart if you get on.”
One of the entering employees said, “It’s only a short distance.”
After they arrived on their floor, the back and forth between these two employees continued.
“Your mask isn’t tight.”
“I’m OK with it.”
“Are you vaccinated?”
“I don’t trust the vaccines.”
“You put the rest of us at risk.”
“If you’re vaccinated, you have nothing to worry about.”
“Not if you contract a variant, infect the rest of us, and we take the problem home to our families.”
“How do we handle this?” the employer asked. That employer doesn’t face this challenge alone. A recent Harris Poll reported that 70% of U.S. employees currently working from home believe their employer needs to require all employees get vaccinated before they return to the work site. Nearly one in every four employees (23%) reported they would consider quitting their job if required to go to the office before all coworkers have been vaccinated.
Your employee is correct, I responded. The COVID-19 variants could prove a game-changer. Enforce your safety protocols and handle the rest of it as you would any other workplace skirmish.