Is Maryland Going to be the Next State to Enact COVID-19 Workplace Standards?

Josh SchmandJosh Schmand

Maryland may soon join Virginia and D.C. in establishing COVID-19 workplace safety requirements. The state’s House of Delegates and Senate recently passed the Maryland Essential Workers’ Protection Act, and it is awaiting approval from Governor Larry Hogan (even if Governor Hogan vetoes the Act, the legislature has the votes to override any such veto).

Under the new Act, each essential employer* must take certain actions related to occupational safety and health during an emergency. The requirements cover, not just for the current and ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, but also for any situation in which extensive loss of life or serious disability is threatened imminently because of exposure to a deadly agent (e.g. anthrax, Ebola, radiation, or chemical or biological agent capable of causing extensive loss of life or serious disability).

* Essential employers under the Act are any persons or entities identified by the Governor or a federal agency as critical to remain in operation, who employ essential workers. Essential workers are those individuals who perform work during an emergency that cannot be performed remotely or are required to be completed at the work site, and that the employer determines to be essential or critical to its operation.

More specifically, during an emergency, essential employers must:

  • Provide working conditions that comply with applicable safety standards by the relevant state or federal agencies;
  • Provide necessary safety equipment recommended for usage during the emergency, at no cost to essential workers;
  • Adopt, maintain, and post written protocols to ensure essential workers’ access to the applicable safety standards in effect;
  • Take proactive steps to minimize the risk of transmission, including paying for testing for the communicable disease; and
  • Report test results to the Maryland Department of Health, redacting any personal identifying information to protect the identity of the essential workers.

Essential employers will also be required to provide paid public health emergency leave, if the state or federal government provides funding that can be used for this purpose. Public health emergency leave will be allowed for essential workers to:

  • Isolate if they have been diagnosed with, or are experiencing symptoms of, the communicable disease that is the subject of the emergency;
  • Seek or obtain a medical diagnosis, preventative care, or treatment because they have been diagnosed with or are exhibiting symptoms of the communicable disease that is the subject of the emergency; or
  • Care for a family member who is isolating because of a diagnosis or symptoms of the communicable disease that is the subject of the emergency.

This leave will be in addition to any other leave or benefit, including Earned Sick and Safe Leave (see here for a primer for employers to comply with the Maryland Sick and Safe Leave Act).

Essential employers will be allowed to ask essential workers who use public health emergency leave to provide documentation of the need to use the leave. The Act will not require essential employers to compensate essential workers for unused public health emergency leave when the essential worker leaves employment.

The Act also provides that each essential worker has the right to refuse to perform assigned tasks and may not be discharged or otherwise discriminated against for filing a complaint or exercising rights under the Act.

Given the veto-proof margin of the vote on the Act, Maryland employers should either develop and implement or modify and update their COVID-19 workplace safety policies now to be ready when the Act becomes law.

For more information, contact Josh at 301-347-1273 or jcschmand@lerchearly.com.

Managing Your Employees: What New and Small Businesses Need to Know

Michael NearyMichael Neary

Employment attorney Michael Neary presented to new and small business owners on January 19 about managing their employees. You can watch a recording of the presentation here:

Micheal touched on several important topics, including:

1.  Hiring Process and Accompanying Risks
2.  Registering Employees With the State
3.  Immigration Compliance
4.  Documenting Employment Relationship: Offer Letters, Contracts, Equity Grants
5.  Best Practices for Employer Policies
6.  Wage and Hour Issues – Employee/Independent Contractors
7.  Protecting Your Intellectual Property and Trade Secrets
8.  Workplace Health and Safety – COVID-19
9.  Insurance
10.  Benefits

You can find a copy of their presentation here: https://www.lerchearly.com/events/managing-your-employees-what-new-and-small-businesses-need-to-know

For more information, contact Michael at mjneary@lerchearly.com.

Virginia Is First Again: COVID-19 Workplace Safety Rule Becomes Permanent

Josh SchmandJosh Schmand

This past summer, Virginia became the first state to pass mandatory workplace standards for employers to control, prevent, and mitigate the spread of COVID-19 to and among employees and employers. Those emergency workplace safety standards were temporary and were set to expire later this month, on January 26, 2021. With the expiration date fast approaching, on January 13, 2021, the Virginia Safety and Health Codes Board enacted a new rule, effective January 27, 2021, extending the protections permanently. This new permanent rule, like the temporary emergency one, is the first of its kind in the country.

The requirements in the new permanent rule are mostly the same as before, and you can read more about those safety standards for different jobs (which are based on risk level of exposure), physical distancing mandates, reporting obligations, return to work procedures, training requirements, infectious disease preparedness and response plans, and penalties here and here. Two key changes in the new rule that are worth highlighting deal with employer reporting obligations and return to work procedures:

  • For reporting, previously, the emergency temporary rule required employers to contact the Virginia Department of Health within 24 hours of the discovery of a positive case of COVID-19. In the new permanent rule, the notification requirement was changed so that now employers only need to contact the Virginia Department of Health when their worksite has had two or more confirmed cases of COVID-19 of their own employees present at the place of employment within a 14-day period who have tested positive for COVID-19 during that period.
  • For returning to work, previously, the emergency temporary rule allowed for employees who were known or suspected to be infected with COVID-19 to return to work after 10 days from when the symptoms first appeared or after they received two consecutive negative tests. In the new permanent rule, the testing based strategy for returning to work was eliminated, and only the symptoms based strategy remained. Specifically, symptomatic employees known or suspected to be infected with COVID-19 cannot return to work until the following three conditions have been met: (1) being fever-free (less than 100.0° F) for at least 24 hours, without the use of fever-reducing medications; (2) improvement of respiratory symptoms, such as cough and shortness of breath; and (3) 10 days have passed since the symptoms first appeared. And, employees known to be infected with COVID-19 who never develop signs or symptoms are excluded from returning to work until 10 days after the date of their first positive RT-PCR test.

Despite significant opposition to the new permanent rule, ultimately the Virginia Safety and Health Codes Board determined that the continuation of the workplace safety standards were still needed to prevent further COVID-19 outbreaks, including among workers who will choose not to be vaccinated once they are eligible. A discussion on employers considering mandatory COVID-19 vaccine policies can be found here.

While the new Rule is “permanent,” within 14 days after Governor Ralph Northam declares an end to the Commonwealth’s COVID-19 State of Emergency, the Virginia Safety and Health Codes Board will have to notice a meeting (not actually have the meeting) to determine whether there is a continued need for the workplace safety standards.

Since Virginia’s workplace safety standards are not going anywhere soon, employers who have not already done so need to develop policies and procedures for employees to report COVID-19 symptoms and subsequently return to work, as well as implement training presentations and written infectious disease preparedness and response plan. And for those employers who previously brought their policies, practices, and procedures into compliance with the emergency temporary requirements, they now have to review and revise them to ensure compliance with the new rule.

For more information, contact Josh at 301-347-1273 or jcschmand@lerchearly.com.

Avoid Liability with Express Disclaimers in Employee Manuals and Handbooks

Josh SchmandJosh Schmand

Last month, in Sanchez v. Whole Foods Mkt. Grp., Inc., the United States District Court for the District of Maryland reaffirmed the general rule that express disclaimers in employee manuals and handbooks will protect employers from creating unintended implied contracts under Maryland law.

This is a good reminder of the importance of including clear and conspicuous disclaimers, even as simple and overt as “this manual is not a contract,” because absent such language employee manuals and handbooks can create contractual obligations for employers.

Employee manual was not a contract under Maryland law

Employees supervised by Ms. Sanchez complained about her managerial style. They alleged that she touched employees inappropriately and that she intimidated and harassed them. Whole Foods placed Ms. Sanchez on administrative leave, investigated the allegations, concluded that she was not meeting the expectations of her role, and presented her with a Final Written Warning for “repeated inappropriate behavior.” Her offense constituted a “major infraction” under the employee manual.

After resuming her job, Whole Foods gave Ms. Sanchez an action plan for improving conditions within the team and performance in general. However, Ms. Sanchez failed to achieve the objectives set forth in the plan, and Whole Foods terminated her employment. In turn, Ms. Sanchez filed a lawsuit alleging, among other claims, that Whole Foods breached its contractual obligations arising from its employee handbook. Specifically, Ms. Sanchez argued that Whole Foods failed to follow its own progressive discipline policy contained in the employee handbook and that she was terminated without verbal counseling, written reprimand, or a legitimate final warning.

Whole Foods argued in response that the employee handbook that Ms. Sanchez relied on repeatedly states that employees are employed at-will and that the employee handbook creates no contractual rights or obligations. And, Whole Foods highlighted that it had its employees, including Ms. Sanchez, sign a similar disclaimer every time a policy in the employee handbook was updated. The Court agreed with Whole Foods (and the United States District Court for the District of Columbia’s similar 2018 opinion) that, based on the repeated express disclaimers, the employee handbook was not a contract under Maryland law.

Progressive discipline policies allow employers to use their discretion

Even though the Court found that no contract existed based on the employee manual, it addressed Ms. Sanchez’s other arguments. In response to one of Ms. Sanchez’s arguments, that Whole Foods’ corrective action policy contained in the employee handbook required progressive discipline before employees can be terminated, the Court noted that the policy gave Whole Foods the discretion and flexibility to use differing disciplinary procedures and to terminate employees without prior notice. The corrective policy defined different types of infractions, and carved out situations where counseling and warnings were not required.

Takeaways

Besides ensuring that their employee manuals and handbooks actually have an express disclaimer that nothing contained therein creates any contractual rights or obligations, employers should also:

  • Place an express disclaimer on the first page (or in the preface or introduction) to indicate that it applies to the employee manual or handbook;
  • Repeat the express disclaimer throughout the employee manual or handbook;
  • Make sure that the express disclaimer is prominently highlighted; and
  • Have employees sign and acknowledge the express disclaimer.

Because of the recent updates to Maryland’s employment laws (discussed throughout Employment Edge), now is the perfect time for employers to review their employee manuals and handbooks for the appropriate disclaimer language needed to avoid potential contractual liability.

For more information, contact Josh at 301-347-1273 or jcschmand@lerchearly.com.