The District of Columbia’s New COVID-19 Workplace Safety Requirements

Josh SchmandJosh Schmand

This month, in a continued effort to protect workers in the District of Columbia and to prevent the spread of COVID-19, the D.C. Council passed the Workplace Safety During the COVID-19 Pandemic Emergency Declaration Resolution of 2021. The Workplace Safety Resolution repeals, updates, and expands the previous Protecting Businesses and Workers from COVID-19 Temporary Amendment Act of 2020 and the Protecting Businesses and Workers from COVID-19 Congressional Review Emergency Amendment Act of 2021.

Employer Policy Requirements

Previously, employers in the District had to comply with the Mayor’s mask orders, but not other orders pertinent and critical to workplace safety that address social distancing, personal protective equipment (PPE), or other such measures. Effective immediately, the Workplace Safety Resolution requires D.C. employers to adopt and implement social distancing and workplace protection policies to prevent the transmission of COVID-19 in the workplace.

While “workplace” means any physical structure or space where an employee performs work, it does not include the home or other location where an employee teleworks that is not subject to the employer’s control. For the Workplace Safety Resolution to apply, the employer must maintain control of the physical structure or space.

The Mayor may publish a notice of the relevant portions of the Workplace Safety Resolution, and if/when that happens, employers will have to post the notice in a conspicuous location in the workplace in English and any other language spoken by at least 10% of employees.

Employer Reporting Requirements

D.C.’s Workplace Safety Resolution requires employers to report instances of their employees contracting COVID-19 in the course of and within the scope of their employment, or whose contact with others in the course of and within the scope of their employment makes the contracting of COVID-19 probable, to the Mayor. Reports can be made here, and additional guidance on when to report can be found here.

Employers in D.C. may require their employees to report a positive test for COVID-19, but the Workplace Safety Resolution prohibits employers from disclosing the identity of their employees who test positive, except to the Department of Health (DOH) or as otherwise required by law.

Additionally, employers must cooperate with contact tracers, including by providing information about employees who were in close proximity to infected employees and by providing customer lists and contact information as requested.

Employee Protections

The Workplace Safety Resolution prohibits employers from retaliating or taking adverse employment actions against employees for:

  • Complying, or attempting to comply, with the requirements of a Mayor’s Order related to the public health emergency;
  • Reasonably attempting to prevent or stop a violation of a Mayor’s Order related to the public health emergency;
  • Submitting a complaint to the Mayor or the Attorney General about a violation of the Workplace Safety Resolution;
  • Raising reasonable concerns about workplace health and safety practices related to COVID-19; or
  • Testing positive for COVID-19, having close contact with someone with COVID-19 or experiencing symptoms, needing to quarantine in accordance with DOH or U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) guidance, experiencing COVID-19 symptoms and awaiting a test result, or caring for someone who is sick with COVID-19 symptoms, provided that the employee did not physically report to the workplace within appropriate timeframe recommended by current DOH or CDC guidance.

Prohibited adverse employment actions include a threat, verbal warning, written warning, reduction of work hours, suspension, termination, discharge, demotion, harassment, material change in the terms or conditions of the employee’s employment, or any other action that is reasonably likely to deter the employee from receiving the protections of the Workplace Safety Resolution.

Additionally, employers may not prohibit or discourage employees from using PPE or require employees to sign an agreement or comply with a workplace policy that would limit or prevent their right to disclose information about the employer’s workplace health or safety practices or hazards related to COVID-19.

Enforcement and Penalties

Both D.C.’s Mayor and Attorney General may receive and investigate complaints against employers who violate the Workplace Safety Resolution, to institute administrative or civil actions on behalf of the District against employers, and assess civil penalties. The Mayor’s office may post on the District’s Coronavirus website the name of each business for which a violation was found and a statement of the penalty imposed.

The Mayor may impose civil fines up to $1,000 per violation per employee per day for each violation of the policy and reporting requirements, and up to $2,000 per violation of the prohibited retaliation protections. The Attorney General, upon prevailing in an action against an employer, may recover up to the maximum amount of the civil fines for such violation, as well as (1) attorneys’ fees and costs, (2) restitution for lost wages, for the benefit of the aggrieved employees, and (3) other equitable relief as is necessary and appropriate.

In addition to the Mayor and the Attorney General, the Workplace Safety Resolution creates a private cause of action for violations of the prohibited retaliation protections. This means that employees may bring their own lawsuit against their employer, and, if successful, will be entitled to recover (1) attorneys’ fees and costs, (2) restitution for lost wages, (3) other equitable relief as is appropriate, and (4) punitive damages, if the employer acted with wanton or reckless disregard for the safety of the affected employee. And, unlike other employee claims against employers, under the Workplace Safety Resolution, employees need not exhaust administrative remedies before bringing suit.

PPE, Unemployment, and Workers’ Compensation

The Workplace Safety Resolution also addresses employer eligibility for grants for purchase or reimbursement of PPE, authorizes unemployment compensation for employees who voluntarily leave work due to an unsafe workplace condition, and extends workers’ compensation coverage to employees who contract COVID-19 in the course of and within the scope of their employment.

Takeaways

Employers in D.C. that have not already developed and implemented COVID-19 workplace protection policies need to do so without further delay. And, for those employers who already brought their policies, practices, and procedures into compliance with the prior workplace safety Acts, they now have to review and revise them to ensure compliance with the new Workplace Safety Resolution.

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

Vaccines Eliminate Need To Quarantine For Period Of Time According To CDC

Michael NearyMichael Neary

The big news of the week for employers did not come out of the Department of Labor or Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. Instead, it came out of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (“CDC”). After much discussion and speculation in the public health community, CDC announced that asymptomatic fully vaccinated individuals need not quarantine after a subsequent COVID-19 exposure within three months of full vaccination. The CDC guidance is available here.

We all hope the time after full vaccination where an individual need not quarantine following a COVID-19 exposure will extend further if the protection from the vaccine is shown to last longer than three months.

The ramifications of this decision for employers cannot be overstated. Had CDC come down the other way, there was literally no end in sight to the social distancing measures employers have been diligently following in the workplace since the pandemic started. Part of the reason employers follow social distancing is to minimize spread. But another big reason for social distancing within workplaces is to avoid quarantining large segments of employees if one of them contracts COVID. That is because most people within six feet of a confirmed COVID positive individual for 15 minutes or more are subject to a government-mandated quarantine. CDC’s new guidance means that a vaccinated employee can continue to work even if there is a close contact exposure. Given the CDC guidance, the risk of having to quarantine large groups of employees for an exposure will fall as more of the workforce is vaccinated.

Employers should update their own quarantine policies to align with CDC’s updated guidance. And employers should institute robust programs educating employees about the COVID-19 vaccine and encouraging employees to get the vaccine when it is available to increase the number of employees vaccinated. Doing so not only protects your workforce, it also, given the new CDC guidance, minimizes the disruption a confirmed COVID positive case will have on your day-to-day operations.

For more information, contact Michael at 301-657-0740 or 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.

Families First Coronavirus Response Act Tax Credit Extension in 2021

Nida KanwalNida Kanwal

The Families First Coronavirus Response Act (FFCRA) sunsetted on December 31, 2020, but some provisions remain active.

On Sunday, December 27, 2020, former President Donald Trump signed a bipartisan pandemic relief bill into law. Because the leave provisions of the FFCRA were not extended employers were no longer required to provide leave under the FFCRA in 2021.

However, as part of this relief package the tax credit for FFCRA leave, which reimburses employers for FFCRA leave taken by employees, was extended through March 31, 2021. Therefore employers who voluntarily choose to provide employees with FFCRA leave may do so until March 31, 2021 and receive tax credit for the leave. Of course, employers may instead choose to adopt their own policies to grant paid or unpaid leave for COVID-related purposes or simply allow employees to use their existing leave.

If employers do choose to provide FFCRA through March 31, 2021 they should be aware that employees are not granted FFCRA leave in addition to what they received in 2020. Thus if an employee has exhausted 80 hours of paid sick leave and 12 weeks of expanded family medical leave in 2020 they will not receive additional leave in 2021. Moreover, there are no changes to eligibility, purposes of leave, caps on usage, or documentation requirements.

Lastly, state or local laws may impose additional requirements for COVID-19 related leave and employers are advised to ensure that they act in compliance with any applicable laws.

For more information, contact Nida at 301-657-0744 or nkanwal@lerchearly.com.

D.C. Passes Ban on Non-Compete Agreements

Josh SchmandJosh Schmand

On December 15, 2020, the District of Columbia Council unanimously passed the Ban On Non-compete Agreements Amendment Act Of 2020. The Act generally prohibits the use of non-compete provisions in employment agreements and workplace policies. The Act will soon become law as D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser is likely to sign the Act and Congress is unlikely to pass a joint resolution of disapproval.

The ban on non-competes in the Act will apply to all employers in the District and nearly any employee working in the District regardless of how much they are earning. Employers will also have to provide written notice of the Act to all of their employees.

What is a non-compete agreement?

Under the Act, a “non-compete provision” is a written agreement between an employer operating in the District and any individual who performs work (or who an employer reasonably anticipates will perform work) in the District that prohibits the individual from: (1) being simultaneously or subsequently employed by another person, (2) performing work or providing services for pay for another person, or (3) operating the individual’s own business.

The Act does not apply to otherwise lawful provisions that restrict an individual from disclosing their employer’s confidential, proprietary, or sensitive information, client list, customer list, or trade secrets. The Act also does not apply to otherwise lawful provisions contained within or executed contemporaneously with an agreement between the buyer and seller of a business where the seller agrees not to compete with the buyer’s business.

The Act does not address solicitation of employees or customers, so employers should review non-solicitation agreements with counsel to ensure compliance.

What does the Act prohibit?

Under the Act, no employer in the District of Columbia may require or request that an employee performing work in the District (or who an employer reasonably anticipates will perform such work) sign an agreement that includes a non-compete provision. Additionally, no employer in D.C. may have a workplace policy that similarly prohibits an employee from: (1) being employed by another person, (2) performing work or providing services for pay for another person, or (3) operating the individual’s own business. Any such agreements entered into after the Act becomes law will be void and unenforceable in court.

The Act also prohibits employers from retaliating (or threatening to retaliate) against employees for: (1) refusing to agree to a non-compete provision, (2) failing to comply with a non-compete provision or workplace policy made unlawful by the Act, (3) asking, informing, or complaining to an employer, a coworker, a lawyer, or governmental entity about the existence, applicability, or validity of a non-compete provision or a workplace policy that the employee reasonably believes is prohibited by the Act, or (4) requesting information that the Act requires be provided from an employer.

Are there any exceptions?

The ban on non-competes in the Act do not apply to:

  1. The District of Columbia government or the United States government;
  2. Volunteers engaging in the activities of an educational, charitable, religious, or nonprofit organization;
  3. Lay members elected or appointed to office within the discipline of any religious organization and engaged in religious functions;
  4. Individuals employed as a casual babysitter in the residence of their employer; and
  5. Licensed physicians that perform work on behalf of an employer engaged primarily in the delivery of medical services earning at least $250,000 per year.*

* Employers seeking to have medical specialists sign a non-compete agreement must provide the document to the employee for review at least 14 days before executing the agreement along with written notice of the Act.

Are there notice requirements?

Employers must provide their employees with the following text: “No employer operating in the District of Columbia may request or require any employee working in the District of Columbia to agree to a non-compete policy or agreement, in accordance with the Ban on Non-Compete Agreements Amendment Act of 2020.”

Employers must provide existing employees with this notice, in writing, within 90 days after the Act becomes law. Going forward, employers have seven days after an individual becomes an employee to provide the required written notice. And, employers have 14 days to provide the notice in response to a written request from an employee.

What are the penalties?

In addition to having a non-compete provision becoming void and unenforceable in court, employees who are asked to sign a non-compete agreement banned by the Act or who suffer retaliation from an employer for activities prohibited by the Act may file a complaint with the Mayor or take action in civil court.

The Mayor may assess administrative penalties of $350 to $1,000 for each violation, except that penalties for retaliation against employees shall be greater than $1,000. The Mayor and the Office of the Attorney General (OAG) may also require employers to submit records showing compliance with the Act upon demand at any reasonable time.

Employers that violate the Act shall be liable for relief payable to each employee of $500 to $1,000 for each violation, and at least $3,000 to each employee for subsequent violations. But, employers that attempt to enforce newly void or unenforceable non-compete provisions shall be liable for relief payable to each employee of at least $1,500, and at least $3,000 to each employee for subsequent violations. And, employers that retaliate against employees in violation of the Act shall be liable for relief payable to each employee of $1,000 to $2,500 for each violation, and at least $3,000 to each employee for subsequent violations.

How does the Act compare to Maryland and Virginia’s restrictions?

The original proposal of the legislation introduced in October 2019 prohibited the use of non-compete agreements for employees whose rate of pay was less than or equal to three times the minimum wage, similar to the restrictions in neighboring Virginia and Maryland, which have prohibited non-compete agreements for certain “low” wage earners. However, as discussed above, if the Act becomes law, it will expand the ban to nearly any employee in the District and become one of the Nation’s strictest laws concerning bans on non-compete agreements.

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

EEOC Issues Guidance For Employers Considering Mandatory COVID-19 Vaccine Policies

Michael NearyMichael Neary

On December 16, 2020, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (“EEOC”) updated its COVID-19 guidance to address how a COVID-19 vaccine interacts with the equal employment opportunity laws enforced by EEOC. We are likely months away from pharmaceutical companies making the vaccine generally available to the public. But the EEOC guidance is a good resource for employers thinking through whether to institute a mandatory COVID-19 vaccine policy when that day comes.

EEOC Provides a Framework for Mandatory Vaccine Programs

There are three key takeaways from the guidance. First, a policy mandating that employees receive the COVID-19 vaccine is possible provided disability and religious accommodation requests are carefully evaluated. Second, the pre-screening questions that must be asked before a vaccine is administered will likely compel many employers considering a mandatory program to institute a voluntary one instead or to require employees to receive the vaccine elsewhere. Finally, the COVID-19 situation in the country may change dramatically by the time a vaccine is widely available, which could substantially alter EEOC’s guidance. Employers should consider the guidance as they plan but continue to monitor the issue before finalizing any vaccine policies.

EEOC Answers Common Questions Employers Are Asking About Whether To Mandate A Vaccine

The updated EEOC guidance answers a series of questions related to how a mandatory vaccine policy interacts with equal employment opportunity laws. Below is a summary of the questions and answers provided by EEOC.

  • Is an employer administering a COVID-19 vaccine, directly or through a vendor hired by the employer, performing a medical examination under the Americans with Disabilities Act (“ADA”)?
    • Answer: No, with a catch. A medical examination under the ADA is a “a procedure or test usually given by a health care professional or in a medical setting that seeks information about an individual’s physical or mental impairments or health.” While administering the vaccine is not a medical test, pre-screening questions would likely uncover underlying physical impairments and constitute a medical examination under the ADA. Under the ADA, employers can perform medical examinations only if they are “job-related and consistent with business necessity.” To meet this standard, employers would need a reasonable basis, based on objective evidence, to conclude an employee that does not receive the vaccine because of a refusal to answer the pre-screening questions poses a direct threat to the health or safety of the employee or others. COVID-19 conditions on the ground at the time of the mandatory program would dictate whether an employer could meet this standard.
    • The EEOC guidance identifies two ways around this issue. First, an employer could make the program voluntary instead of mandatory. The pre-screening questions do not need to satisfy the job-related and consistent with business necessity standard if the vaccine program is truly voluntary. Second, an employer could mandate employees receive the vaccine from third parties not connected to the employer. Under such a framework, since the third party would ask the pre-screening questions and not the employer, the employer need not satisfy the job-related and consistent with business necessity standard of the ADA. An employer may require an employee to provide proof of having received the vaccine without implicating the ADA so long as the employer makes clear the proof should not disclose underlying physical or mental impairments.
  • If an employer institutes a mandatory vaccine policy, how must it respond if an employee refuses because of a disability?
    • Answer: The employer must perform an individualized assessment under the ADA to determine whether the unvaccinated employee poses a direct threat to the workplace because of a “significant risk of substantial harm to the health or safety of the individual or others that cannot be eliminated or reduced by reasonable accommodation.” In analyzing this question, four factors should be considered: (1) the duration of the risk; (2) the nature and severity of the potential harm; (3) the likelihood that the potential harm will occur; and (4) the imminence of the potential harm. Assuming a direct threat is found, the employer could only exclude the employee if “there is no way to provide a reasonable accommodation (absent undue hardship) that would eliminate or reduce this risk so the unvaccinated employee does not pose a direct threat.” If an employer finds that there is no way to provide a reasonable accommodation, the employer can bar the employee from the workplace but cannot necessarily terminate. Before terminating, the employer would need to determine whether other accommodations are available. Potential accommodations to consider are remote work, paid leave, or an unpaid leave of absence.
  • If an employer institutes a mandatory vaccine policy, how must it respond if an employee refuses because of a sincerely held religious belief?
    • Answer: The employer should assume the religious belief is sincerely held and provide a reasonable accommodation to its mandatory vaccine program for the religious belief, practice, or observance unless it would pose an undue hardship under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act. The undue hardship analysis under Title VII asks whether the accommodation has more than a de minimis cost or burden on the employer. In rare circumstances, an employer having an objective basis to question the nature of the religious belief or the employee’s sincerity in that belief can ask for further information. If the employer cannot provide an accommodation because of undue burden, it can bar the employee from the workplace, but must consider whether alternative accommodations would allow the employee to remain employed without entering the workplace.
  • Is the Genetic Information Nondiscrimination Act (“GINA”) implicated when an employer administers a COVID-19 vaccine to employees or requires employees to provide proof that they have received a COVID-19 vaccination?
    • Answer: No, with a catch. Title II of GINA prohibits employers from (1) using genetic information to make decisions related to the terms, conditions, and privileges of employment; (2) acquiring genetic information except in six narrow circumstances, or (3) disclosing genetic information except in six narrow circumstances. Administering the vaccine or requiring proof that an employee received one does not implicate GINA because neither involves “the use of genetic information to make employment decisions, or the acquisition or disclosure of genetic information as defined by the statute.”
    • The pre-screening questions, however, may implicate GINA. The pre-screening questions for a publicly available COVID-19 vaccine are not clear. If those questions ask for any of the following they would implicate GINA:
      • Information about an individual’s genetic tests;
      • Information about the genetic tests of a family member;
      • Information about the manifestation of disease or disorder in a family member (i.e., family medical history);
      • Information about requests for, or receipt of, genetic services or the participation in clinical research that includes genetic services by the an individual or a family member of the individual; and
      • Genetic information about a fetus carried by an individual or family member or of an embryo legally held by an individual or family member using assisted reproductive technology.
    • If the pre-screening questions ask for this information, EEOC advises it would be wise for employers implementing a mandatory program not to administer the vaccine directly or through a third-party vendor but to require employers to obtain the vaccine elsewhere. When asking for proof of vaccination, the employer should make clear employees are not to provide GINA related information. Such a warning protects an employer from liability if the employee provides GINA protected information along with any proof of vaccine receipt.

For more information, contact Michael at 301-657-0740 or mjneary@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.

Montgomery County Council Enacts Legislation Amending the County’s Ban the Box Law

Michael NearyMichael Neary

Well that happened fast. As discussed in my prior article, the Montgomery County Council was considering a bill to amend the County’s Ban the Box law first introduced in late July. Since mid-September, the Council was awaiting a report on the merits of the bill from the Health & Human Services and Public Safety Committees. The Council received that report on November 10 and promptly voted to pass the bill the same day. The County Executive signed the bill quickly thereafter on November 20. The amendments to the County’s Ban the Box law become effective on February 19, 2021.

The sole change to the draft bill recommended by the two committees was to prohibit employers from considering a conviction for a first offense of misdemeanor Second Degree Assault instead of the prior language prohibiting employers from considering a misdemeanor or felony Second Degree Assault conviction when making employment decisions.

During the November 10, 2020 hearing on the bill, two further changes to the draft legislation were approved by the Council. First, Council Member Jawando moved to amend the bill so that it would apply to any employer with one employee, even if part-time, in the County. Previously, the bill stated it applied if an employer had one full-time employee in the County. This amendment passed 9-0. Second, Council Member Albornoz moved to remove entirely a first conviction of Second Degree Assault from the list of offenses that an employer can never ask about. The expressed rationale behind this amendment was that a misdemeanor Second Degree Assault conviction often arises from a domestic violence offense. Council Member Albornoz’s amendment to the bill passed 5-4. The Council then voted to pass the amended bill 9-0.

As such, once the bill becomes effective, any employer employing one individual, even if part-time, in the County will have to comply with the mandates of the Ban the Box law. All such employers will have to wait until after the employer makes a conditional offer of employment before asking about criminal histories or running criminal background checks. Further, employers can no longer ask about or consider the following criminal offenses:

  1. Any arrest records that did not lead to a conviction;
  2. A first conviction for:
    a. Trespass; or
    b. Disturbing the peace.
  3. A conviction for a misdemeanor if at least three years have passed since:
    a. The date of conviction; and
    b. The date any period of incarceration for the misdemeanor has ended;
  4. Juvenile records deemed confidential by statute; or
  5. Convictions that have been expunged.

Employers also cannot inquire about these offenses when considering current employees for promotions.

The legislation delegates to the County Executive responsibility for preparing implementing regulations and regulations necessary to notify employees and employers of their rights and responsibilities under the legislation.

Employers in Montgomery County should act now to update their hiring processes to ensure compliance with the amendments to the County’s Ban the Box law before they go into effect on February 19, 2021.

For more information, contact Michael at 301-657-0740 or mjneary@lerchearly.com.

Voluntary Acceptance of a Transfer May Waive Employees’ Claims in Maryland and Virginia

Recognition of “Constructive Demotion” Claims Seems Imminent.

Lauri ClearyLauri Cleary

In October, the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals confirmed in Laird v. Fairfax County, Virginia, that an employee voluntarily accepting a lateral transfer to another position (there, to settle a disability discrimination claim) may not be able to establish discrimination or retaliation just because the new job is not all she had hoped.

To make out a viable claim, the employee must suffer an “adverse employment action” such that the transfer resulted in “a significant detriment” to the employee. Whether an employee’s dissatisfaction rises to the level of “significant detriment” is a factual issue determined on a case-by-case basis.

A transfer must cause a “significant detriment” to be actionable

After working in the new position for some months, Ms. Laird came to believe she had been demoted. She found her new position “boring” and to be a “thinkless job, just data entry,” and hurt her potential for future promotion.

She sued the County for discrimination and retaliation under the Americans with Disabilities Act. The federal trial judge in Alexandria entered judgment against her, finding her disappointment, however genuine, was not significant enough to establish a significant detriment.

After reviewing all facts anew, the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals agreed. Offering no real guidance on what establishes a “significant detriment,” the Court of Appeals discussed what does not. In her new job, Ms. Laird received the same compensation, asked for and received changes to the new title and duties, and received additional accommodations of her disability.

The Court noted near the end of its opinion that she had abandoned her argument that intolerable discriminatory conditions in her original job had compelled her to accept a transfer—in essence that she was forced to accept a demotion. Having waived that argument, she could no longer claim that the transfer itself had been discriminatory or retaliatory.

A transfer that is not “voluntary” may be a “constructive demotion”

Had she not abandoned her “constructive demotion” argument, Ms. Laird may have prevailed by claiming acceptance of the transfer had not been “voluntary.”

The majority did not address that potential, but a member of the three-judge panel did in a concurrence. Observing that the DC Circuit (and every other circuit court of appeals to address the issue) has recognized constructive demotion claims, and noting that this circuit already has recognized claims for “constructive discharge” (for employee left with no option but to resign), the concurrence concluded: “Logic dictates that if a demotion can constitute a constructive discharge, then a constructive demotion can similarly constitute a constructive demotion.”

Thus, as in DC, an employee who can allege a work experience so intolerable as to leave no option but to accept a transfer likely will have a viable claim for constructive demotion claim in MD and VA.

Employer takeaways

Making a lateral transfer of a (current or potential) disability claimant to settle claims of discrimination and/or retaliation may not be an easy panacea. The transfer must be both “voluntary” and it not trade one “significant detriment” (discrimination or retaliation) for another (a significantly inferior position).

For more information, contact Lauri at 301-657-0176 or lecleary@lerchearly.com.

COVID-19 in the Workplace – Employer Recording and Reporting Requirements

Employers may have obligations to record and report cases of COVID-19 in the workplace.

Nida KanwalNida Kanwal

Recording Requirement

The Occupational Safety and Health Administration’s (OSHA) revised enforcement memorandum provides that under OSHA’s recordkeeping requirements, COVID-19 is a recordable illness, and thus employers are responsible for recording cases of COVID-19, if:

  1. The case is a confirmed case of COVID-19;
  2. The case is work-related*; and
  3. The case involves one or more general recording criteria*.

*An illness is work-related if an event or exposure in the work environment either causes or contributes to a condition or significantly aggravates a pre-existing illness. This is presumed for illnesses or injuries resulting from events or exposures occurring in the work environment unless one of the narrow exceptions in federal regulations apply.

*The general recording criteria includes conditions in which the illness or injury results in either: death, absences from work, restricted work or transfer to another position, medical treatment (beyond first aid), or loss of consciousness. If one of these conditions is not met, an employer must also consider a case to meet the general recording criteria if it involves a significant illness or injury diagnosed by a physician or other licensed health care professional.

There are three forms for employers to fill out under the recording requirement—this includes an injury and illness incident report (Form 301), a log (Form 300), and a summary (Form 300A).

Notably, OSHA has indicated that it is exercising enforcement discretion regarding work-relatedness in the context of employee COVID-19 illness. OSHA acknowledges that because of the “nature of the disease and ubiquity of community spread, in many instances it remains difficult to determine whether a COVID illness is work-related, especially when an employee has experienced potential exposure both in and out of the workplace.” Therefore, recording a COVID-19 illness does not necessarily mean that the employer violated an OSHA standard.

Additionally, pursuant to existing regulations, employers with 10 or less employees as well as employers in low hazard industries do not have recording obligations; instead, they are only required to report work-related COVID-19 illnesses that result in a fatality or an employee’s in-patient hospitalization, amputation, or loss of an eye. A complete list of the industries which are exempt from OSHA’s recording requirements can be found here.

Importantly, as stated above, even if an employer is exempt from OSHA’s recording requirements it must still determine work-relatedness for purposes of OSHA’s reporting requirements for any employees who received in-patient hospitalization treatment due to COVID-19.

Additional Guidance

In determining whether an employer has complied with this obligation and made a reasonable good faith determination of work-relatedness, Compliance Safety and Health Officers (CSHO) should apply the following considerations:

  • The reasonableness of the investigation. Employers are not required to undertake extensive medical inquiries. It is typically sufficient for an employer to use the following steps when learning of an employee’s COVID-19 illness: (1) ask the employee how he believes he contracted COVID-19; (2) ask the employee about his activities in and out of work that may have led to the COVID-19 illness (while being mindful of employee privacy); and (3) review the his work environment for potential exposure (taking into consideration other employees who contracted the illness in that environment).
  • The evidence available. Evidence of work-relatedness includes what was reasonably available to the employer at the time it made its work-relatedness determination. If the employer later learns additional information, then that information should be considered to determine whether the employer made a reasonable work-relatedness determination.
  • The evidence that COVID-19 was contracted at work. Certain evidence makes it more or less likely that the illness work-relatedness. For example:
    • More likely work-related when several cases develop among workers who work closely together and there is no other explanation.
    • More likely work-related when the employee contracted the illness after close contact with a customer or colleague who had a confirmed case of COVID-19 and there is no other explanation.
    • More likely work-related when an employee’s position involves close contact with members of the general public in a locality with ongoing community transmission and there is no other explanation.
    • Not likely work-related if employee is the only one to contract the illness in his work area and his position does not involve close contact with the general public, regardless of the rate of community spread.
    • Not likely work-related if, outside of the workplace, the employee was exposed to COVID-19.
    • CSHOs are also advised to give consideration to evidence of causation from medical providers, public health authorities, or the employee himself.

After the inquiry, if an employer cannot determine whether it is more likely than not that an exposure in the workplace played a causal role in a case of COVID-19, then the employer does not need to record that illness.

Reporting Requirements

Once employers determine whether COVID cases are work-related, employers must report any incidents of in-patient hospitalization treatment (as opposed to only observation or testing) which occurred within 24 hours of the exposure at work. See OSHA’s FAQ.

Employers may report COVID-19 related fatalities or in-patient hospitalization by calling the nearest OSHA office, calling the OSHA 24-hour hotline at 1-800-321-OSHA (6742), or by online submission. There may also be additional reporting requirements under state or local law.

For more information, contact Nida at 301-657-0744 or nkanwal@lerchearly.com.