After months of at-home work for non-essential employees, companies are starting to bring at least some employees back to the office. Starting this week, Microsoft, Uber, and Facebook are allowing people the option to return to the office, although they are continuing to be flexible. A hybrid approach, at this point, is the suggested choice to slowly reopen offices while continuing to protect employees and the community and supporting employees who may need to continue to work from home because of childcare, not yet being vaccinated, or other concerns.
With COVID-19 vaccinations climbing, many people are wondering if they should still wear masks and companies are asking if they can and should require employees and visitors to wear masks.
Can Employers Require Masks?
The short answer is yes. You can continue to require masks for both employees and visitors for the time being. Mask policies protect employees and visitors.
There are, however, exemptions for:
- Employees who cannot wear a mask for medical reasons can be exempted. They should be encouraged to continue to work from home until the office is fully open.
- Employees whose jobs would be interfered with by wearing a mask.
- Employees who would face a safety hazard, such as a mask potentially getting caught in machinery.
- People who are in their office alone with the door closed, who should put their mask back on when passing through communal areas.
When it comes to removing masks to eat, employees should be encouraged to eat in their office with the door closed, in another available space with the door closed (such as an unused huddle room, meditation room, breastfeeding room, etc.) or, weather permitting, to take their food outside. Break rooms should remain closed or follow strict occupancy guidelines and institutionalize socially-distanced seating with blocked off seats and decals to reduce the likelihood of spreading illnesses. If possible, open windows or HEPA filters can also help reduce risk.
For visitors, it is recommended that you provide a supply of disposable surgical masks for anyone who forgot theirs, so that people who have made a long trip are not turned away. These could also be available to employees if they have an issue with their mask (such as if they spill something on a cloth mask).
What If Someone Has Already Been Vaccinated?
It would be nice to say that once you have been vaccinated, you don't need to mask up. However, the science is still uncertain on the transmission risk of vaccinated people. According to the CDC, "We're still learning how vaccines will affect the spread of COVID-19. After you've been fully vaccinated against COVID-19, you should keep taking precautions in public places like wearing a mask, staying 6 feet apart from others, and avoiding crowds and poorly ventilated spaces until we know more." While there is growing evidence that being vaccinated significantly reduces the risk of asymptomatic infection and, thus, onward transmission, it is still not a guarantee and while community cases remain high, OSHA expects people to continue to wear masks.
Additionally, while exempting vaccinated employees from masks might encourage vaccination, having some people not wearing masks reduces adherence for everyone.
What Should Employers Do?
Employers should continue to enforce a mask policy at the work site for both employees and visitors (and don't forget subcontractors such as janitorial services) until the pandemic is declared over.
HR needs to clearly communicate the policy, and the reasons for it, and review it appropriately as the science changes. The policy should also cover social distancing, frequent hand washing, and encouraging employees with symptoms to stay home. Providing the ongoing ability to work from home for people with symptoms of mild illness may be a good idea even long after the pandemic is over.
Right now, everyone wants the pandemic to be over. Pandemic fatigue has set in and is contributing to cases plateauing at a high level and even ticking upwards even as millions are vaccinated. But according to Johnny C. Taylor Jr., CEO of the Society for Human Resources Management, employers are obligated to maintain a reasonably safe workplace for all employees. This makes policies and procedures that support employee safety – whether it's social distancing or wearing a mask – critical for protecting and promoting worker health and safety." This means continuing to apply reasonable, science-based health and safety policy until things truly start to return to normal.
For more information on getting employees and visitors safely back to work, get "The Essential Guide to Preparing Workplaces for COVID-19."