On January 22, 2020 — well before most of us understood what was happening — I wrote a post I titled “With New Coronavirus, Making Your Workplace Ready for a Pandemic: What Employers Need To Know.”
By March 12, 2020, I drafted a never-published post that was part-surreal and part-macabre. I asked “What’s Next?” and posited that we are likely to go through some “tough times” — “times that I’ve never lived through”. I decided not to post it because it seemed too dark and frankly I was too busy to finish it.
Well we all know now what was next.
Now, three years and three-plus months later, the COVID-19 pandemic is being declared over as the World Health Organization on Friday said that COVID-19 no longer qualifies as a “global emergency”.
Which is weird for me because I’ve felt it was over since last August. Two things happened around then: First, I finally contracted COVID-19 (I was fine beyond losing my sense of smell for a week or two). And second, the almost daily calls from employers started to slow down considerably.
Until then, it always felt like COVID-19 was something to at first fear, and then worry about. In the early months of the pandemic, I recall wiping down groceries and setting a big container of hand sanitizer by our door. Then, as the pandemic wore on, we wore masks; religiously at first and then sporadically as time went on.
From an employment law perspective, the pandemic has been winding down as well. Employers that had mandatory mask policies started to drop them. Then those that have had mandatory vaccination policies quietly started to pull back on some of them or graciously offer exceptions.
Now over the past week, the federal government has dropped the mandatory vaccination rules in place for health care workers and some federal workers as well.
Even the EEOC guidance has been modified over time. For example, at the start of the pandemic, the EEOC said that the ADA standard for conducting medical examinations was always met for employers to conduct worksite COVID testing. But in July 2022, the EEOC modified that to suggest that employers needed to conduct an individualized assessment as to whether such testing was warranted.
So what’s going to change now? Not as much as you might think since most of the COVID-related restrictions have long since expired. Still, employers that wish to mandate vaccinations can still do so (subject to reasonable accommodations for ADA and religious beliefs).
But many employers have already chosen to move on. In the wake of the pandemic, there are still some unsettled decisions to be made: Will you mandate a return to office? How will you handle future outbreaks? Will you disband your COVID-safety team or just wait-and-see if another variant pops up in the summer/fall season?
Some other questions are still unsettled. For example, some employers have been accommodating immuno-suppressed employees by allowing remote work. Should that continue?
The end of the pandemic will bring some changes to the cost of paying for COVID testing and insurance coverage so employers should check with their medical benefits provider to understand what will (and will not) be covered going forward. Employers in California will still have to abide by the CAL/OSHA COVID-19 Non-Emergency Standard; some industries may have other standards to deal with too.
Ultimately, understand what rules apply going forward and be sure to talk with legal counsel about any remaining COVID-related questions.
It’s been a strange three years. Here’s hoping for a bit more normalcy. Whatever that looks like.