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October 16, 2023

With COVID-19 emergency orders lifted, employers use light-touch workplace precautions

HBJ PHOTO | STEVE LASCHEVER Dr. Mitch McClure is the chief medical officer at New Britain toolmaker Stanley Black & Decker, which is encouraging employees to take more direct control over COVID precautions.

When Connecticut saw a jump in COVID-19 cases in September, Abby M. Warren, a partner at law firm Robinson+Cole, started to get a trickle of calls from employers interested in policy recommendations for staff who get exposed to the virus.

Abby Warren

Warren, an employment lawyer, is expecting those inquiries to increase in the coming weeks and months, as colder, drier weather and holiday gatherings bring on the traditional respiratory virus season and a rise in COVID infections.

With state and federal emergency COVID-19 declarations in the rearview mirror — they were lifted in the spring — Warren and other experts say not only are mask and vaccination mandates out, but so are workplace policies seen as intruding on personal liberties, such as mandatory temperature checks and repeated questioning about potential exposure.

As a replacement, employment lawyers and many companies are recommending policies that require common-sense precautions, like telling workers to avoid the workplace when ill.

Now is an especially good time of year for employers to update their illness policies and remind employees of expectations, Warren said.

“Even if there is not a policy, employers should be sending out a message about cold and flu season and their expectations,” Warren said. “Or else, someone gets a cold, and they don’t know. Or, they assume it’s just a cold and they come in.”

Under the pandemic emergency declarations, employers could more easily perform temperature checks and regularly ask COVID-19 exposure screening questions, Warren said.

“And now we are back to the standard where it has to be supported by business necessity because that is a medical exam and medical exams are regulated under the Americans with Disabilities Act and a few other laws,” Warren said.

CDC guidance

Susan Huntington, chair of law firm Day Pitney’s healthcare practice and a certified physician’s assistant, said her clients, largely healthcare providers, are no longer requiring follow-up COVID-19 booster shots.

Susan Huntington

That’s a significant change compared to January 2022, when Gov. Ned Lamont signed an executive order that required employees of all long-term care facilities and state hospitals in Connecticut to receive COVID-19 boosters. The Connecticut Hospital Association at that time also implemented a similar mandatory booster shot requirement for all hospital and health system employees.

Now, Huntington’s clients are predominantly concerned about how to react when an employee tests positive, or exhibits COVID-19 symptoms.

Huntington said her policy recommendations are based on the latest guidance from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The CDC recommends people who test positive for COVID-19 isolate at home for at least five days and then wear a high-quality mask when in public for an additional five days. Huntington also recommends employers require masks for staff with respiratory ailment symptoms, even if they test negative for COVID.

“Employers still have an obligation to provide a safe work environment under (Occupational Safety and Health Administration) rules,” Huntington said. “And you wouldn’t think you would have to tell someone not to come into the office if they’re coughing, sneezing or have stomach-bug symptoms. But people do.”

Employees bear more responsibility

New Britain-based manufacturer Stanley Black & Decker, which has 50,000 employees worldwide, launched an internal campaign this summer aimed at encouraging employees to take more direct control over COVID precautions through common-sense actions.

Stanley’s “Our People, Our Health” campaign used posters and other communication to urge employees to stay home when sick and take other measures recommended by the CDC to keep colleagues safe.

“There could be incentives to come to work sick, and we didn’t want to have them,” said Dr. Mitch McClure, Stanley’s chief medical officer.

The idea is also to step away from mandates and intrusive questions about COVID testing, travel and other topics that aren’t as justifiable now as they were before the end of the emergency declaration, McClure said.

“Now, the onus is really on you to self-identify because we don’t want to be inappropriate,” McClure said. “We don’t want to be asking people about their personal health information because that’s not our place once the (emergency) authorization has ended.”

Drew Andrews, managing partner and CEO of Hartford-based accounting and consulting firm Whittlesey, said he sees little need to update COVID policies because most of his roughly 150 employees continue to opt to work remotely.

“I haven’t had to deal with it because I have to go looking hard to find people,” Andrews joked. “It’s like social distancing is here because I don’t have anyone here. There is no reason to add extra layers of compliance to people and give them a hard time.”

Andrews said he has, however, continued policies implemented during the pandemic, including a requirement for sick workers to remain at home. That is made easier by another recent company mandate — that all staff take their laptop computers home every day.

Andrews said there have been several recent COVID cases among his staff, but all have reported milder symptoms. The virus doesn’t seem to raise much alarm anymore among Andrews’ colleagues and the companies they serve.

“I think it’s almost becoming like the seasonal flu or cold and I see that across the board and in companies,” Andrews said.

Following the lifting of the federal emergency in May, The Hartford stopped requiring employees share exposures, symptoms and positive tests, except in California, where it is still required, according to spokesman Matthew Sturdevant. Now, most employees are simply asked to stay home when ill or exhibiting symptoms, Sturdevant said. 

The Hartford-based insurer has about 5,200 employees in Connecticut, Sturdevant confirmed. Some work remotely, some in-office and others a hybrid mix of the two, he said. 

Less dangerous, still a risk

Dr. Manisha Juthani

During an Oct. 5 visit to the Fair Haven Community Health Care Clinic in New Haven, Connecticut Department of Public Health Commissioner Dr. Manisha Juthani and Mandy K. Cohen, director of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, acknowledged reduced risks of the COVID-19 virus but stressed a continuing urgency for vaccination and other protections.

Centers for Disease Control Director Dr. Mandy Cohen and Rep. Rosa DeLauro visited Fair Haven Community Health Care and answered questions from the press about COVID-19 risks and vaccinations.

Healthcare authorities say they expect COVID hospitalizations to be on par with last year’s fall and winter season, enough to strain healthcare providers.

The latest COVID vaccine is free to all Americans, either through private health insurance or coverage from the federal government.

Cohen noted that 97% of the population has some degree of immunity, either through vaccination or prior infection. But that protection wanes over time, she said.

Cohen said a late-summer rise in COVID cases has abated, but she anticipates a seasonal increase.

“We know as we get into the fall and winter, where we are doing activities where this virus likes to spread, we fully expect to see this virus continue to circulate, continue to go up, just like we’ve seen this last winter and fall,” Cohen said.

Juthani acknowledged there have been some initial vaccine shortages as private providers take over distribution from government agencies. She expressed guarded optimism the vaccine will be reliably available throughout Connecticut by mid-October.

Juthani said employers should require ill staff to remain at home. They can also guard against COVID spread with “state-of-the-art” ventilation systems. Beyond that, Juthani said the current situation doesn’t call for prior measures like universal masking, spacing desks six feet apart or staggering employee attendance.

“I don’t think the original precautions that we had are necessary at this stage of this virus and where we are,” Juthani said.

Dr. Sten H. Vermund

Yale University epidemiologist and professor Dr. Sten H. Vermund said between those who have been vaccinated and those who have recovered from past infection, there is only a “tiny subset” of the population susceptible to significant risk of serious health consequences from COVID-19.

He said strict employer health mandates would likely be ignored.

Instead, companies can reduce infection risk with upgraded ventilation systems that include better filtration. Employers should also strongly encourage and facilitate vaccinations, offering time off for appointments or arranging workplace vaccination clinics, Vermund said.

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