Employer COVID restrictions in 2023

Q: My company is requiring most of us to return to the workplace over the summer.  I have a question though.  I live with my mother, and her health is poor.  I am worried (still) about COVID.  A year or so ago, my company had a vaccine mandate and there was a “buzz” in my office about who was vaccinated and who refused.  No one talks about vaccination status any more.  Can companies still make sure that employees are vaccinated? Can they ask for proof, like a copy of a card? I work in a department where many are out at bars every weekend.  Can I ask my employer or is that too pushy of me?

A:  The federal government will end the COVID-19 public health emergency on May 11, 2023.  Though not officially still a pandemic after May 11, COVID is still out there.  Every few days, I hear of a relative, friend or an employee at a client site talking about their bout of COVID.  Thankfully most of these people have been vaccinated, and their symptoms are relatively mild. The pandemic is clearly not the disruptor that it was in 2020 and 2021.

I consulted Bob Shea, an employment lawyer and a partner at Beck Reed Riden LLP in Boston.  Shea advises that “although several states have placed limitations on vaccine mandates, private sector employers generally can still require employees to be vaccinated against COVID, and they can also require employees to provide proof of vaccination.”  We have clients, especially in healthcare, biotech and professional services, who are still requiring that a new employee must either complete an attestation form confirming that they were vaccinated, or provide a copy of their COVID vaccination card.

According to Shea, “the EEOC has been quite clear that federal EEO laws do not prohibit an employer from requiring all employees physically entering the workplace to be vaccinated for COVID.”  The EEOC regulations apply to all 50 states.  However, Shea adds, “the EEOC has been equally clear that federal EEO laws require employers to provide reasonable accommodations for employees who, because of a disability or a sincerely held religious belief, practice or observance, do not get vaccinated for COVID, unless providing an accommodation would pose an undue hardship on the operation of the employer’s business, which can be quite hard to establish.”  Employers are increasingly choosing not to challenge employee requests for disability or religious-based exemptions from vaccine mandates.

In response to your last question, Shea explains that if your employer “continues to have a vaccine mandate/policy in place, you certainly can request that your employer enforce it.”  He notes, however, that “since 2021, many employers have become less inclined to mandate that employees get vaccinated, or boosted,” and “also appear less willing to continue other measures aimed at reducing the risk of infection, such as mask wearing.”

Shea and I have both observed employers loosening their COVID restrictions.  However, it may depend on the type of business and the role of the employee.  A landscaper cutting a field of grass presents less of a risk than a home health aide providing daily personal care to a patient. I think we have all learned that a role working outdoors and/or working with little close contact with others, likely minimizes the risk.

Pattie Hunt Sinacole is a human resources expert and works for First Beacon Group in Hopkinton, an HR consulting firm. She contributes weekly to Boston.com Jobs and the Boston Sunday Globe Money & Careers section.