Is my co-worker vaccinated?

Q: I work in a suburban office park in Massachusetts.  We adopted the open office style years ago.  Some have private offices, but most of us do not.  During the month of May, we were told by our CEO that we would slowly be returning to the office over the summer.  The expectation is that all of us will be in the office full-time in September.

I know that Massachusetts is re-opening.  Our CEO shared that he would like us to wear masks in situations where we can not have six feet between us.  At my desk, this would be close but I am probably closer than six feet next to the woman who works next to me.  I have no idea if she is vaccinated and I don’t want to ask.  I have been vaccinated but should I still wear a mask?  I think the honor system is a joke.  None of us will really know.

A: Thankfully Massachusetts, along with most of the other 49 states, are moving in a positive direction.  According to most reports, the New England states are leading the country with respect to the percentage of the vaccinated adults.  Many restrictions are being lifted and businesses can now operate at 100% capacity.  Facial coverings are still required in many places, such as healthcare facilities, TD Garden, schools and on the MBTA vehicles and stations (including bus stops and platforms).  Businesses can determine their own facial coverage policy now.  Many major retailers are inviting vaccinated customers to leave their masks at home.  These retailers include Starbucks, Stop & Shop, Best Buy and Target.  Some of our employers are requiring employees to wear facial coverings if they are not in a private office or able to maintain at least six feet of space between employees.

Employers can ask employees if they are vaccinated.  They can even request a copy of their vaccination card.  Some employers are rewarding employees with a small bonus or other reward if the employee is vaccinated.  An employer should not share the employee’s vaccination status with the employee’s co-workers.  If an employee chooses to share this information with their co-workers, that is ok.

I would have the same concerns about that honor system.  If an employee lies about being vaccinated and then infects a co-worker or a customer, that is an enormous headache for the employer. An employer could be charged with negligence, as the employer has not provided a safe workplace for their employees and customers.

There may be legitimate reasons why an employee is not vaccinated.  The first is a medical reason.  An employee may request an accommodation, based on a medical condition.  In this exception an employer can request a letter from the employee’s physician.  Most employers then have an obligation to work with that employee to determine if the employee is able to still do their job with one or more accommodations.  The accommodations might include moving the employee to a different desk, requiring the employee to wear a facial covering or perhaps offering a revised work schedule.  The second reason is a sincerely held religious belief.  Again, the employer should be willing to work with this person to consider accommodations, which likely include wear a facial covering, moving the employee to a more remote desk or offering a different schedule.

The old adage “it is better to be safe than sorry” may apply here.  I would don my mask when in doubt.

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.

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