When Should Vaccinated Workers Keep Wearing Masks?

Parents with young children may want to keep their masks on at work

By John Egan June 22, 2021
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When Should Vaccinated Workers Keep Wearing Masks?

​As more workplaces reopen and more workers stream back into the office, questions about COVID-19 abound. While infection and death rates continue to drop, many workers still voice concerns about workplace guidelines on vaccines and masks.

An April survey by life insurance company Haven Life indicates a divide over vaccine requirements in the workplace. In the survey, 53 percent of office workers said vaccines should be required if someone wants to head back to the office, but 47 percent said vaccines should not be mandated. There was, however, a consensus on masks: 71 percent of those surveyed believe masks should be required as part of the return to the office, with 29 percent saying they should not be mandated.

To help clear up any confusion about COVID-19 and the workplace, we asked experts to answer key questions that may befuddle employees and HR professionals alike. 

What should vaccinated workers do if they live with unvaccinated people, such as young children?

Dr. Anthony Puopolo, chief medical officer of telemedicine company Conversion Labs, said vaccination enables workers to reduce the risk of catching and spreading the virus to their family members and colleagues. But even if they are vaccinated, they still should remain cautious about who they come in contact with, he said. Puopolo recommends steering clear of big gatherings and suggests that parents with young children continue to wear masks outside the home, including in the workplace. 

Can vaccinated people spread the virus to unvaccinated people?

Vaccination does not translate into 100 percent immunity from COVID-19. Therefore, vaccinated people still have a small chance of spreading the virus to unvaccinated people, Puopolo said. 

Should parents keep wearing masks at work?

Board-certified family physician Dr. Jonathan Leizman, chief medical officer at health care provider Premise Health, said if a parent's workplace has eased mask requirements, the decision about wearing a mask "ultimately comes down to your personal comfort level."

"If you're a parent and wearing a mask at your workplace makes you feel safer, then do it, as we know masks are effective at preventing the spread of the virus," Leizman said. "If you or a loved one living in your home has a serious underlying health condition and it's possible and preferred for you to work remotely, then that might be a suitable decision for you and your employer to make."

Dr. Jeffrey Levin-Scherz, co-leader of the health management practice at consulting firm Willis Towers Watson, offers a different take on this subject. He believes vaccinated parents need not wear masks in the workplace.

That being said, employers "should be accommodating and make them feel perfectly comfortable if they wish to wear masks," according to Levin-Scherz. It may be wise for people with compromised immune systems or who have household members with compromised immune systems to keep wearing masks at work, he said.

[Want to learn more about the new workplace after COVID-19? Join us at the SHRM Annual Conference & Expo 2021, taking place Sept. 9-12 in Las Vegas and virtually.]

 

What, if anything, should employers do to clarify COVID-19 protocols and prevent the spread of the virus?

Courtney Berg, SHRM-SCP, founder and owner of HR consulting firm CourtSide Consulting in Denver, recommends that employers develop a return-to-work policy spelling out all the COVID-19 measures they've adopted. She recommends that employers: 

  • Contact building owners or facilities managers to ensure that the workplace is ready to be occupied again.
  • Rearrange seating, furniture and workstations to maintain social distancing of at least 6 feet if possible.
  • Install transparent physical barriers, visual cues and other means of promoting social distancing.
  • Look into improving ventilation in the workplace to help reduce the airborne spread of the COVID-19 virus.
  • Set up stations around the workplace that are stocked with hand sanitizer and disposable masks.
  • Regularly communicate with employees about return-to-work plans.

"In general, employers may legally require COVID-19 vaccines before employees return to the worksite," Berg said. "However, you must establish that the vaccine is a legitimate job requirement, and you must make reasonable accommodations for workers who are exempt from the vaccine for medical reasons, disability reasons or religious beliefs."

Dr. Mary Kay O'Neill, a Seattle-based partner and senior consultant in the health practice at consulting firm Mercer, said employers should strongly encourage all employees to be vaccinated. To that end, employers should make it easy for employees to get vaccinated, such as by letting them take time off to get a shot.

O'Neill said one of the lingering workplace concerns about COVID-19 is how employers communicate the vaccination status of employees, clients and others who may be in the office.

"If there is a policy that states that vaccinated people do not need to wear masks, how is the status verified?" O'Neill said. "Some states are requiring that of employers, and some others are preventing employers from asking the question. If an individual is unsure of the overall safety of the situation, and particularly if they wish to protect vulnerable household members, they may wish to continue using a mask."

John Egan is a freelance writer in Austin, Texas. 

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