Follow Existing COVID-19 Safety Rules as Experts Evaluate Omicron Variant

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As employers await news about the omicron and other potential COVID-19 variants, they may want to review their coronavirus-related policies and remind employees of the continued importance of following workplace safety practices.

The omicron variant has been labeled a "variant of concern" by the World Health Organization (WHO), and the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) confirmed the first U.S. case in California on Dec. 1. But public health experts are still evaluating the potential severity of infection and how well current vaccines work against it. In a recent press conference, President Joe Biden called omicron a "cause for concern" but "not a cause for panic."

It's too soon to tell if employers should take additional workplace safety measures, said Jim Paul, an attorney with Ogletree Deakins in St. Louis. "But the best advice I can give is to move forward with any previous plans to implement additional or different safety protocols [without changing course] quite yet due to the omicron variant specifically."

Kevin Troutman, an attorney with Fisher Phillips in Houston, advised employers to seek balance in their approach to managing COVID-19 risks while staying consistent and making fact-based decisions. "Recognize COVID fatigue, but don't become lax in your workplace safety practices," he said. 

In the meantime, the CDC has said it is monitoring the omicron variant. The agency recommended that people continue to "follow prevention strategies, such as wearing a mask in public indoor settings in areas of substantial or high community transmission, washing your hands frequently, and physically distancing from others."

The CDC continues to recommend vaccination for everyone who is eligible and now says people over the age of 18 should get booster doses.

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Coronavirus and COVID-19

Assess In-Person Plans

Employers have to make difficult decisions about whether to host gatherings that employees enjoyed prior to the pandemic, such as holiday parties, team-building events and other in-person activities.

"These types of decisions are difficult and very specific to each organization and its operational needs and culture," Paul observed.

Companies are beginning to cancel their plans for holiday parties, said SHRM President and Chief Executive Officer Johnny C. Taylor, Jr., SHRM-SCP. "I don't know a CEO who hasn't really thought about, 'Do I really want to convene it?' only to get a surprise that ... [omicron] is in the state and large gatherings will potentially be superspreader events."

Mini Kapoor, an attorney with Haynes Boone in Houston, noted that such decisions may be based on the employer's specific work environment. "It might be prudent to arrange in-person meetings where physical distancing is possible." However, she said, large in-person gatherings where physical distancing is not feasible should be avoided.

Whether to extend remote-work policies is also company-specific. If job duties can be effectively performed from a distance, Kapoor said, employers should consider a hybrid-work environment to limit the number of employees in the workplace at any given time.

Additionally, employers should continue to consider reasonable accommodations, such as remote work, under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 for employees who are immunocompromised or unable to get vaccinated for medical reasons or based on a sincerely held religious belief.  

Under the ADA, employers must provide a reasonable accommodation unless the modification would cause significant difficulty or expense as it relates to the individual business. Under Title VII, however, an accommodation based on a sincerely held religious belief would pose an undue hardship if it would cause more than a de minimis, or trivial, cost to the employer. 

Notably, objections based on personal or political views are not protected under federal anti-discrimination laws, but state laws may vary.

[Related SHRM article: 4 Steps for Handling Religious Objections to Workplace Vaccine Mandates]

Best Practices

The Biden administration has said it will take a few weeks to understand the impact of omicron. What should employers be doing now as they wait to hear about the effects of the variant?

Paul suggested that employers adhere to the COVID-19 workplace safety guidelines that are already in place. "If we have all learned nothing else during the last couple of years, we have figured out that our scientific knowledge may not necessarily be able to stay ahead of mother nature and viruses like COVID-19 and its variants," he said. "However, it seems clear that vaccination, testing, good hygiene, social distancing and masking go a long way to minimize the spread of the infection."

Kapoor said employers should take the following steps:

  • Encourage employees to get vaccinated and educate them about the benefits of vaccination.
  • Educate employees on the advantages of booster shots.
  • Remind employees about existing workplace safety rules.
  • Limit large office gatherings if distancing isn't feasible.

Unless state law limits employer inquiries about COVID-19 vaccinations, Troutman said, employers should determine the vaccination status of their entire workforce and review their current COVID-19 protocols to ensure that they are up-to-date. He recommended designating a person or team to lead COVID-19 response efforts and monitor all developments—not just those related to the omicron variant.

"Employers should continue to keep their workforce informed about relevant plans, policies and activities, but avoid reacting too quickly to news of a new variant," he said. "This has happened before and will likely happen again, so for now it's best to ensure that an appropriate foundational safety plan is in place and continue to monitor news and guidance from trusted sources."

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