Colorado Issues Emergency Rule and FAQs on Returning to the Workplace

By Steve Baumann, Tommy Postek and Alan McLaughlin © Littler Mendelson May 7, 2020

As the nuances of Colorado Gov. Jared Polis' Safer at Home Order continue to reveal themselves to Colorado employers resuming operations, one more state agency has weighed in: the Colorado Department of Labor and Employment (CDLE).

In easily overlooked portions of the Safer at Home Order, Polis specifically noted that employers must "provide reasonable accommodation and are prohibited from discriminating against employees who are showing symptoms of COVID-19 or who have been in contact with a known positive case of COVID-19."

Polis further ordered "employers to accommodate workers with childcare responsibilities and workers who live in the same household as a vulnerable person to the greatest extent possible by promoting telecommuting or other remote work options, flexible schedules, or other means."

Polis directed the CDLE to provide guidance designed to prevent discrimination in the workplace related to COVID-19. With little fanfare, the CDLE did just that on April 27.

The same day the Safer at Home Order took effect, the CDLE issued both emergency Rule, which addresses voluntary terminations resulting from "unsatisfactory or hazardous working conditions," and Paid Leave and Unemployment FAQs, which primarily address refusals to return to work.

Rule is designed to protect the unemployment eligibility of those who leave employment or refuse a suitable offer of work based on both: (1) the specific vulnerability of the individual and (2) the objective risks for such an individual in the workplace.

But the FAQs go much further in addressing refusals to return to work by those in vulnerable populations, those with childcare responsibilities, and those who may be eligible for paid leave under either the federal Families First Coronavirus Response Act (FFCRA) or the Colorado Health Emergency Leave with Pay (HELP) Rules.

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One of the primary thrusts of the FAQs is protection of "vulnerable individuals." According to the FAQs, employers must accommodate "vulnerable individuals" with telework whenever possible and cannot require them to return to work if their work requires close proximity with others. From the Safer at Home Order itself, that requirement applies to:

  • Those over age 65.
  • Those with chronic lung disease or moderate to severe asthma.
  • Those with serious heart conditions.
  • Those who are immunocompromised.
  • Pregnant women.
  • Individuals determined to be high risk by a licensed health care provider.

Employers looking to Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) guidance for additional clarity may find the FAQ categories immeasurably broad. Those who are immunocompromised include individuals undergoing cancer treatment or bone marrow or organ transplantation, those who smoke, those with immune deficiencies or poorly controlled HIV or AIDS, and those who have taken corticosteroids for a prolonged period or are taking other immune-weakening medications.

The CDC also indicates that those who are likely to be determined high-risk by a healthcare provider include those with obesity (body mass index of 40 or higher), those with diabetes, those with kidney disease undergoing dialysis, and those with liver disease. As a result, individuals falling within the category of "vulnerable individuals" could range from employees with arthritis taking corticosteroids to employees who have a history of smoking, creating a remarkably broad group of potentially impacted employees.

As a result, employers would be prudent to follow the same process they would for employees presenting with health conditions that may qualify as a disability. Employers should, therefore, request medical documentation, accommodate the employee when reasonable without an undue hardship, and otherwise comply with Colorado Revised Statutes sections 24-34-402, 24-3-402.3, and 3 C.C.R. § 708-1:60.1 to 60.6. Indeed, the FAQs specifically state it is "illegal to discriminate against a vulnerable individual based on disability, age, or pregnancy."

The FAQs also address those who feel unsafe at work. While they do not go so far as to protect anyone who expresses such a concern, they do protect vulnerable individuals and those who reside with vulnerable individuals who refuse to return to "unsatisfactory or hazardous working conditions" at least for purposes of unemployment eligibility. The FAQs also specifically direct those who believe that there are "[a]ny other possible violations of social distancing, or other health and safety orders" to report their concerns to the "federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration or County health officials."

Consistent with the Safer at Home Order, the FAQs state that employers must accommodate employees experiencing a lack of childcare due to school closures, including providing limited remote work options and flexible scheduling. The FAQs specifically direct employees to the leave provided by the federal Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security (CARES) Act and warn that requiring such an employee to return to work could be unlawful.

The same is true of the Colorado HELP Rules. The FAQs reiterate that paid leave is available under the HELP Rules for those "with flu-like or respiratory illness symptoms who are either (1) being tested for COVID-19 or (2) under instructions from a health care provider or authorized government official to quarantine or isolate due to a risk of having COVID-19."

They further make clear that the expanded categories under the HELP Rules provide coverage "for all workers" in the categories listed—not just for those employers with fewer than 500 employees like the federal CARES Act. The FAQs also make explicit that "[i]f an employer requires work from an employee entitled to paid leave (due to illness or a quarantine/isolation order) under the Colorado HELP Rules, that would be unlawful under those rules, and should be reported to the contact information at the bottom of these FAQs."

Thus, like many recent COVID-19-related mandates, the CDLE's Emergency Rule and FAQs provide both guidance and ambiguity for employers managing employees reluctant to return to work. To help navigate this transition from shelter-in-place to safely-at-work, employers should consider taking the following actions:

  • Review anti-discrimination, benefits, leave of absence, and accommodation policies and handbooks to make necessary changes to ensure they are compliant with CDLE's guidance.
  • Ensure that policies exist with respect to requesting and taking leave under the federal CARES Act and the Colorado HELP rules.
  • Review recall notices and offer letters to those returning to work to provide appropriate notices to individuals who may be showing symptoms of COVID-19, who may be "vulnerable individuals," who may have COVID-19-induced childcare challenges, and who may qualify for leave under either the federal CARES Act or the Colorado HELP Rules.
  • Train supervisors, managers, and human resources professionals on the process to accommodate those who may express concerns about returning to work, as well as the qualifications for leave under the federal CARES Act and the Colorado HELP rules that may impact those returning to work.
  • Be cognizant of federal, state, and local anti-retaliation provisions that may apply to employees who have voiced concerns about returning to work during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Steve Baumann, Tommy Postek and Alan McLaughlin are attorneys with Littler Mendelson in Denver. © 2020 Littler Mendelson. All rights reserved. Reposted with permission. 



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