What do the new CDC mask guidelines mean for employers?

One expert advises that employers ‘proceed with caution.’
By: | May 19, 2021 • 4 min read

When Kevin Conefrey first heard about the updated mask guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control & Prevention, his reaction was that it was good news. As the vice president of HR and corporate resources at First Choice Health, a healthcare insurance company, he saw the move—in which the CDC recommended vaccinated people can remove masks in most situations—as a sign that the country would soon re-open for business.

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But that same news has also created frustration. For instance, the CDC guidelines may differ from state recommendations. In Washington, where First Choice Health is based, the state has lifted its mask mandate for people who are fully vaccinated against COVID-19, but Gov. Jay Inslee stated that businesses still have the option to require employees or customers to wear masks.

Ever since the CDC made its announcement last week, some HR professionals have been struggling with what to do. If most of your employees are remote, the new mask guidelines will have minimal impact on your business. But what about manufacturers, retailers, restaurants or others where employees work near each other or the general public? Should they still wear masks? What about social distancing? Should companies ask for proof of vaccination? For some, these updated guidelines have provided more questions than answers.

“I’m hoping that the CDC guidance will put pressure on some surrounding states to remove some of the masking mandates,” Conefrey says, adding that the company’s 200 remote employees will probably return to the office in January. But even then, he says, “We are not going to ask employees for vaccinations cards partly because it would open the whole gamut of privacy issues—what to do with that information, how to control it, contain it, store it. I don’t see the benefit.”

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However, if he still held his prior HR job at a manufacturing plant, he says, he would be more cautious. Since those employees work in close proximity, in an enclosed environment and may be older workers, he would advise that they continue to wear masks to protect their personal health.

Conefrey believes the real question isn’t mask-wearing but if employees can make decisions with the “right kind of frame of mind.”

“We trust our employees,” says Conefrey. “They’re all adults. They need to make choices about what’s best for them in terms of their own personal health.”

That’s also an approach many employers are taking with vaccinations.

Several days before the CDC’s announcement, Littler Mendelson law firm released the results of the Littler Annual Employer Survey Report, which addressed thorny issues related to the pandemic. Among the topics, it explored how employers are managing vaccine disclosure—an issue that is primed to be even more pressing for HR leaders, given the CDC’s new mask guidance.

According to Littler, about 41% of employers will ask employees to voluntary disclose if they got the vaccine. However, 32% have no plans to do so, while 27% are unsure.

Aon is not requiring its 50,000 global employees to be vaccinated. But those who do will receive 16 hours of PTO per shot, says Bridget Gainer, chief commercial officer at the global professional services firm.

See also: What the research says about top COVID vaccine strategies

She says the CDC’s latest guidelines are an about-face from the agency’s previous recommendations and a welcome “sigh of relief.”

By Labor Day, she believes many employees will have returned to the workplace. By then, she says, employers will have had ample time to see if the updated CDC guidelines can stick.

Until that time, she says, employers are still absorbing the guidelines; some are figuring out how to incorporate them into safety protocols.

“The world is going to be different,” says Gainer. “At Aon, we’re not just saying you have to settle into the new normal but that there could be a new better and we want to help people get there.”

Despite many employers welcoming the CDC guidance, not every organization can or should adopt the new measures, says Sandy Rhodes, an HR consultant at SW HR consulting.

She points to one client—a small law firm with around 50 employees—that can follow them. But that’s not the case for clients in the retail or restaurant space. Employers whose workforces work directly with the public may want to continue mandating that they wearing a mask, even if they’re fully vaccinated, she says. Likewise, she recommends that new hires must supply either the negative results of a COVID test or confirmed vaccination card.

But instead of asking for proof of vaccination, Rhodes offers a simpler approach: require all employees to sign a statement that verifies their vaccination status.

Meanwhile, whatever decisions employers make about mask wearing, vaccinations or social distancing, they need to “stick with them” until new guidelines are issued, Rhodes says, noting that consistency in enforcing company policies is critical.

“As an employer, you still need to do your due diligence,” she says. “So, proceed with caution. Your main concern is keeping your employees and customers safe.”

Carol Patton is a contributing editor for HRE who also writes HR articles and columns for business and education magazines. She can be reached at hreletters@lrp.com.

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