Will new federal mask guidelines revive workplace mandates?

The worsening Delta variant and rising COVID-19 cases have prompted a recent shift on mask-wearing: Some places, like Los Angeles County, have re-implemented indoor mask mandates, and the Centers for Disease Control & Prevention this week changed its guidance to recommend that some vaccinated people wear masks indoors–a reversal from previous guidance that said vaccinated individuals can shed masks.

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Now it’s likely that a shift in employer mask guidance will follow as well.

“Given the evolving positions from the CDC on wearing masks, employers all over the country are having renewed internal discussions about mask and vaccine requirements,” says Richard Wahlquist, president and chief executive officer of the American Staffing Association, a trade association.

Dr. Jeff Levin-Scherz

The new CDC guidance is specific–it recommends masking for both vaccinated and unvaccinated people indoors in public places in communities with more than 50 new cases of COVID per 100,000 in the previous seven days. The specificity of the recommendations will present challenges to employers, says Dr. Jeff Levin-Scherz, population health leader at consulting firm Willis Towers Watson, explaining that many employees don’t live in the county of their workplace, and infection rates change each week. Because of the complexity, most organizations will simply implement mask mandates for all employees, if they hadn’t done so before.

“Many employers will implement mask mandates in indoor public spaces for all employees at this point,” he says.

While many employers have kept employees working from home over the past year and a half, others that have workers onsite have mainly relied on CDC guidance about masks. In May, the agency released new guidance allowing vaccinated people to go maskless–and in theory, unvaccinated people, too, since no proof is required. When some employers followed suit, allowing employees to go maskless, experts said anxiety rose as some workers worried about returning to an office full of maskless colleagues.

Despite the relaxed mask guidance for vaccinated individuals, employees still largely wanted their employers to enforce masks. A June survey of more than 2,000 employees from the†¯American Staffing Association found that 57% of them believe employees should be required to wear a mask when working at an onsite work location, even after being vaccinated for COVID-19.

Related: As offices reopen, employees still want masks; what can HR do?

It’s important to note that the change in mask guidance this week doesn’t tell employers what to do and still gives them the discretion to decide policies for their workplaces themselves, notes Devjani Mishra, a leader of Littler’s COVID-19 Task Force and Return-to-Work Team. Still, she expects most employers will rethink their mask policies and require employees to wear them in workplaces–especially for employers located in high-risk areas.

Experts say employers should generally follow health guidance, consider employee preferences and make sure to communicate all changes in policy with workers.

“It is critical that employers continue to follow all guidance from government health officials and continue to update employees on the safety measures that have been put in place to keep workplaces safe, as well as the rationale behind them,” Wahlquist says.

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Kathryn Mayer
Kathryn Mayer is HRE’s former benefits editor and chair of the Health & Benefits Leadership Conference. She has covered benefits for the better part of a decade, and her stories have won multiple awards, including a Jesse H. Neal Award and honors from the American Society of Business Publication Editors and the National Federation of Press Women. She holds bachelor’s and master’s degrees from the University of Denver.