Ga. employers struggle with COVID policies after CDC rolls back masks

New safety guidelines leave it to businesses to determine vaccination, masking rules
The CDC says fully vaccinated people no longer need to wear masks inside.

The CDC says fully vaccinated people no longer need to wear masks inside.

New federal guidance on masks is complicating the already knotty decisions metro Atlanta employers face about whether, how and when to bring workers back to the office.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said last week that fully vaccinated Americans can forgo masks and social distancing in most indoor and outdoor settings. But the Atlanta-based federal agency was silent on how most businesses should handle workers who have opted to skip the vaccine.

That leaves it up to companies, which are obligated to provide a safe workplace for their employees, to decide whether they should require workers to get vaccinated or alter masking policies for those who are inoculated. Should they seat unvaccinated workers separately from vaccinated colleagues in the office or let them work from home indefinitely? How can they even vet who’s received shots and who hasn’t?

“I think the whole world is trying to make sense of these regulations,” said Terri R. Stewart, partner at the Atlanta branch of the labor and employment law firm Fisher Phillips. “It’s a little bit clear as mud.”

Some retailers, including Walmart, Publix and Home Depot, were quick to announce in recent days that they were repealing mask mandates for vaccinated customers and workers. Most are relying on the honor system instead of proof of vaccination.

But many local companies that are less public-facing have been slower to announce any changes, especially regarding office workers still working from home for now.

Employers are allowed to make vaccinations mandatory, the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission wrote in December, but must accommodate employees with closely held religious beliefs or medical conditions that preclude vaccination.

So far, few major companies have taken the EEOC up on the offer. In a survey conducted by the Society of Human Resource Management earlier this year, just 5% of employers said they would require the vaccine for some or all employees, while 60% said they would not.

Delta Air Lines made headlines last week after CEO Ed Bastian announced his company would become one of the country’s largest to require new hires to be vaccinated. But many employers that have eyed such a requirement, including the city of Sandy Springs, have balked due to potential headaches surrounding health information privacy.

“We looked at that and felt that there were HIPAA, morale and privacy issues that we couldn’t cross,” Mayor Rusty Paul said on Georgia Public Broadcasting Tuesday, referring to the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act.

Some companies have instead aimed to incentivize employees to get the vaccine rather than mandate it. Kroger is offering workers $100 bonuses, while Walmart recent said it would pay $75 to employees who provide their original, completed vaccine card.

Some employers, such as the city of East Point, have opted to maintain their mask mandates. Mayor Deana Holiday Ingraham said vaccine hesitancy among the area’s majority-minority population was a major factor.

“We have to make sure that we really pay attention to the needs of our community and not ignore disparities and the way that this virus has disproportionately impacted communities of color,” she said on GPB’s “Political Rewind.” “So we’re holding steady.”

The City of Atlanta will continue requiring masks indoors at buildings owned or leased by the city government. On Monday, Decatur city leaders chose to continue their mandate through June 21 to give children over 12, who were recently cleared to get vaccinated, time to get their shots. Clarkston also doesn’t plan to reevaluate their mask mandate until the summer.

Dunwoody lifted their mandate at the end of last week, citing the declining number of confirmed COVID-19 cases in the county. Doraville will also consider revoking all pandemic-related measures at their Wednesday meeting.

Not only must employers weigh guidance from the CDC, but they must also take into account state and local regulations and rulemakings from the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration, which regulates workplace safety and can issue citations — and fines — for companies that are noncompliant.

OSHA hasn’t updated its COVID guidance since January and said Monday it was still reviewing the CDC’s guidance. But it did say it’s illegal to treat unvaccinated workers differently from colleagues who are inoculated.

The latter could be a major sticking point as companies draw up plans allowing vaccinated workers to unmask. Unvaccinated employees, easily identifiable because they would be wearing masks and socially distancing, could be harassed by coworkers for their refusal to get inoculated. That could lead to discrimination lawsuits and declining morale.

“What happens if your star player says ‘I’m not getting a vaccine.’ Are you going to fire them?” said Todd Stanton, principal of Stanton Law LLC, who advises many small- and medium-sized companies. “What happens if your A player says (yes) and your B player says ‘I don’t want one,’ and you make an exception for them?”

Observers say it may take a few weeks for companies to sort out their plans for returning to the office.

“The most conservative approach is we’re just going to keep on keeping on for a little while longer until all of this has time to flesh out,” said Stewart at Fisher Phillips.

Stanton said small- and medium-sized companies, especially those that only have locations in Georgia, may have an easier time sorting out their COVID policies than multi-state Fortune 500s.

“Coke and UPS and Home Depot, those guys have to come up with a pretty uniform policy that’s going to fit lots of different groups and demographics,” he said. “Whereas a mom-and-pop, a gym or a 30-person manufacturing company can be a little more bespoke in their approach.”

Several of the region’s largest employers, including Northside Hospital, Wellstar and Piedmont Healthcare, will likely see few changes because the latest CDC guidance maintains masking and other COVID safety requirements for health care settings. The same is true for workers at Hartsfield Jackson International Airport and aboard airplanes, where masks are still required.

At the Atlanta campus of the CDC, fully vaccinated employees are no longer required to wear masks in agency facilities, a spokeswoman said, though she did not answer questions about social distancing or whether the CDC limits the number of employees in its buildings.

-Staff writers Zachary Hansen, Wilborn P. Nobles III, Kelly Yamanouchi and Lois Norder contributed to this article.