More on Reasonable Accommodation as Mask and Vaccine Mandates are Introduced

The number one question I am getting from employers these days is how to handle employee requests for exemptions from mask and vaccine mandates. Now that Columbus Mayor Andrew Ginther has issued an executive order mandating mask usage in indoor public spaces in Columbus and President Joe Biden has issued a vaccine mandate for federal contractors, Columbus employers are likely to receive even more requests for medical and/or religious accommodations to these requirements. 

Last month, Bill Nolan’s column provided a good overview of how the accommodation process works. I wanted to follow that up with some concrete examples of potential accommodations. Keep in mind that, as employers, you have a duty to listen to your employees’ particular needs and determine what is reasonable given their individual circumstances, so there are no plug-and-play responses to accommodation requests. These are merely general examples to serve as food for thought.

Does your employee need to be physically present? 
If you have an employee who is unable (or unwilling) to wear a mask or be vaccinated, the easiest way to address this may be to take them out of the physical workplace and let them work privately and remotely. This is not an option for employees whose physical presence is required or who may have reliability or disciplinary issues. However, an employee who performs work at a computer or on the phone and is reasonably capable of working independently may be just as productive from home, where you may not need to worry about their compliance with government mandates and where they are safely distanced from others.

If your employee must be present, can they be isolated? 
Even if your employee cannot work remotely, perhaps there are still ways to comply with applicable mandates and maintain proper social distance while still accommodating your employee. For example, Columbus’ executive order applies only to indoor areas accessible to the public. Even if your workplace generally is accessible to the public, perhaps you have a private office where an employee could work behind a closed door without a face covering. Such an accommodation would likely require the employee to wear a mask in public areas, but might be an acceptable compromise to both you and the employee.

Are there acceptable alternatives to a mask? 
We generally have ideas of what a “mask” is, but we don’t always think about whether there are alternatives for those who have medical or religious reasons they cannot wear a traditional mask. Columbus has not actually used the word “mask” in its executive orders and ordinances – it calls for a covering of the nose and mouth that is secured to the head. For those who have medical issues and are unable to wear a close-fitting mask, a clear face shield might be more comfortable while still meeting the requirements of the mandate and still providing protection. There may be other alternatives that satisfy the mandate and are more acceptable to an employee than a mask. Do some research and be open-minded regarding reasonable compromises that still get the job done.

You may have to say no. 
You have an obligation to work with your employees to determine whether there is a reasonable way to accommodate their legitimate medical and/or religious needs. But at the end of the day, remember that it may not work out and you may not be able to provide a reasonable accommodation. You generally are not breaking any disability or religious accommodation laws if you cannot accommodate an employee because there are no reasonable accommodations available. Be open-minded and empathetic to employees who show a legitimate need, but remember that you may not be able to satisfy everyone.

This article should not be construed as legal advice or a legal opinion on any specific facts or circumstances. The contents are intended for general informational purposes only, and you are urged to consult your own lawyer on any specific legal questions you may have concerning your situation.

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