Desai is the co-founder and CEO of Heal, a Santa Monica, California-based health care company that offers both telemedicine and house calls with doctors. Desai goes into the office every day to work, along with a few other members of his team. Besides those who come to gather medical supplies, all employees who work from the office sit in closed offices roughly 30 to 50 feet from each other and wear facemasks and gloves when they leave or go to the bathroom. They also use separate entrances and exits.
"We're thinking about how we can redesign the workplace," he says. "There are so many long-term conversations we have to have about not just getting people back to work, but about keeping them safe at work; we want people to feel safe."
Heal's experience should be instructive for companies, as much of the country now grapples with reopening and business owners are tasked with figuring out how to do so safely. While no two businesses are alike and what will keep workers safe at one company may not keep them safe at another, there's one almost universal need: facemasks. You're more than likely going to need them.
Here are a few questions about facemasks to consider, as you return to the office:
1. Do you need them?
Just about every business will need some kind of supply of facemasks--even if, like Desai's company, employees only use them when visiting the restroom. Centers for Disease Control (CDC) and the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) require companies in certain industries, like laundry businesses and child care, to don the garment. Their use is also generally vital for companies where keeping a social distance is difficult. That includes grocery stores, retail shops, and most in-person operations.
Whether your employees need to wear masks might also depend on your location. Right now, for instance, cities including San Francisco and Los Angeles require citizens to wear masks in public. Other areas and states "strongly recommend" them, but they're not mandatory. Tennessee, for example, does not require the use of protective equipment like facemasks, and an employee would have to prove that he or she fell ill in the workplace to receive workers' compensation. Your business would need to comply with local mandates, says Janie Schulman, a partner in the labor and employee practice at the San Francisco-based law firm Morrison & Foerster.
When should you skip the covering? If the mask can create a safety hazard, such as if there's a chance it'll get caught in machinery.
Ultimately, if you don't follow the recommended guidance you could run into liability and reputation issues. Consider whether your business can withstand the consequences, says Schulman. "You don't want to be the business that's on the 6 o'clock news in a report that says one of your employees died because you wouldn't let employees wear masks in the workplace," she says.
2. Which masks do you need?
OSHA offers facemask guidance by industry. A worker in the health care industry, for instance, might need an N95 mask, while someone working in a grocery store would need just a surgical mask or other face covering. It also differentiates between "respirators" and "non-respirators." Respirators are tight-fitting around the face and filter particles through the mask. (A popular example of a respirator mask is the N95.) Non-respirators are simple cloth coverings, which could include homemade masks, scarves, or bandanas. Most businesses that aren't in the health care or construction fields fall into the non-respirator category.
It might also behoove you to take extra precautions if your business is located in a state such as New Jersey, New York, or California, which have been heavier hit by the virus. In California, for instance, employees can file lawsuits claiming serious or willful violations if employers don't provide individuals with protective equipment.
Some states may also require different protective procedures and gear, in addition to the use of masks. Pennsylvania, for instance, requires employers to conduct temperature checks if employees are asked to return to work after the workplace has been exposed to someone with Covid-19. Though, when it comes to requiring additional tests, such as coronavirus and antibody tests, follow state guidelines, but don't ask for too much information.
"I don't believe employers should ask for more information than they need," says Erin McLaughlin, labor and employment attorney at Buchanan Ingersoll & Rooney, referring to the need to maintain employee privacy.
3. What if employees refuse to wear them?
There's a difference between requiring your employees to wear a mask and allowing them to wear one voluntarily.
If an employer requires employees to wear protective gear, the employer must also train employees on how to use the equipment, as well as perform a hazard assessment, says Schulman. A hazard assessment involves conducting workplace inspections and identifying potential health risks. An employer may also be required to change the physical set up of a workplace, she says, to comply with social distancing rules, even if employees wear masks. That could include installing barriers between desks and setting up lanes that people can walk safely without passing one another.
By contrast, if you ask employees to voluntarily wear a loose-fitting mask, none of those rules apply. Even if the employer pays for the masks and provides them to employees, it can still be a voluntary program, notes Schulman.
If an at-will employee--that is, an employee who can be let go legally by an employer at any time for any reason--refuses to wear a mask, defying OSHA or CDC guidelines, you have cause to fire that person. It can be considered a safety hazard, notes Schulman.
Of course, this is not an ideal situation, and you should first consider the employee's reasons for his or her actions. If, for example, an employee has a disability, like asthma, and has difficulty breathing through a mask, then under the Americans With Disabilities Act, you must attempt to accommodate that employee, says McLaughlin. You can provide a shield or other protective device that's not a mask, or offer an extended period of leave.
"It should always be a conversation," says McLaughlin, "but if it's a furlough, you should exhaust all other options before you go there."