Managers Tasked With New Mask Mandates By: Rebecca Smith July 3, 2021
UC Berkeley sophomore Megan Yeh is experiencing one of the biggest questions in the workforce today: is returning to work safe?
Yeh is an employee at Palm Acai in Berkeley, Calif. She said the vaccination requirements aren’t as strict as she had anticipated.
“I do not feel completely safe going back to work, knowing my fellow employees aren’t vaccinated,” Yeh said.
Yeh voiced the concerns of many employees across California. She feels her health and safety are compromised at work due to the lack of vaccination enforcement.
California officially reopened June 15. All vaccinated Californians can stop wearing masks and socially distancing. Those that have not been vaccinated are still required to follow these CDC guidelines.
The California Occupational Safety and Health Standards Board voted 5–1 Thursday, June 17 to allow employees who are fully vaccinated against Coronavirus the same freedoms as when they are not at work, meaning no mask requirement.
California’s Division of Occupational Safety and Health, known as Cal/OSHA, had one vote opposing these new guidelines. Board member and Director of the Labor Occupational Health Program at the University of California, Berkeley, Laura Stock, cast this lone vote. She believes the rules go too far and leave employees unprotected. She said the ruling “relies too heavily on employers and on people to be vaccinated.”
This new ruling is supported by business advocates. Rob Lapsley, president of the California Business Roundtable said in a press release that this is a “step in the right direction.” He does have concerns regarding vaccination status and record-keeping that could lead to liability and privacy issues. However, he believes these new regulations will help the economy bounce back.
Suzanne Teran, Associate Director of the Labor Occupational Health Program at the University of California, Berkeley, explained that legally it is the employer’s responsibility to provide a safe and healthful workplace and to identify and address all possible hazards.
“In the context of COVID-19, they have to assess what risks their workers face and the types of measures they should put in place to reduce or eliminate exposure,” Teran said. “Since the requirements for some of the protective measures are now based on vaccination status, employers do need to know who is vaccinated. They also have the responsibility to protect the health of both their vaccinated and unvaccinated employees.”
There are two options for employers to document the status of their employees’ vaccination: proof through a vaccination card and “self-attestation” where an employee states their status. Physical proof of vaccination has proven to be more effective. Self-attestation allows employees to lie to employers which can be dangerous.
“The stakes are high,” Teran said. “Vaccinated workers don’t have to wear masks and would also be excluded from quarantining if there is an outbreak at work.In many settings, and particularly in low wage settings that have been greatly impacted by COVID-19. There is an imbalance of power in the worksite and fears of retaliation and other adverse actions. Workers may feel pressured or have some incentive to state they are vaccinated when in reality they have not been.”
Teran believes this self-attestation method places responsibility on employees when Cal/OSHA Emergency Temporary Standards require employers to be the ones responsible. Teran and her department would prefer physical proof of vaccination to be the only method acceptable.
Teran listed some of the previous ways California has attempted to mitigate the effects of the pandemic– masks, reducing capacity, ventilation, distancing, and now vaccines– but nothing is a “quick cure all.” Many areas of the state have vaccination rates of 30–40 percent. Teran and her department feel a complete unmasked reopening is premature due to this low vaccination rate combined with the new Delta variant and the unknowns regarding a booster shot.
“In the context of the pandemic, we have seen how the workplace and community are linked- what happens in one affects the other, as the virus does not stop at the entrance doors to the worksite,” Teran said, “So, community vaccination rates or COVID case rates and the nature of the workplace need to be considered to prevent infections among workers but also to reduce spread in the community.”
In the Bay Area, many businesses have decided to require masks regardless of vaccination status. At Palm Acai, employees are required to wear masks at all times, except during opening and closing if both employees on duty are vaccinated. This policy will remain in place due to one employee’s unvaccinated status.
Employers cannot disclose an employee’s vaccination status with other employees and they cannot require vaccination, but in an effort to feel protected, employees are discussing this private information.
“I feel safe because I know who isn’t vaccinated,” Yeh said. “The employer didn’t directly disclose this information, but the staff discussed amongst ourselves. It feels like an invasion of privacy, but if I didn’t know, I’d constantly be anxious.”
Asking about vaccination status has become routine in job applications. New UC Berkeley lifeguard, Brooke Barrett, said that she was asked if she had been vaccinated during her interview. Barrett and her fellow lifeguards are required to wear masks at all times regardless of vaccination status and the outdoor setting.
“It’s kind of weird having to wear a mask all day considering we’re always distanced and everyone I know is vaccinated,” Barrett said. “I’ll keep wearing one as long as it’s necessary, but it is confusing because the state says one thing and my boss says another. If it makes the public feel safe, I guess that’s all that matters.”