As businesses like shops, restaurants, and others that were previously closed as a result of COVID-19 begin to open, precautions of various kinds are now in place.  As the state or perhaps local government encourages and sometimes requires protective gear, employers must take into consideration how it will affect their workforce.

One outward-facing and immediate impact of these changes mean that face masks and protective gear are now required in most areas, and modifications to how we do our jobs are also in place.  Less contact, touch, and interaction with people is encouraged. As an individual, we must all do our part to keep safety at the forefront of our actions, but as an employee, management must contribute to the process.

A business can require employees to wear a face mask or other personal protective equipment (PPE) as a workplace rule.  For this to be effective, they should be providing a legitimate reason for the rule, and under the current pandemic circumstances, this would be understandable.

Employee Rights

If your state requires personal protective equipment, the employer should be providing that.

What do you do if an employee reports that they have a reason to not participate in wearing required PPE?  This could be the result of a medical condition or personal preference.  If there is an employee that has a disability or requires other modification to the equipment, this would need to be addressed at the individual level.  For example, if someone is hearing impaired, the employer should provide face shields as opposed to face masks.

Should an employee refuse to wear the required PPE, or request modified gear, what are your options?  According to the National Law Review, as a private employer, you can require that the employee complies with the requirements for face-covering unless it is due to religious or medical reasons.  Should the employee only be basing their claim on personal liberties, they can be suspended or even terminated upon refusal to comply.

On the other hand, the Americans with Disabilities Act requires that an employer accommodate an individual that qualifies for adjusted PPE.

There will be complications when trying to address each of these instances with a black and white answer.  It would be strongly suggested to take each situation as an individual case and review all of the requests for accommodation seriously.  The employee should provide documentation as to why they are requesting the modification, and the employer should listen as to why they feel the way that they do, taking their request seriously, but also knowing that the safety of the entire workforce and business as a whole should be taken into consideration.  The goal of PPE is to keep everyone healthy, and we shouldn’t overlook the relationship side of a business in doing this – which means listening to employees and their concerns.  There will be changes to the rules as we move along in this pandemic, and hopefully, a strong balance of law and logic will prevail.


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