May 5, 2021
6 Questions & Best Practices for Employers Requiring Masks

The state of the pandemic and the regulations around it are constantly changing. Mask mandates—a potentially delicate subject—have also changed frequently along with the weather, the number of COVID-19 cases, and the vaccination rollout.

So how can employers follow mask mandates and ensure their employees do the same? Can you require masks at your business, even if government agencies do not? How should you go about doing so?

Let’s review six common questions and best practices for employers promoting mask-wearing at work.

6 Questions About Mandating Masks in the Workplace

1. Can businesses require employees to wear masks at the workplace?

If your state or local government has issued a mask mandate, you must require employees to wear masks. Even without a government mandate, however, you can choose to require masks. Multiple government agencies back up your decision:

  • OSHA and CDC: Recommend all individuals wear masks outside of their home
  • Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC): Permits employers to mandate masks
  • Many state and local governments: Either require or encourage the use of masks

Because the COVID-19 virus poses a direct threat, employers can require employees to wear masks, gloves, and personal protective equipment (PPE). 

Regardless of what your company chooses, it’s up to you as the employer to provide a workplace free from hazards that cause or are likely to cause death or serious physical harm, as stated by OSHA’s General Duty Clause.

Keep in mind that for fully vaccinated people, the guidance has changed. Learn more from the CDC as they continue updating their recommendations.

2. Do companies have to require customers or third-party visitors to wear masks at the business?

If your state or local government has issued a mask mandate, you must require everyone on the premises to wear masks. Otherwise, OSHA and the CDC leave it up to businesses to identify and assess COVID-19-related hazards, including:

  • Modes of transmission
  • Sources of exposure
  • Exposure levels

Businesses can determine their safety measures based on the current guidance to protect their employees and reduce the spread of the virus. You can require customers to wear masks as part of your plan to provide a safe environment for your employees. While some jurisdictions allow businesses to deny entry to customers or visitors who refuse to wear a mask, very few have adopted enforcement guidelines.

3. Does my company need a mask policy?

If you require masks (whether due to government mandate or your company’s own choice), it’s best to establish a mask policy. This will make it clear to everyone that wearing a mask in the workplace is expected.

A mask policy can also protect your company from liability by ensuring a safe workplace. When you follow the most updated mask guidelines by CDC and OSHA and mask orders of state and local governments, you’ll be less likely to see lawsuits for a hazardous work environment. A mask policy demonstrates that you’re prioritizing worker safety.

Get your executive and management teams to support the policy and set the example. Communicate the policy and expectations clearly, in a few ways (e.g., live meeting, explainer video, and written guidance). Finally, ask employees to sign off on it.

4. Who is exempt from the mask requirements?

Specific work settings create safety hazards that prevent employees from wearing masks, such as the risk of overheating or masks becoming contaminated or caught in equipment. The CDC also recommends that employees not wear masks if they:

  • Have trouble breathing.
  • Cannot tolerate wearing them.
  • Can’t remove them without help. 

Additionally, outdoor workers can wear masks only when physical distancing is not possible.

Similar to requiring the COVID-19 vaccination, there are both medical and religious exemptions to mask-wearing.

Medical 

The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) requires employers to provide accommodation to employees who have disabilities that prevent them from wearing a mask. An employer may ask questions if the disability is not evident, such as: 

  • How does the disability create a limitation?
  • How does the accommodation address the limitation?
  • Would another form of accommodation effectively address the issue?
  • How will the accommodation allow the employee to continue to perform their essential job functions?

Religious

Employees can decline to wear a mask due to religious beliefs. Employers must provide reasonable accommodations to these individuals and should generally assume requests for religious accommodations are based on sincerely held beliefs.

Employers can decline accommodation if it would create an undue hardship, which is a significant difficulty or expense (this can be financial or can also affect co-workers or business operations).

5. Do employers have to provide or pay for masks?

This depends on what your state has mandated. Some governors have issued mask mandates requiring all or certain businesses to provide and pay for masks for their employees. Some local ordinances may even require companies to provide or pay for masks for their staff. Be sure to follow your state and local laws around mask mandates and obligations to provide and pay for masks.

6. How should employers handle those who refuse to wear masks?

Start by addressing the employee calmly. Take the time to listen and understand why they don’t want to wear a mask. Acknowledge their feelings and concerns and reiterate that the company is doing its best to do the right thing and keep everyone safe. Avoid saying things like “That’s the policy,” which could just exacerbate their frustrations and concerns. 

On the same token, your HR and management teams should be ready to ensure that workers comply with mask requirements, particularly in the following situations: 

  • The organization is under a state- or country-wide mask mandate.
  • Employees can’t physically distance themselves from one another.
  • Employees work closely with the public.

If you can accommodate someone refusing to wear a mask by letting them work from home or in an isolated workspace, then let it go. Otherwise, manage mask refusal the same as any insubordination: Document any warnings you hand out and be prepared to terminate the employee if it comes down to it. HR and management should also be ready to intervene in the case of altercations over mask-wearing.

Do you have questions about instituting a mask mandate for your company or need help creating a mask policy? Our HR specialists are here to guide you through this ever-changing pandemic. Contact BlueLion at 603-818-4131 or info@bluelionllc.com today.

The information on this website, including its newsletters, is not, nor is it intended to be legal advice. You should contact an attorney or HR specialist for advice on your individual situation.

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