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May 15, 2021

News West

West Coast News Network

FAQs On Office Reopening and Meeting Protocols

This week has been full of back to work buzz. Can we return to work? What about planning a team happy hour? Questions abound, yet answers require sorting through a myriad of state and county guidance documents.

The guidance changes frequently, sometimes without notice or fanfare. Much depends on the County regulations in effect at the time of the event/meeting/office reopening. Indeed, Los Angeles County released new “Orange Tier” guidelines effective April 30th (yes, today!).  Because 41 of 58 counties are now designated in the Orange Tier, we will focus on those current guidelines.

Here are some of our top Q&As to help you navigate the current COVID-19 state of play:

Q:  Can I make my employees come back to the office?
A:  For counties in the “Orange Tier,” non-essential offices may finally reopen.  The state guidelines still encourage remote work for all employees where possible, particularly for those not yet vaccinated or with vulnerabilities. County guidelines also place limitations on office capacity. For example, the new LA rules permit 50% capacity, whereas San Francisco County limits office capacity for companies with staff of 20 or more to 25% provided employees can remain six feet apart.

Q:  Can I require employees to show proof of vaccination before permitting them to return to work?
A:  Yes, but we don’t necessarily recommend mandating vaccines. Remember your obligation to engage in an interactive dialogue and consider reasonable accommodations for employees unable to get vaccinated due to a disability or sincerely held religious belief. An alternate approach is to require an employee to either provide proof of vaccination or submit to a weekly testing routine, paid by the company.

Q:  What requirements exist for employees returning to an office environment?
A:  Offices must have a Cal-OSHA required COVID-19 Prevention Plan and training program in place.  Offices must provide health screening for employees and visitors via a self-screen or an on-site screening. Face masks must be provided at no-cost to employees and other cleaning and social distancing measures must be taken.  LA County recently released this checklist for returning to an office environment.

Q:  Can I host a team lunch or happy hour?
A:  Probably. But it depends where you are located and how many people will attend.  These types of gatherings might fall under guidance for a “private event,” “meeting” or “gathering.” Gatherings are defined as social situations that bring together people from different households at the same time in a single space or place, without a defined guest list. State guidelines for “private events” or “meetings” with defined guest lists cap outdoor events at 100 or 300 (if everyone is vaccinated or tests negative).  Indoor capacity is 150, provided everyone is vaccinated or tests negative. LA, Orange, San Diego and San Francisco counties have adopted the state threshold for private events/meetings.  As far as informal gatherings, counties in the Orange Tier allow 50 people to gather outdoors, making a team lunch or dinner more realistic. Generally, everyone must still wear masks unless everyone is fully vaccinated.

Q:  Can I ask employees to sign a waiver that coming to a lunch or happy hour is voluntary?
A:  No. Employee COVID-19 waivers are likely invalid.  Workers’ compensation would likely provide a remedy for an infection related to a work function, even if participation was voluntary. Cal-OSHA rules will also apply if an employee becomes infected at a work-sponsored event.

Keep checking the state and local guidance links provided within this post, as guidance can change between the planning and execution of any event, necessitating continued flexibility. Word of the pandemic: pivot!