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Workplace Health and Safety During COVID-19: A Resource Guide for Employees

Workers’ rights and employer responsibilities as businesses reopen amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

You are legally entitled to a safe and healthy workplace. While COVID-19 is part of all our daily lives right now, there are some things your employer must do to keep you safe at work. Additionally, if you are unable to return to work or if you return to work and get sick, you may have leave and pay options available to you. This resource guide provides information about workers’ rights and employer responsibilities as businesses reopen after the COVID-19 public health emergency-related closures. 

Table of Contents

Reopening Plan

On May 18, 2020, Governor Charlie Baker announced that the Massachusetts economy will be reopening using a four-phase approach, based on public health guidance. The goal of the phased reopening plan is to methodically allow businesses, services, and activities to resume, while avoiding a resurgence of COVID-19. Each phase will last a minimum of three weeks and could last longer before moving to the next phase. For more information, please visit the following websites:

If you want to report non-compliance with the Governor’s Reopening Plan and COVID orders, please visit: Reopening: COVID-19 Compliance.

If you have questions or concerns about the Governor’s Reopening Plan, please submit your question or concern online.

Essential Services and Businesses

On March 23rd, Governor Charlie Baker ordered that only essential services and businesses could remain open, in order to reduce the transmission of COVID-19. These businesses and services will continue to operate during the phased reopening of non-essential businesses, and must comply with safety standards.  Essential businesses must self-certify by May 25, 2020.

For more information on essential businesses, please visit the following websites: 

For more information on industry-specific protocols and directives for essential businesses, please visit the state's COVID-19 public health guidance directives website.  

If you are concerned that a business is operating in violation of the Governor’s order regarding essential businesses, please contact your local board of health.

Non-Essential Services and Businesses that Can Begin to Reopen

Starting on May 18, 2020, as part of the Governor’s phased reopening plan, some non-essential businesses are eligible to reopen, subject to their ability to comply with all mandatory safety standards and any sector-specific standards. Before reopening, all businesses in Massachusetts must:

  • Develop a written COVID-19 Control Plan outlining how its workplace will prevent the spread of COVID-19.
  • Sign a compliance attestation poster attesting that they have completed a COVID-19 control plan, and post it in an area within the business premises that is visible to employees and visitors.
  • Post signs and posters (Employer Poster, Worker Poster) describing the rules for maintaining social distancing, hygiene protocols, cleaning, and disinfecting.

For more information on when certain businesses can reopen and what safety standards must be in place, please visit the following resources:

If you want to report non-compliance with the Governor’s Reopening Plan and COVID orders, please visit: Reopening: COVID-19 Compliance.

Mandatory Safety Standards for Workplaces

The Department of Public Health (DPH) and the COVID-19 Command Center developed new Mandatory Workplace Safety Standards in consultation with the Governor’s Reopening Advisory Board. These new standards apply to all workplaces that are reopening as part of the Governor's Reopening Plan, and are designed to reduce the risk of COVID-19 transmission to employees and customers. These standards are applicable to all sectors and industries. In addition businesses must follow sector-specific safety protocols and recommended best practices, which will provide further details and limited exceptions.  

The Mandatory Safety Standards for Workplaces that will begin reopening under the Governor’s Reopening Plan are as follows:

Social Distancing:

  • All persons, including employees, customers, and vendors should remain at least six feet apart to the greatest extent possible, both inside and outside workplace
  • Establish protocols to ensure that employees can practice adequate social distancing
  • Provide signage for safe social distancing
  • Require face coverings or masks for all employees
     

Hygiene Protocols:

  • Provide hand washing capabilities throughout the workplace
  • Ensure frequent hand washing by employees and adequate supplies to do so
  • Provide regular sanitization of high touch areas, such as workstations, equipment, screens, doorknobs, restrooms throughout work site

Staffing and Operations:

  • Provide training for employees regarding the social distancing and hygiene protocols
  • Ensure employees who are displaying COVID19-like symptoms do not report to work
  • Establish a plan for employees getting ill from Covid-19 at work, and a return-to-work plan

Cleaning and Disinfecting:

  • Establish and maintain cleaning protocols specific to the business
  • When an active employee is diagnosed with COVID19, cleaning and disinfecting must be performed
  • Disinfection of all common surfaces must take place at intervals appropriate to said workplace

Sector-Specific Protocols:

  • The Reopening Advisory Board is developing Sector Specific Safety Standards and Best Practices that will detail how particular industries should operate upon reopening, as well as provide for limited exceptions to the mandatory standards.
  • These sector-specific standards already developed can be found here.

For more information on what your employer is required to do to ensure worker safety, please visit:

If you want to report non-compliance with the Governor’s Reopening Plan and COVID orders, please visit: Reopening: COVID-19 Compliance.

Sector Specific Workplace Safety Protocols

For sector specific workplace safety protocols, please visit the following sites and search for your industry:

 

If you want to report non-compliance with the Governor’s Reopening Plan and COVID orders, please visit: Reopening: COVID-19 Compliance.

Face Masks and Personal Protective Equipment

The Governor’s Mask Order went into effect on May 6, 2020 requiring face masks or cloth face coverings in public places where social distancing is not possible. This applies to both indoor and outdoor spaces. Exceptions include children under the age of 2 and those unable to wear a mask or face covering due to a medical condition. For reference, a business may refuse entry to a person who refuses to cover their face, unless it is for medical reasons. DPH's Safer at Home advisory, issued on May 18, 2020, reiterates that all residents are required to cover their face when they cannot maintain six feet of social distance in public.

Employers may have and enforce their own rules requiring employees to wear face masks and businesses may require customers to wear face masks on their premises. As it relates to wearing masks in the summer and/or in the heat, in Massachusetts, an employer has an obligation to protect employees from workplace hazards, including heat stress. If an employer or employee is concerned about heat related illness, connected to the work place, this may constitute a safety hazard and the employer should follow up with DLS directly at (508) 616-0461 ext. 9488 or by sending an email to safepublicworkplacemailbox@mass.gov. For more information on preventing heat illness, please visit the Occupational Safety and Health Administration’s page on heat stress.

The DPH and local boards of health are authorized to enforce the face covering order and, if necessary, with the assistance of State or municipal police. Violations may result in a civil fine of up to $300 per violation. To report violations of the Governor’s Mask Order please contact your local board of health.

For more information, please see the following DPH guidance:

If your employer requires you to wear specialized Personal Protective Equipment (PPE), such as an N95 mask, latex gloves, or a protective gown or face shield, in order to meet the mandatory safety standards that allow the business to be open, then your employer should bear the cost. If your employer is only requiring an everyday face covering, such as a cloth mask or bandana, your employer is not required to pay for the face covering.

For more information on accessing facemasks or PPE, please see:

Exposure to COVID-19 and Returning to Work

If you are a close contact of someone with COVID-19 or you are a resident in a community where there is ongoing spread of COVID-19 and develop symptoms of COVID-19, call your healthcare provider and tell them about your symptoms and your exposure. They will decide whether you need to be tested, but keep in mind that there is no treatment for COVID-19 and people who are mildly ill may be able to isolate and care for themselves at home.

For additional guidance on whether you should quarantine and when you should return to work if you have been exposed to COVID-19, please see below:

Testing and Temperature Screening

Under the CDC’s guidance for employers, employers should not require a COVID-19 test result or a healthcare provider’s note for employees who are sick to validate their illness, qualify for sick leave, or to return to work. However, employers may conduct temperature screenings to screen workers for COVID-19 symptoms and may choose to administer COVID-19 testing to employees when it is job-related and consistent with business necessity, which is a case by case analysis. By comparison, the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission’s has said that an antibody test (unlike a viral COVID-19 test) does not meet the ADA’s “job related and consistent with business necessity” standard for medical examinations or inquiries for current employees. Therefore, requiring antibody testing before allowing employees to re-enter the workplace is not allowed under the ADA. Please note that an antibody test is different from a test to determine if someone has an active case of COVID-19 (such as a viral test). Employers must maintain all information about employee illness as a confidential medical record in compliance with the ADA.

Regarding the cost of testing, as an initial matter, employers must pay the cost of any test that they require of their employees, like they would any other business-related expense. That being said, if the employee is symptomatic, or has experienced potential exposure, insurers regulated by the Division of Insurance must cover the test at no cost to the employee. Additionally, there are several free test centers for frontline workers, as well as for uninsured individuals. If you are uninsured, please call your local test site to confirm before making an appointment.

For more information, please see:

Cleaning After Positive COVID-19 Cases

The Governor’s Mandatory Workplace Safety Standards require employers to:

  • Establish and maintain cleaning protocols specific to the business,
  • Perform cleaning and disinfecting when an active employee is diagnosed with COVID19, and
  • Disinfect all common surfaces at intervals appropriate to said workplace.

The CDC also has specific guidance on how businesses and individuals should disinfect facilities and homes after exposure to COVID-19:

Reporting Positive COVID-19 Cases

The CDC has issued guidance to help prevent workplace exposure to COVID-19. Under the CDC’s Interim Guidance, employers need to consider how best to decrease the spread of COVID-19, which should include activities to:

  • Prevent and reduce transmission among employees,
  • Maintain healthy business operations, and
  • Maintain a healthy work environment.

The guidance instructs employers to inform employees of their possible exposure to COVID-19 in the workplace but maintain confidentiality as required by the Americans with Disability Act

The Governor’s Reopening Plan offers Sector Specific Guidance for businesses reopening. Most sector-specific protocols require employers to notify the local Board of Health in the city or town where the workplace is located, work with them to trace likely contacts in the workplace, and advise workers to isolate and self-quarantine. For more sector-specific protocols, please visit the state’s sector-specific protocols.

Additionally, under the recordkeeping requirements of the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), COVID-19 is a recordable illness, and thus employers are responsible for recording cases of COVID-19, if:

  • The case is a confirmed case of COVID-19, as defined by the CDC
  • The case is work-related as defined by 29 CFR § 1904.5; and
  • The case involves one or more of the general recording criteria set forth in 29 CFR § 1904.7.

Read OSHA’s enforcement guidance for recording cases of COVID-19 for more information.

High Risk Individuals

If you have a disability that puts you at higher risk for complications of COVID-19 you may request a reasonable accommodation, such as the ability to telework. For more information visit the US Equal Employment Opportunity Commission’s Resources. If you have been denied a reasonable accommodation request, please contact the Civil Rights Division at the Attorney General’s Office.

During the first 3 phases of the Governor’s Reopening Plan, high risk individuals as defined by the CDC should work from home if possible. Employers should give high risk individuals priority consideration for workplace accommodations.

Read more about the Governor’s Four-Phase Approach.

For more information and guidance from the CDC on high risk individuals and COVID-19, please see below:

Rights of Quarantined Workers

If your employer is reopening in accordance with the Governor’s Reopening Plan, and you are unable to return to work, or you return to work and become sick with COVID-19, you may be eligible for protected leave or other benefits. The leave and benefit options include: Massachusetts Earned Sick Time, the Families First Coronavirus Response Act, Unemployment Insurance, Workers’ Compensation, Short-Term Disability, Family Medical Leave, a reasonable accommodation, and paid time off banks.

Read more about Rights for Quarantined Essential Workers.

Where to Report Concerns

Learn more about where to report concerns below: 

  • Governor’s Reopening Plan and COVID-19 Compliance: If you want to report non-compliance with the Governor’s Reopening Plan and COVID orders, please visit: Reopening: COVID-19 Compliance.
     
  • Essential Services and Businesses: If you are concerned that a business is operating in violation of the Governor’s order regarding essential businesses, please contact the board of health in the city or town where the business is located. The Governor's Office has asked local boards of health to work with businesses to reach a solution. If the local board of health has declined to respond, please contact DLS. Emailed inquiries to safepublicworkplacemailbox@mass.gov, with the following information 
    • Name, address, phone number and location of business
    • Name and phone number of the person making referral 
       
  • Mandatory Workplace Safety Standards: If you would like to report a business or workplace that is non-compliant with the mandatory workplace safety standards of the Governor's Reopening Plan, please reach out to the board of health in the city or town where the business is located. After contacting the local board of health, you may contact DLS through their hotline: (508) 616-0461 ext. 9488 or by sending an email to safepublicworkplacemailbox@mass.gov. DLS will call or email you within 72 hours if an investigation is warranted.
     
  • Face Masks: To report violations of the Governor’s Mask Order please contact your local board of health.
     
  • High Risk Individuals: If you have been denied a reasonable accommodation request, please contact the Civil Rights Division at the Attorney General’s Office.
     
  • Retaliation: Employees who believe that their employers retaliated against them because they engaged in protected activity should contact OSHA as soon as possible because they must file any complaint within the legal time limits. File a whistleblower complaint, contact OSHA here. OSHA also has resources available on Your Rights as a Whistleblower and OSHA’s Whistleblower Protection Program.
     
  • Unsafe Work Conditions Related to COVID-19: If you would like to report an unsafe working condition related to COVID-19, such as a lack of social distancing, PPE, hygiene protocols or cleaning and disinfection, please file a COVID-19-Related Workplace Health and Safety complaint with the AG's Office. Your employer cannot retaliate against you for making a complaint about an unsafe working condition. File a workplace safety complaint here.
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