Masks Mandates & the Workplace

With COVID-19 becoming our new reality, it’s unsurprising that it has caused some significant changes in the workplace.

Working from home isn’t feasible for many, which has led to updates to workplace requirements and dress codes, particularly in regards to cloth face masks or other facial covering requirements. With new regulations come new questions, especially around what precautions employers should be taking and if there can be repercussions for noncompliance.

Question: Can an employer make you wear a mask or cloth face covering at work? 

Yes. According to the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), it is generally recommended that employers encourage the use of face coverings now that COVID-19 is an every-day issue. This includes jobs that would not generally require face coverings, such as office or retail jobs. By covering your mouth and nose, you’re less likely to spread potentially infectious droplets during the course of normal conversation or any other close personal interactions. OSHA takes this position as it is consistent with the guidance issued by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC)

Question: Are cloth face masks considered personal protective equipment (PPE)? 

No, cloth face masks are not considered PPE as they do not specifically protect against exposure to occupational hazards (as COVID is not occupational-specific). Therefore, cloth face masks and coverings do not need to be provided by the employer and are not given the same weight as PPE mandates.

Question: Do I have to wear a mask or face covering all the time at work? 

This depends on your employer, as they have the right to determine whether or not masks are necessary based on the “specific circumstances present at the work site.” For some workers, a mask may actually be more dangerous because it could collect and hold chemicals near the nose and mouth which are then inhaled. Certain jobs/occupations may also have other PPE requirements, like N95 filtering respirators, that would take the place of a cloth face mask/covering. 

In instances where a cloth face mask is not recommended, face shields can be used as a viable alternative. 

Question: Can I be fired if I don’t comply with mask requirements?

Most employment in the U.S. is “at will,” meaning employers can fire workers for any reason as long as it doesn’t violate the law. In fact, those reasons can include a worker’s failure to adhere to safety precautions implemented by employers – so yes, that includes failure to comply with wearing a mask or face covering if that has been listed as a new company policy/requirement.  

Question: Is there a way I can be exempt from a mask policy?

Yes, there are medical and religious exemptions to wearing face coverings in public/in the workplace. Workers who have a respiratory illness or other medical reason that prevents them from wearing a face covering may have options to challenge company policy requiring face coverings (assuming one has been set in place by the employer). They must inform their employer of their condition and go through the process of determining reasonable accommodation under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) with their employer. 

Similarly, workers who oppose wearing a face covering due to religious reasons also need to discuss accommodations under the ADA with their employer. 

Question: Is there any danger to the employer for allowing employee mask exemptions?

There is some small risk to the employer if they begin to allow exemptions/become lenient on face covering policies – namely that it opens the door to workers who simply oppose wearing a mask to request to work from home. This could, in turn, make the employer vulnerable to a bias claim if certain workers are allowed to skirt policy and not others – if more males are inadvertanly given permission to work from home than females, certain individuals could claim sex discrimination. 

In short, it’s important to know what updates your company has made to various policies and regulations in regards to mask wearing or cloth face coverings in the workplace. Open and effective communication will make compliance easier and help avoid noncompliance issues that may lead to being sent home or fired.