Many employers are now requiring their employees to wear masks or other face coverings because of the COVID-19 pandemic. If you refuse to wear a face mask at work, you may face discipline at your job. Mandatory masking policies at workplaces in New Jersey and Pennsylvania are common and are based on the recommendations from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. These policies are designed to prevent the novel coronavirus from spreading at workplaces. Here is what you need to know about mandatory mask requirements at your job from the employment attorneys at Swartz Swidler.
Employer mask mandates as safety precautions
Employer mask requirements are safety precautions for workplaces. If an employee violates this type of policy, he or she may be terminated. There are limited circumstances that may excuse workers from masking policies, including religious or medical reasons that prevent them from wearing masks. Employees who try to object to mask requirements at work based on free speech will not be able to avoid discipline. If you simply dislike wearing masks and refuse to do so at work, your employer will likely think that you are violating the company’s rules.
Employment at will
Most workers in New Jersey and Pennsylvania are at-will employees. This means that an employer can terminate their employment for any lawful reason. Employers can fire employees for failing to follow safety rules that employers have implemented. Many workers are concerned about working in environments in which employers haven’t taken safety precautions to prevent the spread of COVID-19.
Employers may run afoul of the law if they only enforce their mask policies for specific groups while not enforcing them for others. For example, if an employer only disciplines female or Black workers for refusing to wear masks but does not discipline white male workers, the Black or female workers could file discrimination complaints based on gender or race bias. By contrast, employers who evenly enforce their mask policies are likely in good legal standing.
If you have a medical condition that prevents you from wearing a mask, you may have more options available to you. You will be required to tell your employer about your medical condition so that your employer can determine whether a reasonable accommodation can be made. If your religious beliefs and practices forbid you from wearing masks, you will similarly need to talk to your employer about reasonable accommodations. These exceptions are limited, and employers have the right to create and enforce non-discriminatory workplace rules. Employers who are lenient with certain workers with their face mask requirements may open the door to complaints.
If an employer allows one worker to work from home because of his or her objection to a mask requirement, another employee who is not allowed to avoid the policy may have grounds to file a bias claim. For example, if a female worker is allowed to work from home because of her opposition to a mask requirement while a male worker is not, the male worker could claim the employer has engaged in unlawful sex discrimination.
Union membership and mask requirements
Some union workers think that because they have representation from a union, they can ignore their employers’ masking rules. However, employers have broad authority to enforce their workplace rules as long as they were properly implemented. Since the COVID-19 pandemic is potentially deadly, companies are likely allowed to impose masking requirements despite the involvement of a union. In this type of situation, the employer would simply need to provide notice to the union about the policy and bargain about it. Unions generally share common interests with employers in maintaining safety and health in the workplace. Many unions have given union workers masks that have union insignia emblazoned on them. Since workers are allowed to wear union buttons when they do not pose a safety risk, union insignia on masks would likely be permissible.
Refusing to wear masks as a political protest
Because of the political divisions that exist in the U.S., some workers might refuse to wear face coverings as a type of political protest. Since the First Amendment applies to governmental action, refusing to wear a mask at work as a form of symbolic protest would likely not be protected in private workplaces. However, government employees have protection under the First Amendment if they are speaking about matters that are of public concern.
However, government agencies have the authority to enforce rules that are designed to protect the welfare, safety, and health of the public. The ability of a public employer to enforce rules about safety and public health would normally be recognized as trumping the free speech rights of an individual worker. Masking requirements are not created to restrict any form of speech, which weakens the claim of a protesting government worker. Workers who refuse to wear masks for political reasons would likely lose their claims in court. This is because an employer that imposes a mask requirement is trying to prevent the potential for real harm to its employees and others that their employees might expose to the virus.
Contact Swartz Swidler
If you have a valid medical or religious reason for not wearing a face mask at your job, you might be able to secure reasonable accommodations. If you simply dislike masking rules because of your political beliefs, you will be unlikely to have legal recourse if your employer disciplines you for violating your company’s rules. To learn more about your rights, contact an employment lawyer today at Swartz Swidler by calling us at 856.685.7420.