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Virus-Related Complaints From Workers On The Rise

By Alexis Shanes · March 3, 2021, 9:11 PM EST

More than a third of employers have fielded complaints from workers related to COVID-19, and claims involving the Americans with Disabilities Act have jumped since last summer, according to a survey of employers released by Blank Rome LLP on Wednesday. 

Blank Rome's report, based on a February survey of 130 executives, human resources leaders, and in-house and general counsel, said that 34% of respondents had gotten COVID-19-related complaints. That's up from 21% in July and just 12% in March 2020, the firm said, adding that ADA claims climbed from 4% in July to 8%.

And while the overwhelming majority of the company leaders — 87% — are in favor of taking the COVID-19 vaccine themselves, only 15% said they would require workers to get the jab. Meanwhile, 39% of respondents said they would not require employees to be vaccinated, and the rest were undecided.

When it comes to asking workers if they have been vaccinated, 41% answered that they plan to do so, though half remained unsure.

"I really think it's just kind of a wait-and-see thing right now," Blank Rome partner and study co-author Brooke Iley told Law360. "There are all of these different question marks swirling around."

Wednesday's report comes a day after President Joe Biden announced that by the end of May, the U.S. would have enough vaccines for every adult to receive one. It is the fourth of the firm's employer COVID-19 surveys since the series started last March, but the first since the U.S. authorized a vaccine for the virus. 

"We're at a really interesting inflection point," said Susan Bickley, also a Blank Rome partner and study co-author. "I think we caught a snapshot of their attitudes."

Employers largely view Biden's inauguration as positive, with 62% saying the new administration will have a beneficial impact on the fight against COVID-19, and just 6% reporting the opposite. They're also relying on advice from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention more than ever, according to Blank Rome.

The vaccines and the new administration are driving optimism among employers, Iley and Bickley said.

When it comes to the potentially risky practice of incentivizing the shots, just 10% of respondents said they would, while 34% said they won't and the rest had yet to decide, according to the report.

"Employers are waiting to see how it all shakes out," Bickley said, adding that employers might be able to encourage workers to get vaccines without instituting mandates or structured incentive programs. "There's been some conflicting signals."

While the report showed a steady rise in complaints from employees, it also showed that nearly three-quarters of them don't fall into traditional categories for employment claims, such as discrimination, retaliation, and Occupational Safety and Health Administration complaints.

"There was a lot of real focus on understanding that claims are increasing and what [employers] can do to be vigilant," Iley said. "They're looking very closely at workplace safety plans and protocols."

Employers have widely adopted medical screening requirements for on-site workers, which could be a driver of the increasing employee complaints, the report said.

Several on-site safety protocols are nearing ubiquity. The majority of the surveyed employers have increased cleaning, social distancing requirements and associated signage. Roughly 97% require masks, a figure that has risen since the summer.

Three-quarters of employers allow their employees to work from home, and only 28% have three-quarters or more of their employees on site. Most continue to refrain from instituting workplace liability waivers.

Additionally, 78% of employers have faced increased requests for paid time off. And around 40% have seen increased requests for time off under the Family and Medical Leave Act or unpaid leave.

But those requests haven't had too much of an impact on typical time-off eligibility. Around 60% of the employers haven't made changes to PTO offerings, and just 6% have given parents of young children more PTO.

In April, more than half of employers had avoided taking employee-related cost-cutting measures, such as layoffs and furloughs. That number has dropped as the pandemic has raged on; now, just 31% have managed to evade those outcomes.

Despite what Bickley called a "dizzying array" of new considerations — such as managing business travel as some states begin to lift restrictions — she and Iley said some of the hardest choices may be in the past.

"This was the first survey where employers are feeling somewhat hopeful," Iley said. "We got some positive comments. People are coming out of the difficult decisions."

--Editing by Abbie Sarfo.

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