Tense Times: Requiring Masks for Employees and Visitors

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Coronavirus (COVID-19) customers employees safety workplace violence policy

Wearing a face covering has become a political signal in the polarizing clash between those who see doing so as a moral responsibility and others who view it as an infringement on their freedom. Consequently, employers can likely expect resistance—including the potential for aggression and violence—if they establish a face-covering policy. Before taking action, they should plan carefully.

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Have a Plan for Employees and Enforce Your Policies

Even in states without mask mandates, employers have a general duty under the Occupational Safety and Health Act (OSH Act) to provide a safe workplace for employees. The protection may include a company policy on masks and social distancing. You may require employees to wear masks in the workplace during the pandemic, according to general guidance from the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC).

Accordingly, we recommend employers have a policy for masks in the workplace. The policy should be based on guidance from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and state, local, or county governments and departments of health.

Be sure to accommodate employees with health conditions or religious limitations that prevent them from wearing masks. You may require them to present certification from a healthcare provider about the medical conditions.

If you decide to mandate face coverings for employees, make masks available to them and uniformly enforce the policy. As with all other employment policies, you may discipline workers for failing to wear the masks.

Again, be sure employees with legitimate medical or religious reasons are accommodated by other means, for example, allowing them not to wear a mask, isolating their workstation, or permitting them to work remotely.

Have a Plan for Customers or Visitors

Before implementing a mask mandate for visitors, make sure your employees understand what to do when they’re confronted by a customer or visitor who refuses to wear a face covering. Your workers shouldn’t be placed in the position of having to push the mask policy if the customer or visitor threatens violence. The requirement should be treated like any other policy, such as “no shirt, no shoes, no service.”

Your plan should start with a workplace violence prevention policy. Distribute the policy to all employees and be sure it includes a statement about your commitment to maintaining a safe working environment free from violence and intimidation, as well as the company’s reporting procedure.

We strongly encourage you to have a person or a team of people available to provide guidance on threatening behavior and educate employees about how to prevent incidents from escalating to violent attacks.

Confirm the workplace violence policy covers nonemployee violence and make workers aware of the procedure for reporting customer or visitor threats and aggressions. The policy also should include guidance on when to contact law enforcement to help mitigate and prevent violence.

Violence Prevention Training

Once the policy is in place, conduct periodic training on violence prevention for all employees, particularly with those most likely to interact with customers or visitors. The training should include education on your emergency response plan and how employees should react to aggressive or threatening visitors. The response may include:

  • Securing the business site;
  • Contacting law enforcement;
  • Informing coworkers and other customers of the danger; and
  • Dealing with a media response.

Employees should have access to phones or alarms to use in an emergency.

Another suggestion: Bring in an expert, a reputable security consultant, or someone from local law enforcement to train your employees on how to handle potentially violent situations. Make clear, however, the recommendations are coming from the expert and not the employer.

Have Sufficient Signage on Entry

Use signage outside the store or workplace as your first line of communication to let customers and visitors know (1) no one will be permitted inside without a face covering and (2) they must practice social distancing.

The CDC recommends using verbal announcements, signs, and visual cues to promote social distancing and safety initiatives, even before the customers or visitors enter your place of business. If possible, supply masks for them before they enter.

Politely Request Compliance

Don’t put your employees in the dangerous position of escalating a confrontation because of mask enforcement. Generally, employers aren’t security experts and lack the training and expertise to direct employees on how to react when confronted by a violent customer or visitor. For that reason, instruct your employees on how to politely ask customers and visitors to wear a mask and comply with social-distancing orders.

When a customer or visitor attempts to enter the building without a mask, employees should politely ask the individual to put on a face covering. They also may ask the person to leave and return when he has a mask. Again, you may wish to provide spare masks at the front door for such circumstances.

Some customers or visitors have a valid medical reason for not wearing a mask. In those situations, businesses need not require certification or medical documentation of proof for the condition. We recommend simply accepting the individual’s statement.

Don’t Escalate Situation When Customer or Visitor Refuses to Wear Mask

When a customer or visitor has been asked, but refuses, to wear a mask and insists on entering the business, employees should remain calm. In any case, and especially if the customer or visitor threatens violence, they shouldn’t confront the individual. Instead, they should discreetly call local law enforcement and allow the police to handle the situation.

Additionally, employees shouldn’t attempt to apprehend resistant customers, block their entry, or physically attempt to force them to leave. Such a response could result in legal action against the employee or business.

Similarly, employees shouldn’t get involved in disputes between customers about face masks or social distancing. Intervention is more likely to lead to physical altercations and provoke violence than to deescalate the tense situation.

Big Picture

An increasing number of states and cities are requiring face masks to be worn in public to varying degrees. Even when the measures aren’t mandatory, employers should address the question of masks in the workplace with not only employees but also customers and visitors.

Although mask use has become highly politicized, with established policies and clear guidance and communication, you can prevent confusion and mitigate and/or avoid contentious and potentially violent workplace incidents.

Gene R. La Suer and Maggie A. Hanson are attorneys with Davis Brown Law Firm in Des Moines, Iowa. You can reach them at genelasuer@davisbrownlaw.com or maggiehanson@davisbrownlaw.com.

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