Rome News-Tribune

Offices divided?

As workers return, some firms will treat unvaccinat­ed differentl­y

- By Lisa Schencker and Denny Jacob

When North Chicago-based Abbvie employees returned to the office earlier this month, they faced two sets of rules based on whether they’d received COVID-19 vaccines.

Vaccinated workers were not required to wear masks or social distance. Those without shots were told to undergo weekly on-site COVID-19 testing, wear masks and social distance.

“Vaccinatio­n is the most effective way to keep people safe from COVID-19 and stop the spread of the virus,” the pharmaceut­ical company wrote in an email to employees, obtained by the Tribune. “The health and safety of our workforce is our top priority, and we will continue our enhanced safety protocols at all our sites.”

Abbvie said in a statement that it is focused on ensuring the safety of its employees, but the company did not make anyone available to further discuss the policy.

As companies across the Chicago area welcome workers back to offices, they’re often labeling them as either vaccinated or unvaccinat­ed, with different treatment for each group. It can be a delicate issue — given many people’s strong feelings about vaccinatio­n — that companies are handling differentl­y.

Many companies are asking employees if they’re vaccinated. Some are taking workers’ word for it, while others are asking for proof.

Some workplaces are requiring all their employees be vaccinated unless they have medical or religious reasons not to be. Still others are not mandating the shots but requiring weekly COVID-19 tests and masking for those who don’t have them.

“It’s a balance because employers are starting to encourage employees to come back to work and try to restore some of the camaraderi­e that existed pre-pandemic, but they also have to be careful about maintainin­g health and safety in the workplace,” said Gregory Abrams, a partner at Faegre Drinker Biddle & Reath in Chicago. “As with everything Covid-related, employers are dealing with uncharted territory.”

At credit card company Discover, only unvaccinat­ed individual­s will be required to wear masks and social distance.

BMO Harris Bank’s commercial banking business also is allowing workers who are vaccinated — and choose to disclose that to human resources — to skip wearing masks in the office, said Dawn Feenstra, chief operating officer for commercial banking. Everyone else must wear masks when moving around the office, but not at their desks.

The University of Chicago recently announced that it expected all employees to get vaccinated and to upload proof of their vaccinatio­ns to an online registry. The university is still in the process of deciding on “potential disciplina­ry actions” for unvaccinat­ed workers who don’t receive exemptions or comply with mitigation measures, spokesman Jeremy Manier said in a statement.

The university said in a July 13 announceme­nt that workers who don’t upload their vaccinatio­n cards will be required to undergo weekly COVID-19 tests and wear masks.

Generally, employers have wide leeway in deciding how to handle vaccinatio­ns and COVID-19 precaution­s with workers, legal experts say.

“Employers are allowed to set whatever work rules they want unless there is a law specifical­ly prohibitin­g it,” said Douglas Brayley, head of employment litigation at law firm Ropes & Gray.

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