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Coronavirus Protections Enacted by Two Executive Orders - February 18, 2021

Jo Ellen Whitney


During his campaign, President Biden indicated consistently that he would work rapidly to provide additional Coronavirus protections and he delivered on that promise in two Executive Orders signed on his first and second days in office. 

Protecting Worker Health and Safety

Issued on January 21, 2021, the Executive Order Protecting Worker Health and Safety requires the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) to issue additional guidance to employers on workplace safety, assess whether emergency, temporary standards regarding masking are necessary, and if determined as necessary, issue requirements no later than March 15, 2021. OSHA is also directed to place more emphasis on anti-retaliation efforts relating to COVID-19 reporting and work with other agencies to improve multilingual outreach. 

As a result of this order, we anticipate seeing continuing revised guidance from OSHA on workplace safety as well as significantly stricter masking requirements over time.

Protecting Federal Workforce

The executive order on Protecting the Federal Workforce was signed on January 20, 2021. This order requires all federal employees, onsite federal contractors, and others in federal buildings to wear masks, maintain physical distance, and adhere to any other public health measures publicized and provided by the CDC. 

Note there are differences between the federal requirements and Iowa requirements. This order allows heads of agencies to make case-by-case exceptions for implementing the masking rules if the exception may be required by law, for example for ADA/ADAA compliance.  However, the order notes that if exceptions are made, “additional appropriate alternative safeguards, such as additional physical distancing measures, additional testing or reconfiguration of work space …” will also be required and any exceptions must be documented in writing.

The executive order also discusses the Safer Federal Workforce Taskforce which is intended to provide guidance to heads of agencies on safety protocols, policies, case investigation, contact tracing, and several other items.  The order provides for the evaluation and implementation of a federal COVID-19 testing plan. In the past, most mandated testing was exclusively in the long-term care area, so a widespread federal testing plan would be new.

Impact on Employers

In general, this means more masking, more testing, and a greater focus on workplace safety measures not only for federal employees but also for others as the compliance environment continues to shift.  A changing presidential administration always brings about changes for employers, and that is especially true now. Employers with questions about their obligations should contact an employment attorney.  We will continue to publish updated guidance on the Employment Law Blog.


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