Can my employer require me to wear a mask at work?

Despite their demonstrated effectiveness at preventing the spread of COVID-19, many people are against wearing face masks.  Some people find them uncomfortable, some say it makes breathing harder, some have personal or political reasons, and some have no reason at all.  Whatever the reason, many people object to the idea of being required to wear a face mask.  However, as more businesses and governmental authorities require that face masks be worn, many people have been asking when they can be required to wear them and when they can opt out.

Before discussing any sort of requirements regarding face masks, a key assumption must be made: wearing a face mask is primarily for the benefit of others.  Numerous studies have shown that wearing a face mask does more to prevent the person wearing it from spreading germs, thus protecting people around the mask wearer, than it does to protect the person actually wearing the mask.  Although wearing a mask provides some benefit to the person wearing it insofar as it offers some protection over the covered area, that is not the main reason masks are required.  As such, any argument that it’s “your body, your choice,” or that people should be allowed to refuse wearing masks because they are only putting themselves at risk, must be rejected. Gold Star Law is not a medical organization and we have no interest in debating the science of mask wearing.  However, for purposes of employment law and your rights with respect to mask wearing, it is crucial to agree that, at the very least, the businesses and governmental authorities mandating mask wearing are operating under the assumption that the purpose is to protect those around the mask wearer.  If a dispute about mask wearing were to be litigated, any court addressing the issue would assume at a minimum that protection of others was the basis for any sort of mask mandate, even if you or even the court itself disagreed about the effectiveness of masks.  Arguments against the effectiveness of masks are completely irrelevant when it comes to the legality of mask mandates in the world of employment law.

So let’s discuss whether your employer can require you to wear a mask in the workplace.  The answer is almost certainly “yes.”  Employers are allowed to put rules in place for the safety of their employees, customers, and others.  Requiring masks is a basic thing employers can do to keep people on their premises safe.  Many businesses are now required to make masks mandatory.  In general, whether you like it or not, your employer can almost certainly require you to wear a mask.

There are a few possible situations that should be mentioned as issues that could arise with an employer mask mandate.  The first, as usual, is discrimination.  If an employer were to require some but not all employees to wear masks, it would be important to look at why some employees are not bound by the same rule.  There could be perfectly legitimate reasons for this difference, such as employees working in drastically different environments, but it would be illegal to exempt certain employees from a mask mandate if the decision is based on age, sex, color, religion, national origin, race, or any other protected status.  For example, if your employer said only employees of Asian descent are required to wear masks in the workplace, that would obviously be a form of illegal discrimination.

The other issue that people often ask about when it comes to mask mandates is disability.  The Americans with Disabilities Act requires employers to provide reasonable accommodations to employees with disabilities provided it does not create an undue hardship.  To start, “disability” under the ADA means a condition that impairs a major life function.  Finding a mask uncomfortable or annoying is not a valid reason under the ADA to request an accommodation.  In fact, many health conditions that actually do relate to mask wearing may not qualify as disabilities under the ADA, as they may not impair a major life function.  Assuming for now that an employee does have an actual disability under the ADA that limits that employee’s ability to wear a face mask, the employer still does not have to let the employee come to work with no covering.  Employers are NEVER required to make accommodations that put the health or safety of others at risk.  As discussed above, we must assume that any sort of mask mandate is primarily for the safety of others, so this means allowing someone to be in the workplace without a mask is not a required reasonable accommodation under the ADA.  The employer may offer alternatives, such as providing the employee with a work space with no contact with other people or allowing the employee to work from home, or finding a suitable mask alternative.  If no acceptable alternative can be found, however, the employee does not have the right to come mask-less to work.

If you have an employment law concern, please contact Gold Star Law for help.