On March 12, 2021, nearly one year to the day after Minnesota declared a peacetime emergency in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, Governor Tim Walz issued Executive Order 21-11, which rolls back certain restrictive measures aimed at limiting the spread of the coronavirus.
Chief among the changes is a relaxation of the mandate that all employees who are able to work remotely must do so. Commencing on March 25, 2020, pursuant to Executive Order 20-20, Minnesota employees have been required to work remotely whenever they are able. This requirement will cease on April 14, 2021, at 11:59 p.m. Employers are now strongly encouraged to allow Minnesota-based employees to work from home when they are able to do so. Employers are also strongly encouraged to implement reasonable accommodations for those employees who are at-risk for infection or who reside with a household member with an underlying medical condition that has not yet become eligible for vaccination. This softens obligations previously set forth in Executive Orders 20-54 and 20-55 in light of the expanded access to COVID-19 vaccinations.
Employers who are planning to return to in-person work should be mindful of the workplace restrictions that remain in effect. Specifically, employers must continue to abide by Minnesota’s mask mandate (Executive Order 20-81) and the obligation for all businesses to prepare COVID-19 Preparedness Plans (Executive Order 20-74). Similarly, specific protection of workers from retaliation with respect to good-faith complaints of unsafe work environments remains in full force (Executive Order 20-54), although the definition of an unsafe work environment will continue to evolve as the prevalence of the coronavirus dissipates and vaccinations increase. These obligations dovetail with worker protections under the Americans with Disabilities Act, the Minnesota Human Rights Act, Minn. Stat. § 181.932 and Minn. Stat. § 182.654. Employers should also note that Minnesota’s Department of Labor and Industry remains empowered to issue citations, civil penalties or closure orders to workplaces with unsafe or unhealthy conditions, and to penalize businesses that retaliate against employees who raise safety and health concerns.
Governor Walz’s order is one of many recent harbingers that the COVID-19 pandemic may soon be behind us. However, employers must be mindful that return to “business as usual” may still take a long time, even if employees are physically returning to office spaces.
As employers prepare their return-to-work plans, we encourage them to consult with their Faegre Drinker counsel to put in place measures and policies that thoughtfully consider safe workplace practices, such as vaccination policies, remote work policies and updated COVID-19 Preparedness Plans.