Posts filed under ‘COVID-19’

What To Do When Your Employee Requests A Religious Accommodation

There are three things I know for certain this morning: One is that I will get more sleep with the Yankees not in the playoffs (I have no idea why they have to start games so late).

Secondly, the Bronx Bombers will overpay for marquee talent in the off-season and be proclaimed World Series favorites by the baseball intelligentsia even though they have won only one World Series in the last 19 years.

Finally, your credit union will most likely have to decide how to respond to an employee who wants a workplace accommodation based on their religious beliefs. As much as I would like to continue my Yankee diatribe, I have a sneaking suspicion that the last topic has more relevance to your credit union day. Here is a quick primer designed to get you thinking about your own HR protocols.

First, under both state and federal law, employers are responsible for working with employees whose genuine and sincere religious beliefs conflict with their employment obligations. This means that if your credit union either mandates vaccinations or is ultimately mandated to make sure it’s employees are vaccinated, there may be employees who refuse to get vaccinated on religious grounds. 

What is a genuine and sincere religious belief? Suffice it to say that the courts are not comfortable with employers second guessing what constitutes a religious belief. In one recent case, a West Virginia coal miner successfully sued for religious discrimination after he resigned rather than use a hand scanner to check into work. He explained that hand scanners constituted the mark of the devil. In upholding his lawsuit the court explained that “it is not an employer’s place, nor a court’s place, to question the correctness or even the plausibility of an employee’s religious understandings.” [U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission v. Consol Energy, Inc., 860 F.3d 131 (C.A.4 (W.Va.), 2017)]. On a practical level, this means that if you find yourself debating how religious the employee really is or debating doctrine you are going down the wrong path. You can, however, ask for a connection between the religious beliefs and refusal to get vaccinated. 

Assuming the employee has a genuine and sincere religious belief which conflicts with a vaccine mandate, are you required to accommodate the employee? Maybe, maybe not. Under both state and federal law an employer doesn’t have to accommodate an employee where doing so would constitute an “undue burden.” Under federal law, an undue burden has been defined as any accommodation that requires an employer to make any accommodation for an employee’s religion if doing so would pose more than a “de minimis” burden. Trans World Airlines, Inc. v. Hardison, 432 U.S. 63 (1977).

In contrast, New York has a much higher standard for employers claiming hardship under New York law [N.Y. Exec. Law § 296(10)(d)(1)]. An undue hardship means an accommodation requiring significant expense or difficulty including a significant interference with the safe or efficient operation of the workplace. What standard will ultimately be applied to your credit union may vary depending on the legal basis for a vaccine mandate. For now, keep in mind that as New York employers, your credit union may have to deal with a higher standard. 

So what does all this mean? It means that you are not going to categorically reject an employee’s request for religious accommodation. Instead, you are going to discuss the need for a religious accommodation and assuming that the requested accommodation is genuine and sincere you are going to develop a framework for accommodating employees when it is reasonable to do so and be prepared to explain to both the employee and the courts when you decide doing so constitutes an undue burden. You want to make sure that you treat all accommodations in as fair and equitable a way as possible given the need to run your credit union.

As you can see, these are tricky issues.  If you are confronted with a request, you are being penny wise and pound foolish if you don’t consult with your friendly neighborhood HR attorney.

On that note, Go Rays!

October 6, 2021 at 10:53 am Leave a comment

Will Biden’s Executive Order Apply to Credit Unions?

Yesterday, President Biden took his most aggressive action yet to combat the spread of COVID-19.  First, he ordered the Department of Labor’s Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) to issue an emergency temporary standard that will “require all employers with 100 or more employees to ensure their workforce is fully vaccinated or require any workers who remain unvaccinated to produce a negative test result on at least a weekly basis before coming to work” and must give employees paid time off to get the vaccine and paid time off to recover from any side effects.  Secondly, the President is ordering the establishment of guidelines mandating that federal contractors be vaccinated.  The precise impact of these orders on your credit union’s operations remains to be seen.

With the exception of certain industries, OSHA has not promulgated federal workplace safety standards in relation to COVID-19.  This is why New York felt the need to fill this gap by passing the HERO Act.  As I explained in a recent blog, New York’s Commissioner of Health has declared COVID to be a highly infectious disease which means that all New York employers must now have health screening protocols in place.  We will have to wait for the OSHA standards to see precisely what is going to be required of larger employers beyond the state mandates.

Another tricky issue that needs to be clarified is whether or not financial institutions are going to be considered federal contractors for purposes of the President’s vaccine mandate.  The President’s Executive Order technically does not mandate vaccinations, but instead mandates that guidance be issued defining precisely who is to be considered a federal contractor.  However, the President’s order stipulates that the definition of a federal contractor will be based on regulations being promulgated by the Department of Labor mandating that contractors provide a $15 minimum wage to their employees.  In addition, there must be a regulatory finding that the President’s actions will advance efficiency in the federal government’s procurement processes.  This last point is particularly important since the inevitable legal challenges to the President’s announcement yesterday will most likely be based on challenging the regulatory authority of the executive to issue these mandates. 

All this means we are weeks, and maybe months away from any additional vaccine mandates.  In the meantime, an increasing number of employers are mandating that their employees be vaccinated.  Of course, check with your attorney, but they are on solid legal ground in doing so, and your credit union would be as well. 

September 10, 2021 at 10:59 am Leave a comment

Time To Activate Your Infectious Disease Safety Plan

On September 6th, New York’s Commissioner of Health triggered increased employee protections by classifying COVID-19 as a communicable disease that presents a “serious risk of harm to the public health in New York State.” This means that all New York State credit unions should review and activate their workplace safety plans. Remember, failure to do so is a violation of the law.

As readers of this blog know, former Governor Cuomo signed legislation mandating that the State’s Department of Labor, in consultation with the Department of Health, promulgate model standards describing the minimum steps employers must take to protect their employees in the event of an outbreak of an airborne infectious disease. Under the law, all employers had to have these policies and procedures in place by August 5th. However, since the Commissioner of Health had not formally designated COVID-19 as an infectious disease under the statute the policies and standards were not in effect. The Department of Health’s announcement changes all that.

Now that the designation has been made, your credit union should be reviewing its policy and implementing its provisions. I’m assuming that for many of you, this won’t be difficult as many of your practices already complied with steps that have been taken to mitigate the spread of COVID, such as rearranging work spaces and having appropriate PPE. However, for those of you who need to take additional steps, or worse yet, have not gotten around to adopting a policy and standard, you should do so now.

In activating these policies remember that one of the primary purposes of the law was to provide employees increased protections in the event that adequate workplace safety procedures are not being implemented or complied with. Your employees are protected against retaliation in the event they bring alleged violations to your attention and your credit union could be fined and sued for violating the law.  Remember, this applies to you whether you are a state or federal credit union. 

September 8, 2021 at 9:27 am 1 comment

New Governor Moves Quickly To Extend Foreclosure Protections

Good morning, Folks. New York Governor Hochul convened an Extraordinary Session yesterday in which the legislature extended foreclosure and eviction protections for individuals claiming COVID related hardships until January 15th of next year. The measures impact both state and federally chartered credit unions that start foreclosure actions against delinquent homeowners and businesses.

Notice that I did not say that the legislation simply extends New York’s eviction and foreclosure ban. In response to recent rulings by the Supreme Court, landlords and lenders now have the ability to challenge an individual’s assertion that they are delinquent because of a COVID related hardship. The hardship exception applies to mortgages that are held by state or federally chartered credit unions. It does not apply to mortgages held by GSE’s.

We will have to see how this new framework is implemented. But if your credit union is interested in pursuing this option it should start identifying cases where this new exception might be applicable.

Guidance Issued On Lending To Same-sex Couples

In another important move, the Department of Financial Services issued guidance detailing steps lenders should take to prevent lending bias when making loans to same-sex couples. DFS has been working on the guidance for weeks. I will be providing more information about its specifics in a future blog. This guidance just applies to state chartered entities and licensed institutions such as state chartered credit unions and mortgage CUSO’s.

Hochul Nominates New DFS Superintendent

The above guidance was issued the same day that the Governor announced that she had chosen Adrienne Harris to lead New York’s Department of Financial Services. Harris replaces Linda Lacewell who resigned when Governor Cuomo left office.

Judging by her resume, Harris, a Columbia law school graduate, has a broad range of experience. She has served as an economic advisor during the Obama administration and as an adviser to Fintechs.

New York State’s Superintendent has historically been among the highest profile state regulators in the country. She not only oversees the banking industry but the insurance industry as well.

September 2, 2021 at 9:33 am Leave a comment

Life After The CDC Eviction Ban

The Supreme Court yesterday ruled that the CDC exceeded its authority when it enacted a nationwide ban of evictions against tenants who claim to be suffering a COVID-19 related hardship.

The court’s ruling surprised absolutely no one who has been following the issue. Just weeks ago, the court signaled that a similar moratorium was most likely unconstitutional but allowed it to expire so that there was more time to distribute federal aid intended to help states like New York avoid the need for evictions.

The precise legal issue was whether the CDC had the regulatory authority to ban evictions absent Congressional action. The court explained that “it is indisputable that the public has a strong interest in combating the spread of the COVID–19 Delta variant. But our system does not permit agencies to act unlawfully even in pursuit of desirable ends…It is up to Congress, not the CDC, to decide whether the public interest merits further action here.”

The Court’s ruling put the focus squarely back onto the states. Although the Court recently invalidated a New York statute which prohibited evictions of individuals suffering a COVID-19 hardship, the Court’s emergency ruling was not a decision on the merits and the statute under review did not give landlords the ability to contest a hardship determination. 

Without further action by Congress the primary federal regulation of which credit unions have to be mindful is the CFPB’s regulation which takes effect on September 1st, mandating that servicers take additional steps to inform delinquent homeowners of loss mitigation options that may be available to individuals delinquent because of a COVID hardship. Crucially, unlike the eviction moratorium struck down by the Court, the CFPB’s new regulation does not mandate that specific relief be made available.

August 27, 2021 at 9:12 am Leave a comment

What FDA’s Vaccination Approval Means For Your Credit Union

The announcement yesterday that the FDA has given final approval to the Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine puts employers at the center of the debate about how to respond to the continuing COVID-19 health crisis.

The FDA’s decision provides further clarity regarding the rights of employers to mandate that employees get vaccinated as a condition of employment. Before yesterday’s announcement, vaccination opponents had argued, without legal success, that the emergency process used to initially approve the COVID-19 vaccine meant that individuals could not be forced to get vaccinated as a matter of federal law.

Now that argument is irrelevant. Within minutes of the announcement several employers announced that vaccinations would now be mandatory for their employees. Federal guidance already authorizes vaccine mandates and the Supreme Court ruled more than 100 years ago that there is no constitutional right not to be vaccinated. The vaccine announcement also comes at a unique time for employers in New York State. We have a new Governor and in recent weeks the state has largely avoided imposing new statewide mandates. Once again, this means that as employers you have more flexibility than ever before.

Now don’t get me wrong, just because you can legally do something doesn’t mean it’s a smart thing to do. The goal should be to maximize the number of employees who are safe and vaccinated. Whether this goal is best accomplished with a carrot instead of a stick is a case-by-case decision. But now that the legalities have been dealt with, policies should be clarified. Time to get that HR attorney back on the phone.

August 24, 2021 at 9:21 am 1 comment

SC Rules that New York’s Eviction Moratorium Goes Too Far

The Supreme Court on Thursday granted emergency relief to landlords challenging a New York State statute barring them from commencing eviction proceedings against tenants who certify that they are suffering a financial hardship as a result of COVID-19. Although the law in question was set to expire on August 31st, the Court’s decision could have important implications if and when the state chooses to take similar steps in the coming weeks or in response to a future economic downturn.

Part A of Chapter 381 of the laws of 2020 provided that individuals could avoid foreclosures by indicating that they were being harmed by the pandemic. A separate section of the bill which the Supreme Court’s decision did not address extended similar protections to homeowners facing foreclosure. In blocking New York State from enforcing this bill against landlords the court technically did not issue a decision on the merits of the case, but by granting the emergency order a majority of the court signaled that New York’s law was illegal. There was even a dissenting opinion.

In a terse explanation of its decision, the majority explained that New York’s statute violated the “longstanding teaching that no man can be a judge in his own case.” In other words, any future law seeking to block evictions has to give landlords the ability to show that a tenant is not suffering from a financial hardship.

Like I said, although this case dealt specifically with evictions, the same argument could easily be made as applied to New York’s foreclosure ban, also set to expire on August 31st, which provides no mechanism for mortgage holders to contest a homeowner’s financial hardship.

                                                Hochul Transition Picks Up Pace

New York’s Superintendent of the Department of Financial Services announced that she would be resigning on August 24th, the same day the Governor has indicated he will hand over power to Lt. Governor Kathy Hochul. Before becoming the Superintendent, Lacewell served as a top aide to the Governor and remained an active advisor.

As for the Governor-in-waiting, she spent Sunday morning appearing on two Sunday news shows demonstrating, yet again, that in politics a week really is a long time. Virtually overnight, she has catapulted from the lowest profile statewide position in New York State government to a nationally significant politician. 

August 16, 2021 at 9:19 am Leave a comment

End Of CDC Protections Puts Focus Back On NY State

Standing on tenuous legal ground (second entry), the Biden administration announced Saturday that the CDC would no longer be extending the national eviction moratorium beyond July 31st. The announcement means that, absent highly unlikely federal legislation extending the moratorium, the action returns to the state level. Most importantly, with or without the federal moratorium, New York State’s eviction and foreclosure moratorium on most properties remains in effect until August 31st.

These FAQ’s on New York’s Department of Financial Services’ website remind New Yorkers of their rights under state law. The bottom line is, with or without the changes to federal law, August 31st remains the key date for foreclosure and eviction purposes in New York State.

September 1st also remains the key date for mortgage servicers who have to comply with the CFPB’s nuanced regulations intended to provide delinquent homeowners additional notice of forbearance options which may be available to them.

Looking at the big picture, the CFPB remains concerned that nationwide the coming weeks will witness a huge surge of evictions and foreclosure proceedings. It has put servicers on notice that it will be keeping a close eye on their conduct and you can bet that state regulators will be taking a similar approach.

August 2, 2021 at 9:31 am Leave a comment

What the CDC’s Announcement Means for Your Credit Union

The CDC’s announcement that it was altering its guidance to encourage vaccinated individuals to wear masks indoors in areas with substantial and high transmission rates may very well result in your credit union having to refine its workplace policies and procedures. The Governor issued a statement indicating that the state is reviewing the announcement. In the past the state has used CDC guidance to establish the baseline expectations for businesses in New York. Here is what we know for sure.

The state lifted its mask mandate for fully vaccinated individuals because, as of June 15th, 70% of New Yorkers had received at least one dose of the vaccine. What’s changed? The Delta variant of the virus has proven to be particularly tenacious and evidence is emerging that even fully vaccinated individuals can transmit the disease. Plus there are still a substantial number of individuals reluctant to get vaccinated. As can be seen from this map issued by the CDC, New York State has substantial numbers of new COVID cases.

The surging virus has forced employers to reconsider legal options when it comes to keeping their workplace safe. For example, the Veterans Administration announced that it was mandating that some of its employees get vaccinated and New York City is taking similar steps. The shift to a more aggressive posture reflects the mounting number of administrative rulings and judicial decisions which have reinforced that employers can mandate employee vaccinations provided they are mindful of genuine and sincere religious objections as well as the need for ADA accommodations.

One bellwether case that the legal community is watching is Bridges v. Houston Methodist Hospital, 2021. The case involves a nurse who was fired by the hospital after refusing to get vaccinated. The case is one of the first in which a federal court has directly addressed an argument, popularized on the internet, which contends that since the vaccines were approved on an emergency basis by the Secretary of Health and Human services they can’t be mandated by employers. The plaintiff also contends that the status of the vaccines mandates that employers explain the potential benefits and risks of taking the vaccine.

The district court swiftly rejected this argument. According to the court, federal law permits the Secretary of Health and Human services to authorize the vaccines on an emergency basis. Crucially, according to the court, “it neither expands nor restricts the responsibilities of private employers; in fact, it does not apply at all to private employers like the hospital in this case.”  This case is currently up on appeal before the Fifth Circuit.  If this case doesn’t give employers confidence to mandate vaccinations, the Secretary of Health is expected to approve the vaccine on a non-emergency basis sometime in the fall.

In addition to this case, in May the EEOC issued guidance authorizing employers to mandate vaccinations consistent with Federal Civil Rights Law.

And then of course there is New York State’s Hero Act. At this point the law requires nothing more than for employers to have an infectious airborne disease plan in place by August 5th. The plan only needs to be activated in the event that the Commission of Health issues a declaration that an airborne infectious disease presents a serious risk of harm to the public health. No such announcement has been made but recent events underscore the need to make sure you are ready to comply with NY’s law.

July 28, 2021 at 9:40 am Leave a comment

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Authored By:

Henry Meier, Esq., Senior Vice President, General Counsel, New York Credit Union Association.

The views Henry expresses are Henry’s alone and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Association. In addition, although Henry strives to give his readers useful and accurate information on a broad range of subjects, many of which involve legal disputes, his views are not a substitute for legal advise from retained counsel.

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