What is an employer’s obligation, in a general, indoor office workplace, for following and adhering to California’s face covering mandate?

California’s face covering mandate initially came down from the California Department of Public Health (CDPH) in the summer of 2020, broadly requiring people in California to wear masks when outside their homes unless certain exceptions apply. It was last expanded and updated on June 15, 2021, to conform to the most recent guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and ease restrictions for individuals vaccinated against COVID-19. Under the latest guidance, fully vaccinated individuals no longer need to wear face coverings indoors unless in certain specific settings such as public transit and indoors at schools and healthcare settings. Unvaccinated individuals are still required to wear face coverings indoors.

On June 17, 2021, the California Division of Occupational Safety and Health (Cal/OSHA) COVID-19 Emergency Temporary Standard (ETS), which governs COVID-19-related workplace safety procedures, was revised to conform to the latest state guidance and allowing individuals vaccinated against COVID-19 to work without face coverings in most circumstances.

For all employees not fully vaccinated, employers must provide face coverings and ensure they are worn properly (i.e., over the nose and mouth) when indoors or in vehicles.

“Face covering” means a “surgical mask, a medical procedure mask, a respirator worn voluntarily,” or a tightly woven fabric or non-woven material of “at least two layers.” There must be no holes or openings, and the covering must cover the nose and mouth. The ETS also clarifies that the term does not include a scarf, ski mask, balaclava, bandana, turtleneck, collar or a single layer of fabric.

The ETS specifies certain exceptions to the face covering requirement — when employees:

  • Are alone in a room or vehicle;
  • Eat or drink, provided they are six feet away from others;
  • Wear employer-required respirators as specified;
  • Cannot wear face coverings due to a medical or mental health condition or disability; or
  • Perform a task that cannot feasibly be performed with a face covering.

Under the ETS, face coverings are required when there is an outbreak, defined as three or more employee COVID-19 cases in the workplace within a two-week period. In that case, all employees in the exposed group, regardless of vaccination status, must wear face coverings when indoors, or when outdoors and less than six feet from another person, unless one of the above exceptions applies.

Employers' policies must include a way of communicating the face covering requirements to non-employees.

Regardless of vaccination status, employers must provide face coverings to employees upon request.

For more information on Cal/OSHA’s new COVID-19 emergency standard, review the following guidance:

Even though the Cal/OSHA Emergency Temporary Standard revisions relaxed face covering requirements for fully vaccinated individuals, many local counties and cities require face coverings, even for fully vaccinated individuals. Employers should check their local health orders to ensure compliance.