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Vaccine rule highlights workplace safety lawyers' COVID-19 era rise

4 minute read

President Biden speaks about coronavirus disease (COVID-19) vaccines and booster shots at the White House in Washington, September 24, 2021. REUTERS/Evelyn Hockstein/File Photo

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  • COVID-19 has boosted demand for workplace safety and OSHA specialists over the past 18 months
  • OSHA vaccine rule has brought up new questions from clients

(Reuters) - The Biden administration's recently unveiled COVID-19 vaccine rule for companies is keeping workplace safety lawyers' phones ringing, the latest sign the pandemic has raised the profiles of these often less visible members of the employment bar.

Attorneys who help companies deal with the Labor Department's Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), which is set to enforce the rule, say that their workloads have spiked since OSHA released the emergency temporary standard (ETS) on Nov. 4.

It's part of broader growth in demand for legal advice on federal and state workplace safety requirements and considerations as the pandemic raises questions on issues such as vaccines, masks and remote work.

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"I think COVID-19 has catapulted occupational safety and health generally to the forefront of people's attention, [with] clients and law firms," said Eric Hobbs, chair of the 58-lawyer workplace safety and health practice group at Ogletree, Deakins, Nash, Smoak & Stewart. Hobbs said his firm's practice has "been exceedingly busy over the past year and a half."

Ogletree has hired at least four lawyers for the practice in 2021, according to announcements on its website.

The new rule from OSHA requiring employers to develop policies for workers to be vaccinated or tested weekly is currently paused by the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals but scheduled to go into effect in January. It will cover an estimated 84 million U.S. workers, according to the Biden administration.

Workplace safety lawyers are collaborating with other practice groups to help employers figure out if and how they need to comply, and fielding inquiries about the many efforts to block the rule in federal courts. They said they're also busy answering questions about an exemption for remote and outdoor workers and how to measure the 100-employee threshold.

Before COVID-19, law firm workplace safety lawyers spent much of their time investigating on-the-job accidents or catastrophes, advising on government inspections and citations, conducting safety audits at work sites and going to court.

But over the last 18 months their attention has turned to face coverings, contact tracing, social distancing and pandemic related sick leave and benefits questions, according to Alka Ramchandani-Raj, co-chair of the 41-lawyer workplace safety and health practice group at Littler Mendelson.

At the pandemic’s outset, lawyers helped employers interpret quickly developing state and local guidelines, until OSHA started coming out with guidance, she said.

Ramchandani-Raj said that before the pandemic she was known as the lawyer at the firm who worked largely with industries generally perceived as more dangerous, such as construction, manufacturing or hospitals. But with workplace safety issues now top of mind in general, she joked that she has "become one of the more famous people at the firm."

Robert O'Hara, an employment lawyer at Epstein Becker Green, was not originally hired by the firm to handle workplace health and safety but said he spent almost 100% of his practice on these matters for the first year of the pandemic. He said the firm has formed an OSHA-specific group of four lawyers in response to COVID-19.

Workplace safety lawyers have also become key members of broader cross-practice coronavirus teams that many law firms formed last year to help clients trying to navigate an unprecedented crisis.

Demand from clients for overall workplace advice continues to grow, according to the latest Thomson Reuters Peer Monitor Index, which is part of the same parent company as Reuters.

Though the index does not break out data specifically on workplace safety practice groups, the report said overall demand for labor and employment work grew 3.4% year over year in the third quarter of 2021.

Hobbs said COVID-19 has taught firms, especially those not focused normally on labor and employment, that OSHA-related work “stands alone” and is “not a commodity practice.”

Read More:

Biden sets COVID-19 vaccine rules for businesses

U.S. federal appeals court freezes Biden's vaccine rule for companies

Republican governors lead attack on Biden vaccine mandate

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Sara Merken reports on privacy and data security, as well as the business of law, including legal innovation and key players in the legal services industry. Reach her at sara.merken@thomsonreuters.com

Xiumei Dong covers legal industry news, with a focus on law firm strategy and growth, in-house counsel and the Washington, D.C., legal market. Reach her at Xiumei.Dong@thomsonreuters.com.

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