By: Samantha J. Wood and Sally A. Piefer
On Wednesday, the Wisconsin Supreme Court struck down Wisconsin’s statewide mask mandate, holding that Governor Evers exceeded his legal authority by issuing multiple emergency orders under Wis. Stat. § 323.10. The court emphasized that the question was “not whether the Governor acted wisely; it [was] whether he acted lawfully.” Section 323.10 specifies that no state of emergency may last longer than 60 days unless “the state of emergency is extended by joint resolution of the legislature.” Absent legislative approval, the Governor is precluded from proclaiming repeated states of emergency. Because Governor Evers extended the orders declaring a state of emergency on several occasions without legislative approval, his extensions were and are invalid.
Although Wisconsin’s statewide mask mandate has been struck down by virtue of the Supreme Court’s decision, employers must keep several other laws in mind in determining their next steps:
- Several municipalities have issued their own mask mandates, including Dane County, Milwaukee County, the City of Milwaukee, Wauwatosa and various other townships and villages. These mandates are enforceable if enacted by the municipality’s governing body. Employers should check with their local municipality and county before eliminating a mask requirement.
- Employers still maintain responsibilities under OSHA’s “General Duty” clause. OSHA’s General Duty clause requires an employer to furnish to its employees employment and a place of employment free from recognized hazards that are causing or are likely to cause death or serious physical harm. Employers can be cited for a violation of the General Duty clause if a recognized hazard exists in the workplace and the employer does not take reasonable steps to prevent or abate the hazard. OSHA prepared guidance in March 2021 that encourages employers to require face coverings. That guidance can be found here.
- Employees may be eligible to receive worker’s compensation benefits as a result of contracting COVID-19 in the workplace if the employee can establish that the employee contracted the virus while performing services growing out of and incidental to that employment.
In determining whether to lift an employment mask requirement or policy, employers should consider the above-referenced legal considerations, as well as analyze the risks in their workplace, other sanitization or safety procedures in place, and whether, if a mask requirement will remain in place, the employer will consistently enforce a mask policy and issue corrective action to employees who violate the policy.