Seyfarth Synopsis: With the latest coronavirus variant, Omicron, detected and increasing in California, many companies may be questioning their plans to host office holiday parties. But no need to call in the Grinch just yet! We have some tips to comply with current COVID-19 guidelines, and to avoid employer liability to keep this holiday season merry and bright.

It is the most wonderful time of the year, especially because it is the first opportunity for many organizations to gather in-person and celebrate the holidays since the introduction of the COVID-19 virus and vaccines. However, with the recent discovery of the Omicron variant in California, employers ask what, if anything, has changed regarding COVID-19 protocol—and whether they should host a holiday party at all.

Can We Still Deck the Halls?

The CDC’s guidelines regarding COVID-19 remain unchanged since Omicron’s arrival. Nonetheless, employers are encouraged to stay abreast of the CDC’s guidance concerning the Omicron variant. Additionally, employers should be aware of local COVID-19 restrictions when planning their jingle-bell-rock, whether celebrating inside or outside of the workplace.

If your organization plans to have its holiday party at a third-party establishment that is indoors, you may need to consider additional restrictions depending on where you are in California. For instance, proof of vaccination requirements remain in place for anyone attending parties with indoor dining in Los Angeles and San Francisco. Note that even your company’s employees with medical or religious exemptions will be unlikely to be allowed indoors at these locations if outdoor dining options are available, so you should ensure your employees are prepared with what to expect if they are attending.

Other restrictions may exist for holiday parties held in the workplace, but will vary based on city or county. For example:

  • Many counties, including San Diego and Los Angeles, require strict compliance with the latest CDPH guidance, which now requires masking for all indoor settings irrespective of vaccination status.
  • Though San Francisco recently relaxed its face covering requirements for the fully vaccinated, these restrictions are subject to change given the unpredictable landscape, and the city confirmed that it would also require masking in indoor workplaces in line with the new state guidance.
  • With respect to mass gatherings, or indoor events with crowds of 1,000 attendees or more, cities like Pasadena and Berkeley require proof of vaccination or negative test requirements for staff and other attendees over the age of twelve.

Also, as a reminder, employers must continue to adhere to Cal/OSHA’s updated guidelines on mitigating and preventing the spread of COVID-19 in the workplace. And, in the event that an attendee does test positive for COVID-19 after the event, you should prepare the required notices to distribute to other attendees per AB 685 and Cal/OSHA guidelines.

These guidelines and other tips are detailed in Ho, Ho, Health and Safety! Keeping Workers Safe and Merry this Holiday Season.

Baby It’s Cold Outside—But Your Holiday Party Still Needs to Follow Company Rules

In addition to workplace safety rules, you don’t want to forget about workplace conduct rules at the holidays. Regarding conduct while rocking around the Christmas tree, it is important to remember that holiday parties are generally considered extensions of the workplace, meaning potential claims can arise involving allegations of sexual harassment, workers’ compensation, and negligence if an employee is injured during or after the event. So, avoid a blue Christmas and proactively consider these tips to avoid unwelcome incidents from occurring at the office holiday party and to minimize potential exposure to legal liability.

  • Circulate a workplace memo before the event to reiterate your company’s policy against sexual and other forms of harassment. Remind employees that the policy applies to their conduct at all company social events, even if they occur offsite, and that employees should always act in a professional manner.
  • Set a tone of moderation and remind employees of the company’s policy, if applicable, against the abuse of alcohol and zero tolerance with respect to the possession, use, or sale of illegal drugs. Consider limiting the number of alcoholic drinks or the time during which alcohol will be served, and limit serving alcohol well before the party ends.
  • If hosting the party at a restaurant or hiring a caterer, remind the staff that they are not permitted to serve anyone who appears to be impaired, intoxicated, or underage and to notify a particular company representative if anyone appears to be impaired.
  • Remind managers to set a professional example and designate several managers to be on the lookout for anyone who appears to be impaired or intoxicated, to assist and intervene if necessary.
  • Anticipate the need for alternative transportation and do not allow employees who have been drinking heavily to drive home. Consider compensating employees for rideshare alternatives.
  • Review your insurance policies to ensure they cover the company sufficiently, including any accidents or injuries that occur at a company event.
  • Promptly investigate any complaints that are made after the event and take any necessary remedial action for conduct that violates company policy.

Workplace Solutions

The office holiday party is an opportunity to show appreciation for your employees’ dedication and hard work, while also cultivating a sense of community altered during the COVID-19 pandemic. We suggest reviewing these tips to ensure it is a jingle-ball and to prevent potential liability in the new year.

For additional information about limiting liability at your company party or the ever-changing COVID-19 rules and regulations, please consult your Seyfarth attorney.

We wish you a safe and happy holiday season!

Edited by Coby Turner