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Employers don't have to pay for face masks, experts say

Employees in Finland cannot expect employers to cover the cost of face masks worn on public transit to and from work.

Nainen viittoo bussia pysähtymään Helsingissä.
A woman waving down a bus in Helsinki. Image: Henrietta Hassinen / Yle

Public debate is emerging in Finland regarding who will foot the bill for face masks after the city of Turku last week suggested residents cover their mouths and noses in crowded public spaces.

An Yle investigation found that employers in Finland are not obligated to provide personal protective equipment (PPE) for employees' daily commutes.

"Employers have no duty to provide face masks to employees as long as they don't actually work on public transport," said Erika Kähärä, occupational health and safety advisor at service sector union PAM.

Helsinki University law professor Niklas Bruun shared Kähärä’s view, adding that employees are in any event responsible for covering the costs of getting to and from work.

"Should national face mask guidelines emerge I can’t see how employers would have to provide them as workers are responsible for their own commutes," he said. "But it’s clear that employers should cover mask costs if they send an employee out on a work-related trip."

Finland’s months-long face mask debate indicates how difficult it has been for decision makers to issue recommendations on the issue, including how to deal with rule-breakers, according to Bruun.

State PPE subsidy?

Bruun, as well as Virve Aho of nurses’ union SuPer, both told Yle it’s possible that the state could subsidise some protective gear costs or offer PPE-related tax breaks.

"Naturally it’s a major political issue, but the cost [of subsidising them] would be smaller compared to the virus spreading and the country shutting down again," Aho said. “The most important thing is somehow reducing the cost of face masks."

Kähära of PAM meanwhile said she doesn’t believe the state will chip in as long as guidelines only offer voluntary recommendations.

But she did say she anticipated many companies securing PPE for employees even though they’re not obligated to do so.

"Employers know it makes sense to keep workers healthy, buying PPE probably makes more financial sense compared to employees falling ill with corona," she added.

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