Equal Employment Opportunity (EEO) laws, including the ADA and Rehabilitation Act, continue to apply during the time of the COVID-19 pandemic. The U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission webpage was updated on June 17, 2020 outlining a lot of the questions schools have regarding employee accommodations in lieu of Covid-19. WFIS has selected a few Q&As below based on what we have heard from schools.
Questions such as:
How much information may an employer request from an employee who calls in sick, in order to protect the rest of its workforce during the COVID-19 pandemic?
During a pandemic, ADA-covered employers may ask such employees if they are experiencing symptoms of the pandemic virus. For COVID-19, these include symptoms such as fever, chills, cough, shortness of breath, or sore throat. Employers must maintain all information about employee illness as a confidential medical record in compliance with the ADA.
May an employer administer a COVID-19 test (a test to detect the presence of the COVID-19 virus) before permitting employees to enter the workplace?
The ADA requires that any mandatory medical test of employees be “job related and consistent with business necessity.” Applying this standard to the current circumstances of the COVID-19 pandemic, employers may take steps to determine if employees entering the workplace have COVID-19 because an individual with the virus will pose a direct threat to the health of others. Therefore an employer may choose to administer COVID-19 testing to employees before they enter the workplace to determine if they have the virus. Consistent with the ADA standard, employers should ensure that the tests are accurate and reliable.
In discussing accommodation requests, employers and employees may find it helpful to consult the Job Accommodation Network (JAN) website for types of accommodations, www.askjan.org. JAN’s materials specific to COVID-19 are at https://askjan.org/topics/COVID-19.cfm.
If a job may only be performed at the workplace, are there reasonable accommodations for individuals with disabilities, absent undue hardship, that could offer protection to an employee who, due to a preexisting disability, is at higher risk from COVID-19?
There may be reasonable accommodations that could offer protection to an individual whose disability puts him at greater risk from COVID-19 and who therefore requests such actions to eliminate possible exposure. Even with the constraints imposed by a pandemic, some accommodations may meet an employee’s needs on a temporary basis without causing undue hardship on the employer.
Low-cost solutions achieved with materials already on hand or easily obtained may be effective. If not already implemented for all employees, accommodations for those who request reduced contact with others due to a disability may include changes to the work environment such as designating one-way aisles; using plexiglass, tables, or other barriers to ensure minimum distances between customers and coworkers whenever feasible per CDC guidance or other accommodations that reduce chances of exposure.
Flexibility by employers and employees is important in determining if some accommodation is possible in the circumstances. Temporary job restructuring of marginal job duties, temporary transfers to a different position, or modifying a work schedule or shift assignment may also permit an individual with a disability to perform safely the essential functions of the job while reducing exposure to others in the workplace or while commuting.
Is an employee entitled to an accommodation under the ADA in order to avoid exposing a family member who is at higher risk of severe illness from COVID-19 due to an underlying medical condition?
No. Although the ADA prohibits discrimination based on association with an individual with a disability, that protection is limited to disparate treatment or harassment. The ADA does not require that an employer accommodate an employee without a disability based on the disability-related needs of a family member or other person with whom she is associated.
For example, an employee without a disability is not entitled under the ADA to telework as an accommodation in order to protect a family member with a disability from potential COVID-19 exposure.
Of course, an employer is free to provide such flexibilities if it chooses to do so. An employer choosing to offer additional flexibilities beyond what the law requires should be careful not to engage in disparate treatment on a protected EEO basis.
What practical tools are available to employers to reduce and address workplace harassment that may arise as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic?
Employers can help reduce the chance of harassment by explicitly communicating to the workforce that fear of the COVID-19 pandemic should not be misdirected against individuals because of a protected characteristic, including their national origin, race, or other prohibited bases.
Practical anti-harassment tools provided by the EEOC for small businesses can be found here:
- Anti-harassment policy tips for small businesses
- Select Task Force on the Study of Harassment in the Workplace (includes detailed recommendations and tools to aid in designing effective anti-harassment policies; developing training curricula; implementing complaint, reporting, and investigation procedures; creating an organizational culture in which harassment is not tolerated):
Furloughs and Layoffs
Under the EEOC’s laws, what waiver responsibilities apply when an employer is conducting layoffs?
Special rules apply when an employer is offering employees severance packages in exchange for a general release of all discrimination claims against the employer. More information is available in EEOC’s technical assistance document on severance agreements.
Returning To Work & Accommodations
An employer requires returning workers to wear personal protective gear and engage in infection control practices. Some employees ask for accommodations due to a need for modified protective gear. Must an employer grant these requests?
However, where an employee with a disability needs a related reasonable accommodation under the ADA (e.g., non-latex gloves, modified face masks for interpreters or others who communicate with an employee who uses lip reading, or gowns designed for individuals who use wheelchairs), or a religious accommodation under Title VII (such as modified equipment due to religious garb), the employer should discuss the request and provide the modification or an alternative if feasible and not an undue hardship on the operation of the employer’s business under the ADA or Title VII.
The CDC identifies a number of medical conditions that might place individuals at “higher risk for severe illness” if they get COVID-19. An employer knows that an employee has one of these conditions and is concerned that his health will be jeopardized upon returning to the workplace, but the employee has not requested accommodation. How does the ADA apply to this situation?
First, if the employee does not request a reasonable accommodation, the ADA does not mandate that the employer take action.
If the employer is concerned about the employee’s health being jeopardized upon returning to the workplace, the ADA does not allow the employer to exclude the employee – or take any other adverse action – solely because the employee has a disability that the CDC identifies as potentially placing him at “higher risk for severe illness” if he gets COVID-19. Under the ADA, such action is not allowed unless the employee’s disability poses a “direct threat” to his health that cannot be eliminated or reduced by reasonable accommodation.
The ADA direct threat requirement is a high standard. As an affirmative defense, direct threat requires an employer to show that the individual has a disability that poses a “significant risk of substantial harm” to his own health under 29 C.F.R. section 1630.2(r) (regulation addressing direct threat to health or safety of self or others). A direct threat assessment cannot be based solely on the condition being on the CDC’s list; the determination must be an individualized assessment based on a reasonable medical judgment about this employee’s disability – not the disability in general – using the most current medical knowledge and/or on the best available objective evidence. The ADA regulation requires an employer to consider the duration of the risk, the nature and severity of the potential harm, the likelihood that the potential harm will occur, and the imminence of the potential harm. Analysis of these factors will likely include considerations based on the severity of the pandemic in a particular area and the employee’s own health (for example, is the employee’s disability well-controlled), and his particular job duties. A determination of direct threat also would include the likelihood that an individual will be exposed to the virus at the worksite. Measures that an employer may be taking in general to protect all workers, such as mandatory social distancing, also would be relevant.
Even if an employer determines that an employee’s disability poses a direct threat to his own health, the employer still cannot exclude the employee from the workplace – or take any other adverse action – unless there is no way to provide a reasonable accommodation (absent undue hardship). The ADA regulations require an employer to consider whether there are reasonable accommodations that would eliminate or reduce the risk so that it would be safe for the employee to return to the workplace while still permitting performance of essential functions. This can involve an interactive process with the employee. If there are not accommodations that permit this, then an employer must consider accommodations such as telework, leave, or reassignment (perhaps to a different job in a place where it may be safer for the employee to work or that permits telework). An employer may only bar an employee from the workplace if, after going through all these steps, the facts support the conclusion that the employee poses a significant risk of substantial harm to himself that cannot be reduced or eliminated by reasonable accommodation.
Go to the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission webpage to review all of the questions, answers and links to resources.