On April 17, 2020 and April 23, 2020, the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) again revised its guidance for employers dealing with the COVID-19 pandemic, this time providing advice involving disability accommodations under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and claims brought under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act (prohibiting discrimination on the basis of race, color, national original, religion and sex) and under the Age Discrimination in Employment Act. These guidelines apply to employees currently working in businesses permitted to remain open under the various stay-at-home orders in effect around the country and in jurisdictions with no stay-at-home orders and to employees who will return to work as the stay-at-home orders are lifted. Most notable, for the first time, the EEOC announced it is permissible for employers to test employees returning to work for the presence of the Coronavirus. Here are the key points:
1. During the pandemic, if an employee requests an accommodation for a medical condition either at home or in the workplace, may the employer ask for information to determine if the condition is a disability?
Yes, if it is not obvious or already known. The employer may request medical documentation sufficient to determine whether the employee’s “disability” is covered by the ADA and whether the requested accommodation is required (including how the proposed accommodation will enable the employee to continue performing the “essential functions” of his or her position). Possible questions might include (1) how the disability creates a limitation, (2) how the requested accommodation will effectively address the limitation, (3) whether some other form of accommodation could effectively address the issue, and (4) whether the proposed accommodation will enable the employee to continue performing the essential functions of his or her position.
2. If there is some urgency to providing an accommodation or the employer has limited time to discuss the request during the pandemic, may the employer provide a temporary accommodation?
Yes, during the pandemic. If the employer chooses to forgo or shorten the exchange of medical information discussed above (the interactive process), the employer may simply grant the request (with or without an end date). After governmental restrictions are partially or fully lifted, the need for accommodations may change, and there may be more requests for short-term accommodations. At that time, the employer may engage in the interactive process and fix an end date for the accommodation based on changing public health directives. These considerations could also apply to employees who have disabilities exacerbated by the pandemic.
3. May an employer ask employees now if they will need reasonable accommodations in the future when they are permitted to return to the workplace?
Yes, for employees with known disabilities. The employer may inquire about accommodations the employees believe they may need when they return to the workplace and otherwise begin the interactive process.
4. Based on the circumstances of the pandemic, may a requested accommodation be denied because it poses an undue hardship?
Yes, provided the employer can establish that the undue hardship is a “significant difficulty or expense.” For example, it may be significantly more difficult to provide temporary assignments. And budget concerns may be considered in light of the employer’s loss of income during the pandemic. Although an employer cannot reject a proposed accommodation simply because the accommodation costs money, the employer may consider its current budgetary constraints in reaching its conclusion. When possible, another no-cost accommodation should be sought.
Civil Rights Issues
5. How can employers try to reduce and address workplace harassment that may arise as a result of the pandemic?
Employers should expressly communicate to their workforces that fear of the COVID-19 pandemic should not be misdirected against individuals because of a protected characteristic such as national origin or race. Practical anti-harassment tools are provided by the EEOC and can be found here and here.
General Return to Work Issues
6. Can an employer make COVID-19 testing a requirement of return-to-work?
Yes. The ADA permits employers to make disability-related inquiries and conduct medical exams if job-related and consistent with business necessity. The EEOC previously stated that the presence in the workplace of an employee with COVID-19 (or an employee exhibiting symptoms associated with the virus) would pose a direct threat to the health of others. Applying these considerations to return-to-work circumstances, the EEOC has confirmed that “an employer may choose to administer COVID-19 testing to employees before they enter the workplace to determine if they have the virus.”
If an employer makes testing a condition of returning to work, the employer must ensure that the method(s) of testing are accurate and reliable. The EEOC recommends consulting guidelines released by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration as to what testing method(s) are considered safe and accurate. Employers may also consult resources from the CDC and public health authorities for relevant information about safe and accurate tests. Employers are also encouraged to consider the incidence of false-positives and false-negatives associated with various different testing methods. Note that the EEOC only endorses testing employees to “determine if they have the virus,” and has not addressed testing for antibodies to the virus to determine whether an employee had the virus in the past. It may be that the EEOC intended its guidance to broadly apply to antibody tests also, but the omission may have been intentional because the presence or absence of antibodies does not indicate whether an employee currently presents a “direct threat” to the health and safety of employees in the workplace. Finally, the EEOC states that accurate testing only reveals if the virus is currently present, and a negative test does not mean the employee may not acquire the virus after undergoing the test.
7. With regard to the ADA, as government stay-at-home orders are modified or lifted, how will employers know what other steps they can take to screen employees for COVID-19 when entering the workplace?
As indicated above, the ADA permits employers to make disability-related inquiries and conduct medical exams if job-related and consistent with business necessity, and employers are permitted to exclude employees with a medical condition that would pose a direct threat to health or safety. An employer’s conduct (for example, taking temperatures and asking about other symptoms) will be permitted by the ADA so long as that conduct is consistent with advice from the CDC and public health authorities for that type of workplace at that time.
8. If an employer requires returning workers to wear personal protective gear and engage in infection control procedures, must the employer grant an employee’s request for modification of the requirements?
It depends. If an employee asks for an accommodation for a disability or religious reasons, the employer should accommodate the request whenever it can reasonably do so (that is, when the requested accommodation is feasible and not an undue hardship on the employer’s business operations). Examples provided by the EEOC for disability accommodation include non-latex gloves, modified face masks for interpreters or others who communicate with an employee who lip reads, or gowns designed for individuals who use wheelchairs. For religious accommodation, the EEOC gives the example of modified equipment due to religious garb. The EEOC acknowledges that these are just examples. The EEOC states that the employer and employee should discuss the matter, and the employer may provide an alternative if it is feasible and does not pose an undue hardship for the employer.
Note: Although the EEOC has stated that an employer may require employees to wear protective gear (for example, masks and gloves) and observe infection control practices (regular handwashing and social distancing), there are other privacy issues to consider. Some of these additional issues are discussed here.