On March 19, 2020, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) revised its 2009 publication on “Pandemic Preparedness in the Workplace and Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA)” in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. The publication provides employers with technical assistance regarding Titles I and V of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), Section 501 of the Rehabilitation Act, and pandemic planning for the workplace. On March 27, 2020, the EEOC conducted a webinar addressing common questions it had received regarding appropriate measures to take in light of the Guidance, and on April 9, the EEOC revised the Q&A portion of its original publication. The EEOC’s stated purpose in revising the Guidance is to assist employers in implementing strategies to navigate the workplace impact of COVID-19, consistent with applicable laws and regulations. Most of the publication written during the H1N1 outbreak remains relevant, but it now includes additional examples and information tailored to COVID-19.
On March 11, 2020, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) declared COVID-19 a pandemic and alerted employers that a significant risk of substantial harm would be posed by having someone with COVID-19, or symptoms of it, present in the workplace. The CDC directed employees who become ill with symptoms of COVID-19 to leave immediately. The EEOC Guidance makes it clear that the ADA does not interfere with employers following these directions.
Additionally, the Guidance allows employers to make disability-related inquiries or require a medical examination of a current employee who will physically enter the workplace, when the employer reasonably believes that an employee’s medical condition poses a “direct threat,” defined as “a significant risk of substantial harm to the health or safety of the individual or others that cannot be eliminated or reduced by reasonable accommodation.” The EEOC also opines that an employee with COVID-19 poses a “direct threat” and may be ordered to go home.
Nevertheless, the EEOC cautions against subjective preconceptions or irrational fears and asks employers to undertake an objective and factual assessment of any potential direct threat in the workplace. The EEOC’s regulations identify four factors to consider: (1) the duration of the risk; (2) the nature and severity of the potential harm; (3) the likelihood that potential harm will occur; and (4) the imminence of the potential harm.
The CDC and state/local health authorities have acknowledged the community spread of COVID-19. As a result, employers can ask COVID-19 related questions of applicants and employees to assess the presence of the threat in the workplace.
The revisions to the Guidance provide additional flexibility for employers to make disability-related inquires or require medical examinations of asymptomatic employees during a pandemic. According to the EEOC, employers should rely on the CDC, other public health authorities, and reputable medical sources for guidance on emerging symptoms associated with the disease. Employers with objective information from public health advisories can use that to identify employees who are at higher risk of influenza complications because of the potential direct threat posed to the workplace.
Accordingly, in order to protect the workforce from the pandemic, employers are allowed to seek medical information from employees who call in sick, require employees experiencing flu-like symptoms to stay home, and take the body temperatures of employees in the workplace. However, if an employer takes the temperature of, or requests medical information from, just one or a handful of employees (as opposed to all), the employer must have a reasonable belief based on objective evidence of possible COVID-19 infection. It is thus important for an employer to first consider why it wants to take action regarding particular employees.
Employers may also screen job applicants for symptoms of COVID-19 after making a conditional job offer, as long as all entering employees in the same type of job are likewise tested. In addition, an employer may discuss teleworking options or postponing the start date with individuals at higher risk from COVID-19, for example because they are over 65 years old or pregnant. However, an employer may not unilaterally postpone a start date or withdraw a job offer because an individual is at higher risk from COVID-19.
There also may be reasonable accommodations that could offer protection to employees whose disabilities put them at greater risk from COVID-19 and who therefore request such actions to eliminate possible exposure. 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 and using plexiglass tables, or other barriers to ensure minimum distances between customers and coworkers whenever feasible. Temporary restructuring of marginal job duties, temporary transfers to a different position, or modifying a work schedule or shift assignment may also permit an employee with a disability to safely perform the essential functions of the job while reducing exposure to others in the workplace or while commuting. Notably absent from the EEOC’s updated guidance is any discussion of leave as an accommodation.
All medical information acquired by the employer, such as whether an employee had a fever or other symptoms, is subject to standard ADA confidentiality requirements. Employers are permitted to store medical information related to COVID-19 in existing medical files. In the event that a temporary staffing agency or contractor learns that a placed employee has contracted COVID-19, the staffing agency or contractor may notify the customer and disclose the name of the employee, because the customer may need to determine if this employee had contact with anyone in the workplace.
Based on inquiries from our clients, the new questions in the “frequently asked questions” section of the EEOC Guidance and the EEOC’s webinar should be of the greatest interest to any employer.
Finally, the revised EEOC Guidance reminds employers that as the COVID-19 situation evolves, guidance from public health authorities may change, so employers should stay updated on how best to slow the spread of this disease and protect workers, customers, clients, and the general public.