Guidance from EEOC on Maintaining a Safe Workplace During COVID-19 Pandemic

The U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (“EEOC”) released updated guidance for employers on how to balance the protection of employees’ rights with efforts to maintain a safe workplace during the COVID-19 pandemic. Below are highlights of the guidance provided by the EEOC along with a link to all of the information.

The EEOC encourages all employers to review the guidance (Pandemic Preparedness in the Workplace and the Americans With Disabilities Act) to implement strategies to navigate the impact of COVID-19 in the workplace. Though this guidance was originally written during the H1N1 outbreak, the EEOC considers it still relevant today and identifies established ADA and Rehabilitation Act principles to answer questions frequently asked about the workplace during a pandemic.

The guidance, in the form of questions and answers, released by the EEOC between March 15, 2020, and April 23, 2020, covers the following topics: Disability Related Inquiries; Confidentiality of Medical Information; Hiring and Onboarding; Reasonable Accommodations; Pandemic-Related Anti-Harassment; and Return to Work. The selected questions and answers covered below are relevant to employers. The complete EEOC guidance can be found by clicking here

If you have any questions regarding the EEOC’s guidance or answers below, please contact a member of Barrett McNagny’s Labor and Employment team.

Disability Related Inquiries and Medical Exams

When screening employees entering the workplace during this time, may an employer only ask employees about the COVID-19 symptoms EEOC has identified asexamples, or may it ask about any symptoms identified by public health authorities as associated with COVID-19?

As public health authorities and doctors learn more about COVID-19, they may expand the list of associated symptoms. Employers should rely on the CDC, other public health authorities, and reputable medical sources for guidance on emerging symptoms associated with the disease. These sources may guide employers when choosing questions to ask employees to determine whether they would pose a direct threat to health in the workplace. For example, additional symptoms beyond fever or cough may include new loss of smell or taste as well as gastrointestinal problems, such as nausea, diarrhea, and vomiting.

When may an ADA-covered employer take the body temperature of employees during the COVID-19 pandemic?

Generally, measuring an employee's body temperature is a medical examination. Because the CDC and state/local health authorities have acknowledged community spread of COVID-19 and issued attendant precautions, employers may measure employees' body temperature. However, employers should be aware that some people with COVID-19 do not have a fever.

Does the ADA allow employers to require employees to stay home if they have symptoms of the COVID-19?

Yes. The CDC states that employees who become ill with symptoms of COVID-19 should leave the workplace. The ADA does not interfere with employers following this advice.

When employees return to work, does the ADA allow employers to require a doctor's note certifying fitness for duty?

Yes. Such inquiries are permitted under the ADA either because they would not be disability-related or, if the pandemic were truly severe, they would be justified under the ADA standards for disability-related inquiries of employees. As a practical matter, however, doctors and other health care professionals may be too busy during and immediately after a pandemic outbreak to provide fitness-for-duty documentation. Therefore, new approaches may be necessary, such as reliance on local clinics to provide a form, a stamp, or an e-mail to certify that an individual does not have the pandemic virus.

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. For example, employers may review guidance from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration about what may or may not be considered safe and accurate testing, as well as guidance from CDC or other public health authorities, and check for updates. Employers may wish to consider the incidence of false-positives or false-negatives associated with a particular test. Finally, note that accurate testing only reveals if the virus is currently present; a negative test does not mean the employee will not acquire the virus later.

Based on guidance from medical and public health authorities, employers should still require - to the greatest extent possible - that employees observe infection control practices (such as social distancing, regular handwashing, and other measures) in the workplace to prevent transmission of COVID-19.

Confidentiality of Medical Information

May an employer store in existing medical files information it obtains related to COVID-19, including the results of taking an employee's temperature or the employee's self-identification as having this disease, or must the employer create a new medical file system solely for this information?

The ADA requires that all medical information about a particular employee be stored separately from the employee's personnel file, thus limiting access to this confidential information. An employer may store all medical information related to COVID-19 in existing medical files. This includes an employee's statement that he has the disease or suspects he has the disease, or the employer's notes or other documentation from questioning an employee about symptoms.

If an employer requires all employees to have a daily temperature check before entering the workplace, may the employer maintain a log of the results?

Yes. The employer needs to maintain the confidentiality of this information.

May an employer disclose the name of an employee to a public health agency when it learns that the employee has COVID-19?

Yes.

May a temporary staffing agency or a contractor that places an employee in an employer's workplace notify the employer if it learns the employee has COVID-19?

Yes. The staffing agency or contractor may notify the employer and disclose the name of the employee, because the employer may need to determine if this employee had contact with anyone in the workplace.

Hiring and Onboarding

May an employer delay the start date of an applicant who has COVID-19 or symptoms associated with it?

Yes. According to current CDC guidance, an individual who has COVID-19 or symptoms associated with it should not be in the workplace.

May an employer withdraw a job offer when it needs the applicant to start immediately but the individual has COVID-19 or symptoms of it?

Based on current CDC guidance, this individual cannot safely enter the workplace, and therefore the employer may withdraw the job offer.

May an employer postpone the start date or withdraw a job offer because the individual is 65 years old or pregnant, both of which place them at higher risk from COVID-19?

No. The fact that the CDC has identified those who are 65 or older, or pregnant women, as being at greater risk does not justify unilaterally postponing the start date or withdrawing a job offer. However, an employer may choose to allow telework or to discuss with these individuals if they would like to postpone the start date.

Reasonable Accommodation

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 therereasonable accommodationsfor individuals with disabilities absentundue hardshipthat 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.

If an employee has a preexisting mental illness or disorder that has been exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic, may he now be entitled to a reasonable accommodation (absent undue hardship)?

Although many people feel significant stress due to the COVID-19 pandemic, employees with certain preexisting mental health conditions, for example, anxiety disorder, obsessive-compulsive disorder, or post-traumatic stress disorder, may have more difficulty handling the disruption to daily life that has accompanied the COVID-19 pandemic.

As with any accommodation request, employers may: ask questions to determine whether the condition is a disability; discuss with the employee how the requested accommodation would assist him and enable him to keep working; explore alternative accommodations that may effectively meet his needs; and request medical documentation if needed.

During the pandemic, if an employee requests an accommodation for a medical condition either at home or in the workplace, may an employer still request information to determine if the condition is a disability?

Yes, if it is not obvious or already known, an employer may ask questions or request medical documentation to determine whether the employee has a "disability" as defined by the ADA (a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits a major life activity, or a history of a substantially limiting impairment).

During the pandemic, may an employer still engage in the interactive process and request information from an employee about why an accommodation is needed?

Yes, if it is not obvious or already known, an employer may ask questions or request medical documentation to determine whether the employee's disability necessitates an accommodation, either the one he requested or any other. Possible questions for the employee may include: (1) how the disability creates a limitation, (2) how the requested accommodation will effectively address the limitation, (3) whether another form of accommodation could effectively address the issue, and (4) how a proposed accommodation will enable the employee to continue performing the "essential functions" of his position (that is, the fundamental job duties).

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. Employers may ask employees with disabilities to request accommodations that they believe they may need when the workplace re-opens. Employers may begin the "interactive process" - the discussion between the employer and employee focused on whether the impairment is a disability and the reasons that an accommodation is needed.

Are the circumstances of the pandemic relevant to whether a requested accommodation can be denied because it poses an undue hardship?

Yes. An employer does not have to provide a particular reasonable accommodation if it poses an "undue hardship," which means "significant difficulty or expense." In some instances, an accommodation that would not have posed an undue hardship prior to the pandemic may pose one now.

What types of undue hardship considerations may be relevant to determine if a requested accommodation poses "significant difficulty" during the COVID-19 pandemic?

An employer may consider whether current circumstances create "significant difficulty" in acquiring or providing certain accommodations, considering the facts of the particular job and workplace. For example, it may be significantly more difficult in this pandemic to conduct a needs assessment or to acquire certain items, and delivery may be impacted, particularly for employees who may be teleworking. Or, it may be significantly more difficult to provide employees with temporary assignments, to remove marginal functions, or to readily hire temporary workers for specialized positions. If a particular accommodation poses an undue hardship, employers and employees should work together to determine if there may be an alternative that could be provided that does not pose such problems.

What types of undue hardship considerations may be relevant to determine if a requested accommodation poses "significant expense" during the COVID-19 pandemic?

Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, most accommodations did not pose a significant expense when considered against an employer's overall budget and resources (always considering the budget/resources of the entire entity and not just its components). But, the sudden loss of some or all of an employer's income stream because of this pandemic is a relevant consideration. Also relevant is the amount of discretionary funds available at this time - when considering other expenses - and whether there is an expected date that current restrictions on an employer's operations will be lifted (or new restrictions will be added or substituted). These considerations do not mean that an employer can reject any accommodation that costs money; an employer must weigh the cost of an accommodation against its current budget while taking into account constraints created by this pandemic. For example, even under current circumstances, there may be many no-cost or very low-cost accommodations.

Pandemic-Related Harassment Due to National Origin, Race, or Other Protected Characteristics

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 through this link: policy tips

Are there steps an employer should take to address possible harassment and discrimination against coworkers when it re-opens the workplace?

Yes. An employer may remind all employees that it is against the federal EEO laws to harass or otherwise discriminate against coworkers based on race, national origin, color, sex, religion, age (40 or over), disability, or genetic information. It may be particularly helpful for employers to advise supervisors and managers of their roles in watching for, stopping, and reporting any harassment or other discrimination. An employer may also make clear that it will immediately review any allegations of harassment or discrimination and take appropriate action.

Return to Work

As government stay-at-home orders and other restrictions are modified or lifted in your area, how will employers know what steps they can take consistent with the ADA to screen employees for COVID-19 when entering the workplace?

The ADA permits employers to make disability-related inquiries and conduct medical exams if job-related and consistent with business necessity. Inquiries and reliable medical exams meet this standard if it is necessary to exclude employees with a medical condition that would pose a direct threat to health or safety.

Direct threat is to be determined based on the best available objective medical evidence. The guidance from CDC or other public health authorities is such evidence. Therefore, employers will be acting consistent with the ADA as long as any screening implemented is consistent with advice from the CDC and public health authorities for that type of workplace at that time.

For example, this may include continuing to take temperatures and asking questions about symptoms (or require self-reporting) of all those entering the workplace. Similarly, the CDC recently posted information on return by certain types of critical workers.

Employers should make sure not to engage in unlawful disparate treatment based on protected characteristics in decisions related to screening and exclusion.

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?

An employer may require employees to wear protective gear (for example, masks and gloves) and observe infection control practices (for example, regular hand washing and social distancing protocols).

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. 

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