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EEOC Issues ADA and Title VII Guidance for Employers on COVID-19

The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) recently hosted a webinar in which the agency answered questions about the applicability of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and Title VII to COVID-19-related employment actions.  This Q&A supplemented earlier guidance posted by the EEOC.  

This post summarizes the guidance and takeaways from the EEOC webinar. 

  • The EEOC updated its previously published guidance entitled “Pandemic Preparedness in the Workplace and the Americans With Disabilities Act” to provide information and examples regarding COVID-19. This new guidance confirms that COVID-19 constitutes a “direct threat” and a significant risk of substantial harm would be posed by having someone with COVID-19, or symptoms of it, present in the workplace.  
  • Employers should follow the EEOC guidance in conjunction with the guidelines and suggestions made by the CDC and state/local health authorities. 
  • The guidance also answers common employer questions about the COVID-19 pandemic, such as: 

Q:     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?

A:    ADA-covered employers may ask such employees if they are experiencing symptoms of the pandemic virus 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. Employers generally may not ask these questions of employees who are teleworking since they are not entering the workplace and do not pose a threat to others. 

We note, however, that if an employee recently started teleworking, employers may want to ask the employee if they exhibited symptoms of COVID-19 before starting telework, so the employer can inform those with whom the employee had been in close contact about the potential exposure.

Q:     What if an employee refuses to answer COVID-19 related questions by the employer?

A:    The ADA allows employers to bar an employee’s physical presence in the workplace if he or she poses a threat to others. Employers should ask for the reason behind the employee’s refusal and reassure the employee if the employee is hesitant to provide this information.

Q:    When may an employer take an employee’s temperature during the COVID-19 pandemic?

A:    Generally, taking an employee’s temperature is a medical examination under the ADA. Because the CDC and state/local health authorities have acknowledged community spread of COVID-19, employers may take employees’ temperature. However, employers should be aware that some people with COVID-19 do not have a fever, while some people with a fever do not have COVID-19. 

Employers, however, are well-advised to first consult with counsel to ensure the administration of these tests stays within the guidance and does not otherwise violate applicable law. 

Q:    Can an employer ask COVID-19 related questions about an employee’s family members? 

A:    This unnecessarily limits the inquiry. A better question is whether the employee has had contact with anyone diagnosed with COVID-19 or who was showing symptoms of COVID. A general question like this is more sound. The Genetic Information Nondiscrimination Act (GINA) prohibits employers from asking employees medical questions about an employee’s family members.

Q:    How are employers supposed to keep medical information of employees confidential while teleworking?

A:     The ADA requires that medical information be stored separately away from other personnel files and employee information. A supervisor who receives this information while teleworking should follow normal company procedures to store this information. If they cannot follow the procedures for whatever reason, they should make every effort to safeguard the information from disclosure (for example, do not leave a laptop open or accessible to others; do not leave notepads with information around the home, etc.).

Q:    What are an employer’s ADA obligations when an employee says he has a disability that puts him at a greater risk of severe illness if he contracts COVID and therefore asks for a reasonable accommodation?

A:    The CDC has identified certain conditions (for example, lung disease) that put certain people at a higher risk for severe illness if COVID-19 is contracted. Thus, this is clearly a request for a reasonable accommodation and a request for a change in the workplace. Because employers cannot grant employees reasonable accommodations for disabilities that they do not have, employers may verify that the employee has a disability, what the disability is, and that the reasonable accommodation is necessary because the disability may potentially put the individual at a higher risk for severe illness due to COVID-19. 

There may also be a situation in which the employee’s disability is exacerbated by the current situation. The employer may verify this as well. Aside from requesting a doctor’s note, other options to verify an employee’s disability may be to request insurance documents or their prescription. An employer may want to provide a temporary reasonable accommodation pending receipt of the documentation.

Q:    If an employer grants telework to employees with the purpose of slowing down/stopping COVID-19 – after the public health measures are no longer necessary, does the employer automatically have to grant telework as a reasonable accommodation to every employee with a disability who wishes to continue this arrangement?

A:    No. Anytime an employee requests a reasonable accommodation, the employer has the right to understand and evaluate the disability related limitation and make a determination on the request. After the pandemic, a request to telework does not have to be granted if working at the worksite is an essential function of the job in normal circumstances (i.e. not during a pandemic). The ADA never requires an employer to limit the essential functions of a position, and just because an employer did this during the pandemic does not mean an employer has to permanently change the essential functions of a position, and is not an admission that telework is a feasible accommodation or that telework does not place an undue hardship on the employer.

The guidance further addresses common questions related to discrimination and harassment under Title VII, such as: 

Q:     May an employer decide to layoff or furlough a pregnant employee who does not have COVID-19 or symptoms solely based on the CDC guidance that pregnant women are more likely to experience severe symptoms and should be monitored?

A:     No, because pregnant employees are protected under the Pregnancy Discrimination Act of Title VII.  

Q:    May an employer exclude from the workplace an employee who is 65 or older and who does not have COVID, solely because he or she is in an age group that is at higher risk for severe illness as a result of COVID?

A:    No, age based actions are not permitted. The Age Discrimination in Employment Act prohibits discrimination against those who are 40 or older. 

Q:    May an employer single out employees based on national origin and exclude them from the workplace due to concerns about possible COVID-19 transmission? May employers tolerate a hostile work environment based on an employee’s national origin or religion because others link it to the transmission of COVID-19?

A:    No, because Title VII prohibits national origin discrimination. It does not matter that it is linked to COVID-19. Employers should remind employees of anti-discrimination and anti-harassment policies and also should ensure that they are not taking employment actions based on an employee’s protected class(es).

  • An employer may make inquiries that are non-disability related to identify potential non-medical reasons for an employee’s absence or future absence. For example, an employer may ask a “yes” or “no” question that asks if the employee or someone in his or her household falls within the categories identified by the CDC for being at higher risk for severe illness if COVID-19 is contracted (such as pregnancy or being over the age of 65).
  • An employer may also screen job applicants for symptoms of COVID-19 after making a conditional job offer, as long as it does so for all entering employees in the same type of job.  
  • While employers may require doctors’ notes certifying their fitness for duty before returning to work, as a practical matter, doctors and other health care professionals may be too busy during the pandemic outbreak to provide fitness-for-duty documentation. Therefore, new approaches, such as requesting an employee’s prescription, may be necessary.

This is a challenging time and events are changing rapidly. EEOC guidance and interpretation of what is permissible under the ADA and Title VII is evolving and may change as circumstances develop. 

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About this Author

Brie Kluytenaar, Mintz Levin, New York, Employment Relations Lawyer, Arbitration Attorney
Practice Group Associate

Brie represents a wide range of companies and has consistently achieved successful results for clients in fields including financial services, health care, technology, hospitality, media and cultural organizations. She has extensive experience resolving the many issues employers face throughout the employment life cycle, including counseling employers on hiring, terminations, reductions in force, internal investigations, wage and hour issues, disability and accommodations, statutory leave, and compliance with the rapidly-changing employment regulatory landscape.

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Danielle represents clients in employment disputes and investigations. 

Prior to joining Mintz, Danielle was an associate with a Washington, DC law firm dedicated to employment law. Managing a docket of 30 to 40 clients in plaintiffs’ federal and private sector employment matters, she regularly prepared and filed complaints before the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), assisted clients in investigations, responded to proposed disciplinary actions, drafted complaints of discrimination, and advocated for clients at mediations and settlement conferences — successfully obtaining two favorable settlements. In addition, Danielle represented several clients as first chair attorney in administrative hearings before the EEOC and Merit Systems Protection Board (MSPB). 

Danielle also worked with a DC law firm focused on representing individuals in government investigations, disciplinary actions, administrative litigation, security clearance adjudications, and related matters. There she defended clients before federal and state investigatory bodies and drafted responses to proposed suspensions and removals for cases before the MSPB. 
Earlier Danielle was a law clerk for two law firms in the greater Washington, DC area as well as for Bread for the City, an agency serving poor communities in Washington. She also worked as a legal intern for the District of Columbia Correction Information Council, as an intern and victim advocate for the Julie Valentine Center in Greenville, South Carolina, and as an intern with the Greenville County Bond Court. 

In law school, Danielle served as notes editor of the Public Contract Law Journal.