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EEOC Issues Additional Guidance Regarding COVID-19, ADA and the Rehabilitation Act

On April 9, 2020, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission issued supplemental guidance related to COVID-19.  The guidance discusses what questions an employer may ask employees when screening employees in the workplace, storing information about employees’ body temperatures, with whom an employer may share information about an employee who had COVID-19, and other important considerations.  The guidance for employers is set forth below in the question & answer format used by the Commission.

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 as examples, 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.

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 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.

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.

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)? (4/9/20)

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.

In a workplace where all employees are required to telework during this time, should an employer postpone discussing a request from an employee with a disability for an accommodation that will not be needed until he returns to the workplace when mandatory telework ends?

Not necessarily.  An employer may give higher priority to discussing requests for reasonable accommodations that are needed while teleworking, but the employer may begin discussing this request now.  The employer may be able to acquire all the information it needs to make a decision.  If a reasonable accommodation is granted, the employer also may be able to make some arrangements for the accommodation in advance.

What if an employee was already receiving a reasonable accommodation prior to the COVID-19 pandemic and now requests an additional or altered accommodation?

An employee who was already receiving a reasonable accommodation prior to the COVID-19 pandemic may be entitled to an additional or altered accommodation, absent undue hardship.  For example, an employee who is teleworking because of the pandemic may need a different type of accommodation than what he uses in the workplace.  The employer may discuss with the employee whether the same or a different disability is the basis for this new request and why an additional or altered accommodation is needed.

Employers who have questions regarding the most recent EEOC guidance should seek advice from in-house or outside legal counsel.

© Polsinelli PC, Polsinelli LLP in CaliforniaNational Law Review, Volume X, Number 96

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About this Author

Mark D. Nelson, Polsinelli PC, Legal Strategies Attorney, Union Avoidance lawyer
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Mark Nelson thrives on crafting legal strategies that are grounded in each client's business objectives. In his more than 30-year career, he has represented management in labor relations and employment discrimination issues and has extensive experience representing employers in a wide variety of labor matters including:

  • Union avoidance

  • Union organizing campaigns

  • Contract negotiations

  • Labor disputes

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