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July 02, 2020

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EEOC Updates Its 2009 Guidance Concerning Pandemic Preparedness

On March 19, 2020, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission updated its 2009 pandemic preparedness guidance: Pandemic Preparedness in the Workplace and the Americans with Disabilities Act. It includes the following note:

The EEOC is updating this 2009 publication to address its application to coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19).  Employers and employees should follow guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) as well as state/local public health authorities on how best to slow the spread of this disease and protect workers, customers, clients, and the general public.  The ADA and the Rehabilitation Act do not interfere with employers following advice from the CDC and other public health authorities on appropriate steps to take relating to the workplace.  This update retains the principles from the 2009 document but incorporates new information to respond to current employer questions.   

Many employers are struggling with questions such as:

  • If we follow CDC or state/local public health authorities, can we still violate the ADA?
  • Can we take our employees’ temperatures?
  • Does someone with COVID-19 symptoms in the workplace pose a direct threat?
  • May we screen applicants for COVID-19?

These and other questions are addressed in the guidance. However, as discussed here, there still may be other issues to consider, such as state and local privacy laws.

We paste below some of the key clarifications in the EEOC’s update:

Does someone with COVID-19 symptoms in the workplace pose a direct threat?

Based on guidance of the CDC and public health authorities as of March 2020, the COVID-19 pandemic meets the direct threat standard.  The CDC and public health authorities have acknowledged community spread of COVID-19 in the United States and have issued precautions to slow the spread, such as significant restrictions on public gatherings.  In addition, numerous state and local authorities have issued closure orders for businesses, entertainment and sport venues, and schools in order to avoid bringing people together in close quarters due to the risk of contagion.  These facts manifestly support a finding that a significant risk of substantial harm would be posed by having someone with COVID-19, or symptoms of it, present in the workplace at the current time.  At such time as the CDC and state/local public health authorities revise their assessment of the spread and severity of COVID-19, that could affect whether a direct threat still exists.

During a pandemic, may an ADA-covered employer take its employees’ temperatures to determine whether they have a fever?

Generally, measuring an employee’s body temperature is a medical examination. If pandemic influenza symptoms become more severe than the seasonal flu or the H1N1 virus in the spring/summer of 2009, or if pandemic influenza becomes widespread in the community as assessed by state or local health authorities or the CDC, then employers may measure employees’ body temperature.

However, employers should be aware that some people with influenza, including the 2009 H1N1 virus or COVID-19, do not have a fever.

Because the CDC and state/local health authorities have acknowledged community spread of COVID-19 and issued attendant precautions as of March 2020, employers may measure employees’ body temperature. As with all medical information, the fact that an employee had a fever or other symptoms would be subject to ADA confidentiality requirements.

If an employer is hiring, may it screen applicants for symptoms of COVID-19?

Yes. An employer may 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. An employer may 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.  This ADA rule allowing post-offer (but not pre-offer) medical inquiries and exams applies to all applicants, whether or not the applicant has a disability.

May an employer take an applicant’s temperature as part of a post-offer, pre-employment medical exam?

Yes.  Any medical exams are permitted after an employer has made a conditional offer of employment.  However, employers should be aware that some people with COVID-19 do not have a fever.

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.

CDC has issued guidance applicable to all workplaces generally, but also has issued more specific guidance for particular types of workplaces (e.g. health care employees). Guidance from public health authorities is likely to change as the COVID-19 pandemic evolves.  Therefore, employers should continue to follow the most current information on maintaining workplace safety.   To repeat:  the ADA does not interfere with employers following recommendations of the CDC or public health authorities, and employers should feel free to do so.

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.

During a pandemic, must an employer continue to provide reasonable accommodations for employees with known disabilities that are unrelated to the pandemic, barring undue hardship?

Generally, yes. But, the EEOC clarifies:

The rapid spread of COVID-19 has disrupted normal work routines and may have resulted in unexpected or increased requests for reasonable accommodation.  Although employers and employees should address these requests as soon as possible, the extraordinary circumstances of the COVID-19 pandemic may result in delay in discussing requests and in providing accommodation where warranted.  Employers and employees are encouraged to use interim solutions to enable employees to keep working as much as possible.

This is helpful guidance and provides some clarity, but employers will still need to assess their situations locally, weighing various factors when making these critical decisions.

Jackson Lewis P.C. © 2020National Law Review, Volume X, Number 80

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About this Author

Principal

Joseph J. Lazzarotti is a Principal in the Morristown, New Jersey, office of Jackson Lewis P.C. He founded and currently helps to co-lead the firm's Privacy, e-Communication and Data Security Practice, edits the firm’s Privacy Blog, and is a Certified Information Privacy Professional (CIPP) with the International Association of Privacy Professionals.

In short, his practice focuses on the matrix of laws governing the privacy, security and management of data, as well as the impact and regulation of social media. He also...

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