Return to Work Considerations – COVID and the ADA
Employers are contending with difficult challenges unlike any time in modern history. Even though many employees, especially in the manufacturing industry, returned to work after working from home during the COVID pandemic, the effects of the increased flexibility seen during the COVID era linger. Many employees enjoyed the benefits of working from home during the last two years, even if only part-time, and do not want to give up the benefit. By contrast, and especially as COVID restrictions ease, employers often desire their workforce return to work in a more consistent and routine capacity. These tensions are further complicated by an extremely competitive labor market. Recruiting and retaining employees is a challenge in the current environment. Against this backdrop, prudent employers will keep in mind employment law considerations when developing return-to-work and work-from-home policies.
Where should an employer look to determine what accommodations it should make for an employee who wishes to work from home, either due to a COVID diagnosis and/or a condition that places the employee at a heightened risk for severe COVID? Early in the pandemic, local or state health orders answered such questions regarding COVID-related leave. As the pandemic continued, many of those local health orders were rescinded or expired. As a result, employers are left without clear local guidance. When local requirements are of no assistance, employers should look to CDC guidance for quarantining and isolating guidelines.
In addition, employers should keep in mind that COVID may qualify as a “disability” depending on the symptoms and their severity. If an employee tests positive for COVID and is experiencing symptoms that require an absence from work that is longer than the CDC recommended quarantine period, employers should involve legal counsel to analyze whether the employee’s COVID diagnosis constitutes a disability under the ADA. If it does constitute a disability, the employer is then required to engage in the interactive process under the ADA with the employee to determine whether a reasonable accommodation for the disability can be made. Leave can be an accommodation under the ADA, as can working from home, in certain circumstance and for certain roles.
Likewise, some disabilities may heighten the risk of severe COVID symptoms. In the event that such a disabled employee requests an accommodation related to this heightened risk of COVID, the employer should treat the request as it would any request for accommodation under the ADA. As always, employers should seek legal counsel and check local requirements regarding COVID leave when considering accommodations for employees in these circumstances.
Employers have many competing and challenging considerations when determining a company’s return-to-work policy. While the labor shortage, industry, and specific role considerations certainly play a part in those decisions, employers should not lose sight of the ADA’s additional requirements. The ADA may play a role on an individual level and affect whether an employee may seek leave, work from home, or is entitled to other accommodations related to a COVID diagnosis or high-risk factors.