As employees increasingly transition back into the physical workplace, employers have begun to grapple with whether and how to deploy COVID-19 diagnostic testing as a return-to-work solution. Many employers want to avoid extended employee quarantine or isolation requirements that prevent their employees from returning to the office for weeks and disrupt their operations. But is this potential solution legal? And is it effective? Below we discuss practical considerations for employers considering a return to work COVID-19 testing strategy.
Is it Legal?
For the most part, yes. While the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (“EEOC”) has approved of COVID-19 diagnostic testing in the workplace generally, it has, as explained further below, recently modified its guidance to discourage its use as a return to work strategy. Further, approaches vary widely across the states and localities that have taken a position on return to work testing. For example, while Illinois permits its use, an ordinance in Dallas, Texas prohibits return to work testing.
Is it Effective?
It depends. Before mandatory vaccination becomes an option (which we wrote about here), requiring employees to test negative for COVID-19 before returning to work may at first glance seem like a reasonable way to ensure employee attendance while keeping the workplace safe. For some employers, particularly those that are able to test frequently, quickly and accurately, this may be a sound approach. But for other employers, they will have to weigh their options carefully. Recent updated guidance from the CDC, employee complaints about the invasiveness of testing, and very real ongoing concerns about testing availability and accuracy may militate against pursuing a testing strategy at this time.
More specifically, recent guidance from the CDC discourages a test-based strategy as a primary solution finding that a symptom-based screening strategy is sufficient to identify when an individual with symptoms may return to work. However, if an employer nevertheless decides to proceed with diagnostic testing as part of their COVID-19 mitigation strategy, the CDC recommends having employees test negatively twice with the two consecutive tests coming at least 24 hours, before returning to work.
State and local guidance does not necessarily provide additional clarity on how best to proceed. For example New York State’s guidance only addresses situations where an employee experiences symptoms upon arrival at work or while at the office, advising that in those instances an employee may return to work with a single negative COVID-19 test (in contrast to the CDC’s recommended two consecutive negative tests). But New York’s guidance does not currently address whether testing is a solution to a host of other scenarios – for instance, where an employee’s remote screening indicates recent symptoms, known exposure, or where an employee traveled to a place with significant community spread. In those instances, the New York guidance does not incorporate testing as a return to work solution, instead asserting that individuals who have had known close contact with someone who has COVID-19 (i.e. within 6 feet of someone for ten or more minutes) should (1) isolate for 10 days from the onset of symptoms (if the individual has symptoms); or (2) isolate for 14 days from the date of exposure (if the individual does not have symptoms). New York’s guidance also states that employees who test positive for COVID-19 must complete at least 10 days of isolation from the onset of symptoms or 10 days of isolation after the first positive test if they remain asymptomatic.
Putting all the guidance aside for the moment, testing may prove futile in many cases regardless. First, COVID-19 reportedly can take 2-14 days after exposure to become identifiable in a diagnostic test, and thus, employees who test negative may return to work and later discover they have indeed been infected. And in other cases, testing may prove futile if an employee cannot access a test readily, and thereafter receive their results in a timely manner, which effectively sidelines them from returning to the office anyway. Further, there is also the possibility of a false negative, particularly when an employee takes a rapid test. Other employer considerations include how COVID-19 testing, and the resulting disciplining of employees if they refuse to be tested, might affect overall employee morale.
Employers should consider these issues and weigh them against the vitality of other preventative measures such as whether an employee can telework or take a paid or unpaid leave in lieu of returning to work. If the employee must return to work, employers should consider using other safety measures (whether in lieu of or in addition to testing), such as symptom/exposure questionnaires, temperature checks and workplace social distancing requirements.
What if an Employee Refuses to Take a Diagnostic Test?
In selecting any of these options, employers should consider creating a policy or procedure that, among other things, discloses the circumstances under which an employee must take a test, the specific test or tests that the employer will accept, and the consequences of an employee’s refusal to be tested prior to returning to work. Employers should also consider whether they will afford an employee the opportunity to take an unpaid leave of absence where they refuse to take a test in lieu of a disciplinary action.
Further, before resorting to disciplinary measures, employers should first consider the nature of the employee’s objection. If the employee is simply annoyed or frustrated about the testing policy, disciplinary measures may be appropriate as the employees is failing to adhere to a company safety policy. However, employers should evaluate whether the employee is asking for a disability accommodation, and if so, should consider alternative options to testing.
A Note about Isolation Practices and Employee Abuses.
In jurisdictions that do not require employees to isolate after potential symptoms or exposure, employers that need employees to work in the office may be turning to COVID-19 diagnostic testing as an alternative or supplement to isolation practices they consider impractical or prone to abuse. Indeed, some employers are facing scenarios in which employees attempt to take advantage of company isolation policies in an effort to take extended time away from the workplace.
Employers facing this situation may consider implementing a diagnostic testing strategy (where permitted and feasible), but should also consider addressing the various employee abuse scenarios that might unfold and provide cautionary warnings to employees. For example, New York, New Jersey, Massachusetts, and some other jurisdictions are requiring individuals who travel to certain states with troublesome COVID-19 metrics to quarantine for 14 days upon their reentry. If an employee is planning travel to a “hot spot” on vacation to avoid returning to work, the employer should consider warning the employee that if they are unable to telework upon their return, they may be required to take additional paid time off or even unpaid leave. Alternatively, employers facing operational difficulties if employers are away for multiple weeks may wish to revisit paid time off approval processes or condition approval of company-provided vacation time on an employee’s ability to return to work promptly after traveling. In short, employers may have several options to address employees’ abuse of isolation rules that do not necessarily have to involve the implementation of diagnostic testing.
If an employer does decide to implement a testing strategy, it should ensure that its COVID-19 testing and screening protocols and policies adhere to relevant state and local guidelines, which vary greatly by jurisdiction. Employers should further ensure they are tracking other practical aspects of testing. For example, employers must safeguard employee medical records in accordance with Americans with Disabilities Act (“ADA”) requirements and the privacy requirements of various states and localities, which we discussed here. When choosing a diagnostic test, employers must also ensure that the test is reliable and accurate – for instance, some rapid testing kits now entering the market may not meet the EEOC’s reliability and accuracy standards. Similarly, any testing strategies must be uniformly applied so as not to cause disparate treatment amongst employees. Employers should refer to the EEOC’s ADA guidance, which we discussed here, to ensure non-discriminatory application of testing policies.