The spread of the Coronavirus (COVID-19) has employers concerned about keeping the workplace safe without violating laws in the process. Thankfully, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) has answered some common questions that employers are asking.
(Additional EEOC guidance can be found here.)
Frequently asked questions answered by the EEOC:
Disability-Related Inquiries and Medical Exams
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 pandemic? (3/17/20)
During a pandemic, ADA-covered employers may ask such employees if they are experiencing symptoms of the virus. For COVID-19, these include symptoms 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.
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 they ask about any symptoms identified by public health authorities as associated with COVID-19? (4/9/20)
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.
When may an ADA-covered employer take the body temperature of employees during the COVID-19 pandemic? (3/17/20)
Generally, measuring an employee’s body temperature is a medical examination. Because the CDC and state/local health authorities have acknowledged community spread of COVID-19 and issued attendant precautions, employers may measure employees’ body temperature. However, employers should be aware that some people with COVID-19 do not have a fever.
Does the ADA allow employers to require employees to stay home if they have symptoms of the COVID-19? (3/17/20)
Yes. The CDC states that employees who become ill with symptoms of COVID-19 should leave the workplace. The ADA does not interfere with employers following this advice.
When employees return to work, does the ADA allow employers to require a doctor’s note certifying fitness for duty? (3/17/20)
Yes. Such inquiries are permitted under the ADA either because they would not be disability-related or, if the pandemic influenza were truly severe, they would be justified under the ADA standards for disability-related inquiries of employees. As a practical matter, however, doctors and other health care professionals may be too busy during and immediately after a pandemic outbreak to provide fitness-for-duty documentation. Therefore, new approaches may be necessary, such as reliance on local clinics to provide a form, a stamp, or an e-mail to certify that an individual does not have the pandemic virus.
May an employer administer a COVID-19 test (a test to detect the presence of the COVID-19 virus) before permitting employees to enter the workplace? (4/23/20)
The ADA requires that any mandatory medical test of employees be “job related and consistent with business necessity.” Applying this standard to the current circumstances of the COVID-19 pandemic, employers may take steps to determine if employees entering the workplace have COVID-19 because an individual with the virus will pose a direct threat to the health of others. Therefore, an employer may choose to administer COVID-19 testing to employees before they enter the workplace to determine if they have the virus.
Consistent with the ADA standard, employers should ensure that the tests are accurate and reliable. For example, employers may review guidance from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration about what may or may not be considered safe and accurate testing, as well as guidance from CDC or other public health authorities, and check for updates. Employers may wish to consider the incidence of false-positives or false-negatives associated with a particular test. Finally, note that accurate testing only reveals if the virus is currently present; a negative test does not mean the employee will not acquire the virus later.
Based on guidance from medical and public health authorities, employers should still require—to the greatest extent possible—that employees observe infection control practices (such as social distancing, regular handwashing, and other measures) in the workplace to prevent transmission of COVID-19.
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? (4/9/20)
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? (4/9/20)
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? (4/9/20)
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? (4/9/20)
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
If an employer is hiring, may it screen applicants for symptoms of COVID-19? (3/18/20)
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. This ADA rule applies 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? (3/18/20)
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? (3/18/20)
Yes. According to current CDC guidance, an individual who has COVID-19 or symptoms associated with it should not be in the workplace.
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? (3/18/20)
Based on current CDC guidance, this individual cannot safely enter the workplace, and therefore the employer may withdraw the job offer.
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? (4/9/20)
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.
In discussing accommodation requests, employers and employees may find it helpful to consult the Job Accommodation Network (JAN) website for types of accommodations, www.askjan.org. JAN’s materials specific to COVID-19 are at https://askjan.org/topics/COVID-19.cfm.
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? (4/9/20)
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? (4/9/20)
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? (4/9/20)
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.
Pandemic-Related Harassment Due to National Origin, Race, or Other Protected Characteristics
What practical tools are available to employers to reduce and address workplace harassment that may arise as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic? (4/9/20)
Employers can help reduce the chance of harassment by explicitly communicating to the workforce that fear of the COVID-19 pandemic should not be misdirected against individuals because of a protected characteristic, including their national origin, race, or other prohibited bases.
This post is provided by the HR Pros at the HR Support Center and Corporate Payroll Services. It is for information purposes only and is not to be considered legal advice. When you need essential information on human resources issues, from benefits, hiring, and management, to culture, technology and regulations, HR Support Center is a resource on which you can rely. To learn more, visit www.cpsgo.com/hr-support-services/ or contact us at 770-446-7289 x2102.