Labor & Employment Law Daily EEOC COVID-19 Q&A updates add teleworking accommodation, medical inquiry and exam info
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Friday, September 11, 2020

EEOC COVID-19 Q&A updates add teleworking accommodation, medical inquiry and exam info

By Pamela Wolf, J.D.

The updated Q&As also address the confidentiality of pandemic symptoms and diagnosis, among other issues.

The EEOC has updated its question and answer series on COVID-19 and the ADA, the Rehabilitation Act, and other equal employment opportunity laws. The updated series adds 18 new questions and answers adapted from two other EEOC technical assistance resources: “Pandemic Preparedness in the Workplace and the Americans with Disabilities Act” and a March 27, 2020, publicly available EEOC webinar. The updates also add clarifications to clarifications to two existing Q&As.

Updated Q&As. In its updated A.6., the EEOC more fully explains its existing position about employers administering COVID-19 tests before permitting employees to enter the workplace. The updated answer comes in response to stakeholder questions about updates to CDC guidance. The EEOC points out: “Consistent with the ADA standard, employers should ensure that the tests are considered accurate and reliable. For example, employers may review information 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. Because the CDC and FDA may revise their recommendations based on new information, it may be helpful to check these agency websites for updates. Employers may wish to consider the incidence of false-positives or false-negatives associated with a particular test.”

In updated D.8., the EEOC clarifies its existing position on employers’ authority to invite employees not currently in the workplace to request disability accommodation in advance of their expected return, if they choose to do so.

Medical inquiries and exams. Several of the new Q&A address COVID-19-related medical inquiries and examinations, including these:

Question (A.8): May employers ask all employees physically entering the workplace if they have been diagnosed with or tested for COVID-19?

Answer: Yes. Employers may ask all employees who will be physically entering the workplace if they have COVID-19 or symptoms associated with COVID-19, and ask if they have been tested for COVID-19. Symptoms associated with COVID-19 include, for example, fever, chills, cough, and shortness of breath. The CDC has identified a current list of symptoms.

An employer may exclude those with COVID-19, or symptoms associated with COVID-19, from the workplace because, as EEOC has stated, their presence would pose a direct threat to the health or safety of others. However, for those employees who are teleworking and are not physically interacting with coworkers or others (for example, customers), the employer would generally not be permitted to ask these questions.

Question (A.9.): May a manager ask only one employee—as opposed to asking all employees—questions designed to determine if she has COVID-19, or require that this employee alone have her temperature taken or undergo other screening or testing?

Answer: If an employer wishes to ask only a particular employee to answer such questions, or to have her temperature taken or undergo other screening or testing, the ADA requires the employer to have a reasonable belief based on objective evidence that this person might have the disease. So, it is important for the employer to consider why it wishes to take these actions regarding this particular employee, such as a display of COVID-19 symptoms. In addition, the ADA does not interfere with employers following recommendations by the CDC or other public health authorities regarding whether, when, and for whom testing or other screening is appropriate.

Question (A.10.): May an employer ask an employee who is physically coming into the workplace whether they have family members who have COVID-19 or symptoms associated with COVID-19?

Answer: No. The Genetic Information Nondiscrimination Act (GINA) prohibits employers from asking employees medical questions about family members. GINA, however, does not prohibit an employer from asking employees whether they have had contact with anyone diagnosed with COVID-19 or who may have symptoms associated with the disease. Moreover, from a public health perspective, only asking an employee about his contact with family members would unnecessarily limit the information obtained about an employee’s potential exposure to COVID-19.

Question (A.11.): What may an employer do under the ADA if an employee refuses to permit the employer to take his temperature or refuses to answer questions about whether he has COVID-19, has symptoms associated with COVID-19, or has been tested for COVID-19?

Answer: Under the circumstances existing currently, the ADA allows an employer to bar an employee from physical presence in the workplace if he refuses to have his temperature taken or refuses to answer questions about whether he has COVID-19, has symptoms associated with COVID-19, or has been tested for COVID-19. To gain the cooperation of employees, however, employers may wish to ask the reasons for the employee’s refusal. The employer may be able to provide information or reassurance that they are taking these steps to ensure the safety of everyone in the workplace, and that these steps are consistent with health screening recommendations from CDC. Sometimes, employees are reluctant to provide medical information because they fear an employer may widely spread such personal medical information throughout the workplace. The ADA prohibits such broad disclosures. Alternatively, if an employee requests reasonable accommodation with respect to screening, the usual accommodation process should be followed; this is discussed in Question G.7.

Other Q&As related to medical inquiries and exams make these points:

  • Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, at this time employers may ask employees who work on-site, whether regularly or occasionally, and report feeling ill or who call in sick, questions about their symptoms as part of workplace screening for COVID-19.
  • Employers may ask employees why they have been absent from work. Asking why an individual did not report to work is not a disability-related inquiry. An employer is always entitled to know why an employee has not reported for work.
  • As to employees returning from travel, employers may ask about where they have traveled—these would not be disability-related inquiries. If the CDC or state or local public health officials recommend that people who visit specified locations remain at home for a certain period of time, an employer may ask whether employees are returning from these locations, even if the travel was personal.

Teleworking. A few of the new Q&As address issues related to teleworking in the context of a reasonable accommodation:

Question (D.14): When an employer requires some or all of its employees to telework because of COVID-19, or government officials require employers to shut down their facilities and have workers telework, is the employer required to provide a teleworking employee with the same reasonable accommodations for disability under the ADA or the Rehabilitation Act that it provides to this individual in the workplace?

Answer: If such a request is made, the employer and employee should discuss what the employee needs and why, and whether the same or a different accommodation could suffice in the home setting. For example, an employee may already have certain things in their home to enable them to do their job so that they do not need to have all of the accommodations that are provided in the workplace.

Also, the undue hardship considerations might be different when evaluating a request for accommodation when teleworking rather than working in the workplace. A reasonable accommodation that is feasible and does not pose an undue hardship in the workplace might pose one when considering circumstances, such as the place where it is needed and the reason for telework. For example, the fact that the period of telework may be of a temporary or unknown duration may render certain accommodations either not feasible or an undue hardship. There may also be constraints on the normal availability of items or on the ability of an employer to conduct a necessary assessment.

As a practical matter, and in light of the circumstances that led to the need for telework, employers and employees should both be creative and flexible about what can be done when an employee needs a reasonable accommodation for telework at home. If possible, providing interim accommodations might be appropriate while an employer discusses a request with the employee or is waiting for additional information.

Question (D.15): Assume that an employer grants telework to employees for the purpose of slowing or stopping the spread of COVID-19. When an employer reopens the workplace and recalls employees to the worksite, does the employer automatically have to grant telework as a reasonable accommodation to every employee with a disability who requests to continue this arrangement as an ADA/Rehabilitation Act accommodation?

Answer: No. Any time an employee requests a reasonable accommodation, the employer is entitled to understand the disability-related limitation that necessitates an accommodation. If there is no disability-related limitation that requires teleworking, then the employer does not have to provide telework as an accommodation. Or, if there is a disability-related limitation but the employer can effectively address the need with another form of reasonable accommodation at the workplace, then the employer can choose that alternative to telework.

To the extent that an employer is permitting telework to employees because of COVID-19 and is choosing to excuse an employee from performing one or more essential functions, then a request—after the workplace reopens—to continue telework as a reasonable accommodation does not have to be granted if it requires continuing to excuse the employee from performing an essential function. The ADA never requires an employer to eliminate an essential function as an accommodation for an individual with a disability.

The fact that an employer temporarily excused performance of one or more essential functions when it closed the workplace and enabled employees to telework for the purpose of protecting their safety from COVID-19, or otherwise chose to permit telework, does not mean that the employer permanently changed a job’s essential functions, that telework is always a feasible accommodation, or that it does not pose an undue hardship. These are fact-specific determinations. The employer has no obligation under the ADA to refrain from restoring all of an employee’s essential duties at such time as it chooses to restore the prior work arrangement, and then evaluating any requests for continued or new accommodations under the usual ADA rules.

Question (D.16): Assume that prior to the emergence of the COVID-19 pandemic, an employee with a disability had requested telework as a reasonable accommodation. The employee had shown a disability-related need for this accommodation, but the employer denied it because of concerns that the employee would not be able to perform the essential functions remotely. In the past, the employee therefore continued to come to the workplace. However, after the COVID-19 crisis has subsided and temporary telework ends, the employee renews her request for telework as a reasonable accommodation. Can the employer again refuse the request?

Answer: Assuming all the requirements for such a reasonable accommodation are satisfied, the temporary telework experience could be relevant to considering the renewed request. In this situation, for example, the period of providing telework because of the COVID-19 pandemic could serve as a trial period that showed whether or not this employee with a disability could satisfactorily perform all essential functions while working remotely, and the employer should consider any new requests in light of this information. As with all accommodation requests, the employee and the employer should engage in a flexible, cooperative interactive process going forward if this issue does arise.

Other new Q&As. Other new Q&As address the confidentiality of employees’ COVID-19-related symptoms and diagnosis, furloughs and layoffs, and age discrimination, among other things.

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