EEOC Answers Questions About COVID-19, the ADA, the Rehabilitation Act and Other EEO Laws
EEOC Answers Questions About COVID-19, the ADA, the Rehabilitation Act and Other EEO Laws
The U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission issued technical Assistance Questions and Answers in a December 16th update. If you are an employer, you should review it. We provide it here in full:
- All EEOC materials related to COVID-19 are collected at www.eeoc.gov/coronavirus.
- The EEOC enforces workplace anti-discrimination laws, including the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and the Rehabilitation Act (which include the requirement for reasonable accommodation and non-discrimination based on disability, and rules about employer medical examinations and inquiries), Title VII of the Civil Rights Act (which prohibits discrimination based on race, color, national origin, religion, and sex, including pregnancy), the Age Discrimination in Employment Act (which prohibits discrimination based on age, 40 or older), and the Genetic Information Nondiscrimination Act. Note: Other federal laws, as well as state or local laws, may provide employees with additional protections.
- Title I of the ADA applies to private employers with 15 or more employees. It also applies to state and local government employers, employment agencies, and labor unions. All nondiscrimination standards under Title I of the ADA also apply to federal agencies under Section 501 of the Rehabilitation Act. Basic background information about the ADA and the Rehabilitation Act is available on EEOC’s disability page.
- The EEO laws, including the ADA and Rehabilitation Act, continue to apply during the time of the COVID-19 pandemic, but they do not interfere with or prevent employers from following the guidelines and suggestions made by the CDC or state/local public health authorities about steps employers should take regarding COVID-19. Employers should remember that 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. Many common workplace inquiries about the COVID-19 pandemic are addressed in the CDC publication “General Business Frequently Asked Questions.”
- The EEOC has provided guidance (a publication entitled Pandemic Preparedness in the Workplace and the Americans With Disabilities Act [PDF version]) (“Pandemic Preparedness”), consistent with these workplace protections and rules, that can help employers implement strategies to navigate the impact of COVID-19 in the workplace. This pandemic publication, which was written during the prior H1N1 outbreak, is still relevant today and identifies established ADA and Rehabilitation Act principles to answer questions frequently asked about the workplace during a pandemic. It has been updated as of March 19, 2020 to address examples and information regarding COVID-19; the new 2020 information appears in bold and is marked with an asterisk.
- On March 27, 2020 the EEOC provided a webinar (“3/27/20 Webinar”) which was recorded and transcribed and is available at www.eeoc.gov/coronavirus. The World Health Organization (WHO) has declared COVID-19 to be an international pandemic. The EEOC pandemic publication includes a separate section that answers common employer questions about what to do after a pandemic has been declared. Applying these principles to the COVID-19 pandemic, the following may be useful:
A. Disability-Related Inquiries and Medical Exams
The ADA has restrictions on when and how much medical information an employer may obtain from any applicant or employee. Prior to making a conditional job offer to an applicant, disability-related inquiries and medical exams are generally prohibited. They are permitted between the time of the offer and when the applicant begins work, provided they are required for everyone in the same job category. Once an employee begins work, any disability-related inquiries or medical exams must be job related and consistent with business necessity.
During a pandemic, ADA-covered employers may ask such employees if they are experiencing symptoms of the pandemic 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.
A.2. 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 it 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.
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.
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.
Yes. Such inquiries are permitted under the ADA either because they would not be disability-related or, if the pandemic 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.
A.6. May an employer administer a COVID-19 test (a test to detect the presence of the COVID-19 virus) when evaluating an employee’s initial or continued presence in the workplace? (4/23/20; updated 9/8/20 to address stakeholder questions about updates to CDC guidance)
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 screening 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 initially permitting them to enter the workplace and/or periodically to determine if their presence in the workplace poses a direct threat to others. 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. Testing administered by employers consistent with current CDC guidance will meet the ADA’s “business necessity” standard.
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. Note that a positive test result reveals that an individual most likely has a current infection and may be able to transmit the virus to others. A negative test result means that the individual did not have detectable COVID-19 at the time of testing.
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.
Note: Question A.6 and A.8 address screening of employees generally. See Question A.9 regarding decisions to screen individual employees.
A.7. CDC said in its Interim Guidelines that antibody test results “should not be used to make decisions about returning persons to the workplace.” In light of this CDC guidance, under the ADA may an employer require antibody testing before permitting employees to re-enter the workplace? (6/17/20)
No. An antibody test constitutes a medical examination under the ADA. In light of CDC’s Interim Guidelines that antibody test results “should not be used to make decisions about returning persons to the workplace,” an antibody test at this time does not meet the ADA’s “job related and consistent with business necessity” standard for medical examinations or inquiries for current employees. Therefore, requiring antibody testing before allowing employees to re-enter the workplace is not allowed under the ADA. Please note that an antibody test is different from a test to determine if someone has an active case of COVID-19 (i.e., a viral test). The EEOC has already stated that COVID-19 viral tests are permissible under the ADA.
The EEOC will continue to closely monitor CDC’s recommendations, and could update this discussion in response to changes in CDC’s recommendations.
A.8. May employers ask all employees physically entering the workplace if they have been diagnosed with or tested for COVID-19? (9/8/20; adapted from 3/27/20 Webinar Question 1)
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.
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? (9/8/20; adapted from 3/27/20 Webinar Question 3)
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.
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? (9/8/20; adapted from 3/27/20 Webinar Question 4)
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.
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? (9/8/20; adapted from 3/27/20 Webinar Question 2)
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.
A.12. During the COVID-19 pandemic, may an employer request information from employees who work on-site, whether regularly or occasionally, who report feeling ill or who call in sick? (9/8/20; adapted from Pandemic Preparedness Question 6)
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.
A.13. May an employer ask an employee why he or she has been absent from work? (9/8/20; adapted from Pandemic Preparedness Question 15)
Yes. 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.
A.14. When an employee returns from travel during a pandemic, must an employer wait until the employee develops COVID-19 symptoms to ask questions about where the person has traveled? (9/8/20; adapted from Pandemic Preparedness Question 8)
No. Questions about where a person traveled 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.
B. Confidentiality of Medical Information
With limited exceptions, the ADA requires employers to keep confidential any medical information they learn about any applicant or employee. Medical information includes not only a diagnosis or treatments, but also the fact that an individual has requested or is receiving a reasonable accommodation.
B.1. 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.
B.2. 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.
B.3. 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)
B.4. 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.
B.5. Suppose a manager learns that an employee has COVID-19, or has symptoms associated with the disease. The manager knows she must report it but is worried about violating ADA confidentiality. What should she do? (9/8/20; adapted from 3/27/20 Webinar Question 5)
The ADA requires that an employer keep all medical information about employees confidential, even if that information is not about a disability. Clearly, the information that an employee has symptoms of, or a diagnosis of, COVID-19, is medical information. But the fact that this is medical information does not prevent the manager from reporting to appropriate employer officials so that they can take actions consistent with guidance from the CDC and other public health authorities.
The question is really what information to report: is it the fact that an employee—unnamed—has symptoms of COVID-19 or a diagnosis, or is it the identity of that employee? Who in the organization needs to know the identity of the employee will depend on each workplace and why a specific official needs this information. Employers should make every effort to limit the number of people who get to know the name of the employee.
The ADA does not interfere with a designated representative of the employer interviewing the employee to get a list of people with whom the employee possibly had contact through the workplace, so that the employer can then take action to notify those who may have come into contact with the employee, without revealing the employee’s identity. For example, using a generic descriptor, such as telling employees that “someone at this location” or “someone on the fourth floor” has COVID-19, provides notice and does not violate the ADA’s prohibition of disclosure of confidential medical information. For small employers, coworkers might be able to figure out who the employee is, but employers in that situation are still prohibited from confirming or revealing the employee’s identity. Also, all employer officials who are designated as needing to know the identity of an employee should be specifically instructed that they must maintain the confidentiality of this information. Employers may want to plan in advance what supervisors and managers should do if this situation arises and determine who will be responsible for receiving information and taking next steps.
B.6. An employee who must report to the workplace knows that a coworker who reports to the same workplace has symptoms associated with COVID-19. Does ADA confidentiality prevent the first employee from disclosing the coworker’s symptoms to a supervisor? (9/8/20; adapted from 3/27/20 Webinar Question 6)
No. ADA confidentiality does not prevent this employee from communicating to his supervisor about a coworker’s symptoms. In other words, it is not an ADA confidentiality violation for this employee to inform his supervisor about a coworker’s symptoms. After learning about this situation, the supervisor should contact appropriate management officials to report this information and discuss next steps.
B.7. An employer knows that an employee is teleworking because the person has COVID-19 or symptoms associated with the disease, and that he is in self-quarantine. May the employer tell staff that this particular employee is teleworking without saying why? (9/8/20; adapted from 3/27/20 Webinar Question 7)
Yes. If staff need to know how to contact the employee, and that the employee is working even if not present in the workplace, then disclosure that the employee is teleworking without saying why is permissible. Also, if the employee was on leave rather than teleworking because he has COVID-19 or symptoms associated with the disease, or any other medical condition, then an employer cannot disclose the reason for the leave, just the fact that the individual is on leave.
B.8. Many employees, including managers and supervisors, are now teleworking as a result of COVID-19. How are they supposed to keep medical information of employees confidential while working remotely? (9/8/20; adapted from 3/27/20 Webinar Question 9)
The ADA requirement that medical information be kept confidential includes a requirement that it be stored separately from regular personnel files. If a manager or supervisor receives medical information involving COVID-19, or any other medical information, while teleworking, and is able to follow an employer’s existing confidentiality protocols while working remotely, the supervisor has to do so. But to the extent that is not feasible, the supervisor still must safeguard this information to the greatest extent possible until the supervisor can properly store it. This means that paper notepads, laptops, or other devices should not be left where others can access the protected information.
Similarly, documentation must not be stored electronically where others would have access. A manager may even wish to use initials or another code to further ensure confidentiality of the name of an employee.
C. Hiring and Onboarding
Under the ADA, prior to making a conditional job offer to an applicant, disability-related inquiries and medical exams are generally prohibited. They are permitted between the time of the offer and when the applicant begins work, provided they are required for everyone in the same job category.
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.
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.
Yes. According to current CDC guidance, an individual who has COVID-19 or symptoms associated with it should not be in the workplace.
Based on current CDC guidance, this individual cannot safely enter the workplace, and therefore the employer may withdraw the job offer.
C.5. 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.
D. Reasonable Accommodation
Under the ADA, reasonable accommodations are adjustments or modifications provided by an employer to enable people with disabilities to enjoy equal employment opportunities. If a reasonable accommodation is needed and requested by an individual with a disability to apply for a job, perform a job, or enjoy benefits and privileges of employment, the employer must provide it unless it would pose an undue hardship, meaning significant difficulty or expense. An employer has the discretion to choose among effective accommodations. Where a requested accommodation would result in undue hardship, the employer must offer an alternative accommodation if one is available absent undue hardship. 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.
D.1. 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.
D.2. 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.
D.3. 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.
D.4. 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.
D.5. During the pandemic, if an employee requests an accommodation for a medical condition either at home or in the workplace, may an employer still request information to determine if the condition is a disability? (4/17/20)
Yes, if it is not obvious or already known, an employer may ask questions or request medical documentation to determine whether the employee has a “disability” as defined by the ADA (a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits a major life activity, or a history of a substantially limiting impairment).
D.6. During the pandemic, may an employer still engage in the interactive process and request information from an employee about why an accommodation is needed? (4/17/20)
Yes, if it is not obvious or already known, an employer may ask questions or request medical documentation to determine whether the employee’s disability necessitates an accommodation, either the one he requested or any other. Possible questions for the employee may include: (1) how the disability creates a limitation, (2) how the requested accommodation will effectively address the limitation, (3) whether another form of accommodation could effectively address the issue, and (4) how a proposed accommodation will enable the employee to continue performing the “essential functions” of his position (that is, the fundamental job duties).
D.7. If there is some urgency to providing an accommodation, or the employer has limited time available to discuss the request during the pandemic, may an employer provide a temporary accommodation? (4/17/20)
Yes. Given the pandemic, some employers may choose to forgo or shorten the exchange of information between an employer and employee known as the “interactive process” (discussed in D.5 and D.6., above) and grant the request. In addition, when government restrictions change, or are partially or fully lifted, the need for accommodations may also change. This may result in more requests for short-term accommodations. Employers may wish to adapt the interactive process—and devise end dates for the accommodation—to suit changing circumstances based on public health directives.
Whatever the reason for shortening or adapting the interactive process, an employer may also choose to place an end date on the accommodation (for example, either a specific date such as May 30, or when the employee returns to the workplace part- or full-time due to changes in government restrictions limiting the number of people who may congregate). Employers may also opt to provide a requested accommodation on an interim or trial basis, with an end date, while awaiting receipt of medical documentation. Choosing one of these alternatives may be particularly helpful where the requested accommodation would provide protection that an employee may need because of a pre-existing disability that puts her at greater risk during this pandemic. This could also apply to employees who have disabilities exacerbated by the pandemic.
Employees may request an extension that an employer must consider, particularly if current government restrictions are extended or new ones adopted.
D.8. May an employer invite employees now to ask for reasonable accommodations they may need in the future when they are permitted to return to the workplace? (4/17/20; updated 9/8/20 to address stakeholder questions)
Yes. Employers may inform the workforce that employees with disabilities may request accommodations in advance that they believe they may need when the workplace re-opens. This is discussed in greater detail in Question G.6. If advance requests are received, employers may begin the “interactive process” – the discussion between the employer and employee focused on whether the impairment is a disability and the reasons that an accommodation is needed. If an employee chooses not to request accommodation in advance, and instead requests it at a later time, the employer must still consider the request at that time.
D.9. Are the circumstances of the pandemic relevant to whether a requested accommodation can be denied because it poses an undue hardship? (4/17/20)
Yes. An employer does not have to provide a particular reasonable accommodation if it poses an “undue hardship,” which means “significant difficulty or expense.” As described in the two questions that follow, in some instances, an accommodation that would not have posed an undue hardship prior to the pandemic may pose one now.
D.10. What types of undue hardship considerations may be relevant to determine if a requested accommodation poses “significant difficulty” during the COVID-19 pandemic? (4/17/20)
An employer may consider whether current circumstances create “significant difficulty” in acquiring or providing certain accommodations, considering the facts of the particular job and workplace. For example, it may be significantly more difficult in this pandemic to conduct a needs assessment or to acquire certain items, and delivery may be impacted, particularly for employees who may be teleworking. Or, it may be significantly more difficult to provide employees with temporary assignments, to remove marginal functions, or to readily hire temporary workers for specialized positions. If a particular accommodation poses an undue hardship, employers and employees should work together to determine if there may be an alternative that could be provided that does not pose such problems.
D.11. What types of undue hardship considerations may be relevant to determine if a requested accommodation poses “significant expense” during the COVID-19 pandemic? (4/17/20)
Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, most accommodations did not pose a significant expense when considered against an employer’s overall budget and resources (always considering the budget/resources of the entire entity and not just its components). But, the sudden loss of some or all of an employer’s income stream because of this pandemic is a relevant consideration. Also relevant is the amount of discretionary funds available at this time—when considering other expenses—and whether there is an expected date that current restrictions on an employer’s operations will be lifted (or new restrictions will be added or substituted). These considerations do not mean that an employer can reject any accommodation that costs money; an employer must weigh the cost of an accommodation against its current budget while taking into account constraints created by this pandemic. For example, even under current circumstances, there may be many no-cost or very low-cost accommodations.
Yes. These CDC designations, or any other designations of certain employees, do not eliminate coverage under the ADA or the Rehabilitation Act, or any other equal employment opportunity law. Therefore, employers receiving requests for reasonable accommodation under the ADA or the Rehabilitation Act from employees falling in these categories of jobs must accept and process the requests as they would for any other employee. Whether the request is granted will depend on whether the worker is an individual with a disability, and whether there is a reasonable accommodation that can be provided absent undue hardship.
D.13. Is an employee entitled to an accommodation under the ADA in order to avoid exposing a family member who is at higher risk of severe illness from COVID-19 due to an underlying medical condition? (6/11/20)
No. Although the ADA prohibits discrimination based on association with an individual with a disability, that protection is limited to disparate treatment or harassment. The ADA does not require that an employer accommodate an employee without a disability based on the disability-related needs of a family member or other person with whom she is associated.
For example, an employee without a disability is not entitled under the ADA to telework as an accommodation in order to protect a family member with a disability from potential COVID-19 exposure.
Of course, an employer is free to provide such flexibilities if it chooses to do so. An employer choosing to offer additional flexibilities beyond what the law requires should be careful not to engage in disparate treatment on a protected EEO basis.
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? (9/8/20; adapted from 3/27/20 Webinar Question 20)
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.
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? (9/8/20; adapted from 3/27/20 Webinar Question 21)
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.
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? (9/8/20; adapted from 3/27/20 Webinar Question 22)
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.
D.17. Might the pandemic result in excusable delays during the interactive process? (9/8/20; adapted from 3/27/20 Webinar Question 19)
Yes. 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.
D.18. Federal agencies are required to have timelines in their written reasonable accommodation procedures governing how quickly they will process requests and provide reasonable accommodations. What happens if circumstances created by the pandemic prevent an agency from meeting this timeline? (9/8/20; adapted from 3/27/20 Webinar Question 19)
Situations created by the current COVID-19 crisis may constitute an “extenuating circumstance”—something beyond a Federal agency’s control—that may justify exceeding the normal timeline that an agency has adopted in its internal reasonable accommodation procedures.
E. Pandemic-Related Harassment Due to National Origin, Race, or Other Protected Characteristics
E.1. 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.
Practical anti-harassment tools provided by the EEOC for small businesses can be found here:
- Anti-harassment policy tips for small businesses
- Select Task Force on the Study of Harassment in the Workplace (includes detailed recommendations and tools to aid in designing effective anti-harassment policies; developing training curricula; implementing complaint, reporting, and investigation procedures; creating an organizational culture in which harassment is not tolerated):
E.2. Are there steps an employer should take to address possible harassment and discrimination against coworkers when it re-opens the workplace? (4/17/20)
Yes. An employer may remind all employees that it is against the federal EEO laws to harass or otherwise discriminate against coworkers based on race, national origin, color, sex, religion, age (40 or over), disability, or genetic information. It may be particularly helpful for employers to advise supervisors and managers of their roles in watching for, stopping, and reporting any harassment or other discrimination. An employer may also make clear that it will immediately review any allegations of harassment or discrimination and take appropriate action.
E.3. How may employers respond to pandemic-related harassment, in particular against employees who are or are perceived to be Asian? (6/11/20)
Managers should be alert to demeaning, derogatory, or hostile remarks directed to employees who are or are perceived to be of Chinese or other Asian national origin, including about the coronavirus or its origins.
All employers covered by Title VII should ensure that management understands in advance how to recognize such harassment. Harassment may occur using electronic communication tools—regardless of whether employees are in the workplace, teleworking, or on leave—and also in person between employees at the worksite. Harassment of employees at the worksite may also originate with contractors, customers or clients, or, for example, with patients or their family members at health care facilities, assisted living facilities, and nursing homes. Managers should know their legal obligations and be instructed to quickly identify and resolve potential problems, before they rise to the level of unlawful discrimination.
Employers may choose to send a reminder to the entire workforce noting Title VII’s prohibitions on harassment, reminding employees that harassment will not be tolerated, and inviting anyone who experiences or witnesses workplace harassment to report it to management. Employers may remind employees that harassment can result in disciplinary action up to and including termination.
E.4. An employer learns that an employee who is teleworking due to the pandemic is sending harassing emails to another worker. What actions should the employer take? (6/11/20)
The employer should take the same actions it would take if the employee was in the workplace. Employees may not harass other employees through, for example, emails, calls, or platforms for video or chat communication and collaboration.
F. Furloughs and Layoffs
F.1. Under the EEOC’s laws, what waiver responsibilities apply when an employer is conducting layoffs? (4/9/20)
Special rules apply when an employer is offering employees severance packages in exchange for a general release of all discrimination claims against the employer. More information is available in EEOC’s technical assistance document on severance agreements.
F.2. What are additional EEO considerations in planning furloughs or layoffs? (9/8/20; adapted from 3/27/20 Webinar Question 13)
The laws enforced by the EEOC prohibit covered employers from selecting people for furlough or layoff because of that individual’s race, color, religion, national origin, sex, age, disability, protected genetic information, or in retaliation for protected EEO activity.
G. Return to Work
G.1. As government stay-at-home orders and other restrictions are modified or lifted in your area, how will employers know what steps they can take consistent with the ADA to screen employees for COVID-19 when entering the workplace? (4/17/20)
The ADA permits employers to make disability-related inquiries and conduct medical exams if job-related and consistent with business necessity. Inquiries and reliable medical exams meet this standard if it is necessary to exclude employees with a medical condition that would pose a direct threat to health or safety.
Direct threat is to be determined based on the best available objective medical evidence. The guidance from CDC or other public health authorities is such evidence. Therefore, employers will be acting consistent with the ADA as long as any screening implemented is consistent with advice from the CDC and public health authorities for that type of workplace at that time.
For example, this may include continuing to take temperatures and asking questions about symptoms (or require self-reporting) of all those entering the workplace. Similarly, the CDC recently posted information on return by certain types of critical workers.
Employers should make sure not to engage in unlawful disparate treatment based on protected characteristics in decisions related to screening and exclusion.
G.2. An employer requires returning workers to wear personal protective gear and engage in infection control practices. Some employees ask for accommodations due to a need for modified protective gear. Must an employer grant these requests? (4/17/20)
However, where an employee with a disability needs a related reasonable accommodation under the ADA (e.g., non-latex gloves, modified face masks for interpreters or others who communicate with an employee who uses lip reading, or gowns designed for individuals who use wheelchairs), or a religious accommodation under Title VII (such as modified equipment due to religious garb), the employer should discuss the request and provide the modification or an alternative if feasible and not an undue hardship on the operation of the employer’s business under the ADA or Title VII.
G.3. What does an employee need to do in order to request reasonable accommodation from her employer because she has one of the medical conditions that CDC says may put her at higher risk for severe illness from COVID-19? (5/5/20)
An employee—or a third party, such as an employee’s doctor—must let the employer know that she needs a change for a reason related to a medical condition (here, the underlying condition). Individuals may request accommodation in conversation or in writing. While the employee (or third party) does not need to use the term “reasonable accommodation” or reference the ADA, she may do so.
The employee or her representative should communicate that she has a medical condition that necessitates a change to meet a medical need. After receiving a request, the employer may ask questions or seek medical documentation to help decide if the individual has a disability and if there is a reasonable accommodation, barring undue hardship, that can be provided.
G.4. The CDC identifies a number of medical conditions that might place individuals at “higher risk for severe illness” if they get COVID-19. An employer knows that an employee has one of these conditions and is concerned that his health will be jeopardized upon returning to the workplace, but the employee has not requested accommodation. How does the ADA apply to this situation? (5/7/20)
First, if the employee does not request a reasonable accommodation, the ADA does not mandate that the employer take action.
If the employer is concerned about the employee’s health being jeopardized upon returning to the workplace, the ADA does not allow the employer to exclude the employee—or take any other adverse action—solely because the employee has a disability that the CDC identifies as potentially placing him at “higher risk for severe illness” if he gets COVID-19. Under the ADA, such action is not allowed unless the employee’s disability poses a “direct threat” to his health that cannot be eliminated or reduced by reasonable accommodation.
The ADA direct threat requirement is a high standard. As an affirmative defense, direct threat requires an employer to show that the individual has a disability that poses a “significant risk of substantial harm” to his own health under 29 C.F.R. section 1630.2(r) (regulation addressing direct threat to health or safety of self or others). A direct threat assessment cannot be based solely on the condition being on the CDC’s list; the determination must be an individualized assessment based on a reasonable medical judgment about this employee’s disability—not the disability in general—using the most current medical knowledge and/or on the best available objective evidence. The ADA regulation requires an employer to consider the duration of the risk, the nature and severity of the potential harm, the likelihood that the potential harm will occur, and the imminence of the potential harm. Analysis of these factors will likely include considerations based on the severity of the pandemic in a particular area and the employee’s own health (for example, is the employee’s disability well-controlled), and his particular job duties. A determination of direct threat also would include the likelihood that an individual will be exposed to the virus at the worksite. Measures that an employer may be taking in general to protect all workers, such as mandatory social distancing, also would be relevant.
Even if an employer determines that an employee’s disability poses a direct threat to his own health, the employer still cannot exclude the employee from the workplace—or take any other adverse action—unless there is no way to provide a reasonable accommodation (absent undue hardship). The ADA regulations require an employer to consider whether there are reasonable accommodations that would eliminate or reduce the risk so that it would be safe for the employee to return to the workplace while still permitting performance of essential functions. This can involve an interactive process with the employee. If there are not accommodations that permit this, then an employer must consider accommodations such as telework, leave, or reassignment (perhaps to a different job in a place where it may be safer for the employee to work or that permits telework). An employer may only bar an employee from the workplace if, after going through all these steps, the facts support the conclusion that the employee poses a significant risk of substantial harm to himself that cannot be reduced or eliminated by reasonable accommodation.
G.5. What are examples of accommodation that, absent undue hardship, may eliminate (or reduce to an acceptable level) a direct threat to self? (5/5/20)
Accommodations may include additional or enhanced protective gowns, masks, gloves, or other gear beyond what the employer may generally provide to employees returning to its workplace. Accommodations also may include additional or enhanced protective measures, for example, erecting a barrier that provides separation between an employee with a disability and coworkers/the public or increasing the space between an employee with a disability and others. Another possible reasonable accommodation may be elimination or substitution of particular “marginal” functions (less critical or incidental job duties as distinguished from the “essential” functions of a particular position). In addition, accommodations may include temporary modification of work schedules (if that decreases contact with coworkers and/or the public when on duty or commuting) or moving the location of where one performs work (for example, moving a person to the end of a production line rather than in the middle of it if that provides more social distancing).
These are only a few ideas. Identifying an effective accommodation depends, among other things, on an employee’s job duties and the design of the workspace. An employer and employee should discuss possible ideas; the Job Accommodation Network (www.askjan.org) also may be able to assist in helping identify possible accommodations. As with all discussions of reasonable accommodation during this pandemic, employers and employees are encouraged to be creative and flexible.
G.6. As a best practice, and in advance of having some or all employees return to the workplace, are there ways for an employer to invite employees to request flexibility in work arrangements? (6/11/20)
Yes. The ADA and the Rehabilitation Act permit employers to make information available in advance to all employees about who to contact—if they wish—to request accommodation for a disability that they may need upon return to the workplace, even if no date has been announced for their return. If requests are received in advance, the employer may begin the interactive process. An employer may choose to include in such a notice all the CDC-listed medical conditions that may place people at higher risk of serious illness if they contract COVID-19, provide instructions about who to contact, and explain that the employer is willing to consider on a case-by-case basis any requests from employees who have these or other medical conditions.
An employer also may send a general notice to all employees who are designated for returning to the workplace, noting that the employer is willing to consider requests for accommodation or flexibilities on an individualized basis. The employer should specify if the contacts differ depending on the reason for the request – for example, if the office or person to contact is different for employees with disabilities or pregnant workers than for employees whose request is based on age or child-care responsibilities.
Either approach is consistent with the ADEA, the ADA, and the May 29, 2020 CDC guidance that emphasizes the importance of employers providing accommodations or flexibilities to employees who, due to age or certain medical conditions, are at higher risk for severe illness.
Regardless of the approach, however, employers should ensure that whoever receives inquiries knows how to handle them consistent with the different federal employment nondiscrimination laws that may apply, for instance, with respect to accommodations due to a medical condition, a religious belief, or pregnancy.
G.7. What should an employer do if an employee entering the worksite requests an alternative method of screening due to a medical condition? (6/11/20)
This is a request for reasonable accommodation, and an employer should proceed as it would for any other request for accommodation under the ADA or the Rehabilitation Act. If the requested change is easy to provide and inexpensive, the employer might voluntarily choose to make it available to anyone who asks, without going through an interactive process. Alternatively, if the disability is not obvious or already known, an employer may ask the employee for information to establish that the condition is a disability and what specific limitations require an accommodation. If necessary, an employer also may request medical documentation to support the employee’s request, and then determine if that accommodation or an alternative effective accommodation can be provided, absent undue hardship.
Similarly, if an employee requested an alternative method of screening as a religious accommodation, the employer should determine if accommodation is available under Title VII.
H.1. The CDC has explained that individuals age 65 and over are at higher risk for a severe case of COVID-19 if they contract the virus and therefore has encouraged employers to offer maximum flexibilities to this group. Do employees age 65 and over have protections under the federal employment discrimination laws? (6/11/20)
The Age Discrimination in Employment Act (ADEA) prohibits employment discrimination against individuals age 40 and older. The ADEA would prohibit a covered employer from involuntarily excluding an individual from the workplace based on his or her being 65 or older, even if the employer acted for benevolent reasons such as protecting the employee due to higher risk of severe illness from COVID-19.
Unlike the ADA, the ADEA does not include a right to reasonable accommodation for older workers due to age. However, employers are free to provide flexibility to workers age 65 and older; the ADEA does not prohibit this, even if it results in younger workers ages 40-64 being treated less favorably based on age in comparison.
Workers age 65 and older also may have medical conditions that bring them under the protection of the ADA as individuals with disabilities. As such, they may request reasonable accommodation for their disability as opposed to their age.
H.2. If an employer is choosing to offer flexibilities to other workers, may older comparable workers be treated less favorably based on age? (9/8/20; adapted from 3/27/20 Webinar Question 12)
No. If an employer is allowing other comparable workers to telework, it should make sure it is not treating older workers less favorably based on their age.
I. Caregivers/Family Responsibilities
I.1. If an employer provides telework, modified schedules, or other benefits to employees with school-age children due to school closures or distance learning during the pandemic, are there sex discrimination considerations? (6/11/20)
Employers may provide any flexibilities as long as they are not treating employees differently based on sex or other EEO-protected characteristics. For example, under Title VII, female employees cannot be given more favorable treatment than male employees because of a gender-based assumption about who may have caretaking responsibilities for children.
J.1. Due to the pandemic, may an employer exclude an employee from the workplace involuntarily due to pregnancy? (6/11/20)
No. Sex discrimination under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act includes discrimination based on pregnancy. Even if motivated by benevolent concern, an employer is not permitted to single out workers on the basis of pregnancy for adverse employment actions, including involuntary leave, layoff, or furlough.
J.2. Is there a right to accommodation based on pregnancy during the pandemic? (6/11/20)
There are two federal employment discrimination laws that may trigger accommodation for employees based on pregnancy.
First, pregnancy-related medical conditions may themselves be disabilities under the ADA, even though pregnancy itself is not an ADA disability. If an employee makes a request for reasonable accommodation due to a pregnancy-related medical condition, the employer must consider it under the usual ADA rules.
Second, Title VII as amended by the Pregnancy Discrimination Act specifically requires that women affected by pregnancy, childbirth, and related medical conditions be treated the same as others who are similar in their ability or inability to work. This means that a pregnant employee may be entitled to job modifications, including telework, changes to work schedules or assignments, and leave to the extent provided for other employees who are similar in their ability or inability to work. Employers should ensure that supervisors, managers, and human resources personnel know how to handle such requests to avoid disparate treatment in violation of Title VII.
The availability of COVID-19 vaccinations may raise questions about the applicablilty of various equal employment opportunity (EEO) laws, including the ADA and the Rehabilitation Act, GINA, and Title VII, including the Pregnancy Discrimination Act (see Section J, EEO rights relating to pregnancy). The EEO laws do not interfere with or prevent employers from following CDC or other federal, state, and local public health authorities’ guidelines and suggestions.
ADA and Vaccinations
K.1. For any COVID-19 vaccine that has been approved or authorized by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), is the administration of a COVID-19 vaccine to an employee by an employer (or by a third party with whom the employer contracts to administer a vaccine) a “medical examination” for purposes of the ADA? (12/16/20)
No. The vaccination itself is not a medical examination. As the Commission explained in guidance on disability-related inquiries and medical examinations, a medical examination is “a procedure or test usually given by a health care professional or in a medical setting that seeks information about an individual’s physical or mental impairments or health.” Examples include “vision tests; blood, urine, and breath analyses; blood pressure screening and cholesterol testing; and diagnostic procedures, such as x-rays, CAT scans, and MRIs.” If a vaccine is administered to an employee by an employer for protection against contracting COVID-19, the employer is not seeking information about an individual’s impairments or current health status and, therefore, it is not a medical examination.
Although the administration of a vaccination is not a medical examination, pre-screening vaccination questions may implicate the ADA’s provision on disability-related inquiries, which are inquiries likely to elicit information about a disability. If the employer administers the vaccine, it must show that such pre-screening questions it asks employees are “job-related and consistent with business necessity.” See Question K.2.
K.2. According to the CDC, health care providers should ask certain questions before administering a vaccine to ensure that there is no medical reason that would prevent the person from receiving the vaccination. If the employer requires an employee to receive the vaccination from the employer (or a third party with whom the employer contracts to administer a vaccine) and asks these screening questions, are these questions subject to the ADA standards for disability-related inquiries? (12/16/20)
Yes. Pre-vaccination medical screening questions are likely to elicit information about a disability. This means that such questions, if asked by the employer or a contractor on the employer’s behalf, are “disability-related” under the ADA. Thus, if the employer requires an employee to receive the vaccination, administered by the employer, the employer must show that these disability-related screening inquiries are “job-related and consistent with business necessity.” To meet this standard, an employer would need to have a reasonable belief, based on objective evidence, that an employee who does not answer the questions and, therefore, does not receive a vaccination, will pose a direct threat to the health or safety of her or himself or others. See Question K.5. below for a discussion of direct threat.
By contrast, there are two circumstances in which disability-related screening questions can be asked without needing to satisfy the “job-related and consistent with business necessity” requirement. First, if an employer has offered a vaccination to employees on a voluntary basis (i.e. employees choose whether to be vaccinated), the ADA requires that the employee’s decision to answer pre-screening, disability-related questions also must be voluntary. 42 U.S.C. 12112(d)(4)(B); 29 C.F.R. 1630.14(d). If an employee chooses not to answer these questions, the employer may decline to administer the vaccine but may not retaliate against, intimidate, or threaten the employee for refusing to answer any questions. Second, if an employee receives an employer-required vaccination from a third party that does not have a contract with the employer, such as a pharmacy or other health care provider, the ADA “job-related and consistent with business necessity” restrictions on disability-related inquiries would not apply to the pre-vaccination medical screening questions.
The ADA requires employers to keep any employee medical information obtained in the course of the vaccination program confidential.
K.3. Is asking or requiring an employee to show proof of receipt of a COVID-19 vaccination a disability-related inquiry? (12/16/20)
No. There are many reasons that may explain why an employee has not been vaccinated, which may or may not be disability-related. Simply requesting proof of receipt of a COVID-19 vaccination is not likely to elicit information about a disability and, therefore, is not a disability-related inquiry. However, subsequent employer questions, such as asking why an individual did not receive a vaccination, may elicit information about a disability and would be subject to the pertinent ADA standard that they be “job-related and consistent with business necessity.” If an employer requires employees to provide proof that they have received a COVID-19 vaccination from a pharmacy or their own health care provider, the employer may want to warn the employee not to provide any medical information as part of the proof in order to avoid implicating the ADA.
ADA and Title VII Issues Regarding Mandatory Vaccinations
K.4. Where can employers learn more about Emergency Use Authorizations (EUA) of COVID-19 vaccines? (12/16/20)
Some COVID-19 vaccines may only be available to the public for the foreseeable future under EUA granted by the FDA, which is different than approval under FDA vaccine licensure. The FDA has an obligation to:
[E]nsure that recipients of the vaccine under an EUA are informed, to the extent practicable under the applicable circumstances, that FDA has authorized the emergency use of the vaccine, of the known and potential benefits and risks, the extent to which such benefits and risks are unknown, that they have the option to accept or refuse the vaccine, and of any available alternatives to the product.
The FDA says that this information is typically conveyed in a patient fact sheet that is provided at the time of the vaccine administration and that it posts the fact sheets on its website. More information about EUA vaccines is available on the FDA’s EUA page.
K.5. If an employer requires vaccinations when they are available, how should it respond to an employee who indicates that he or she is unable to receive a COVID-19 vaccination because of a disability? (12/16/20)
The ADA allows an employer to have a qualification standard that includes “a requirement that an individual shall not pose a direct threat to the health or safety of individuals in the workplace.” However, if a safety-based qualification standard, such as a vaccination requirement, screens out or tends to screen out an individual with a disability, the employer must show that an unvaccinated employee would pose a direct threat due to a “significant risk of substantial harm to the health or safety of the individual or others that cannot be eliminated or reduced by reasonable accommodation.” 29 C.F.R. 1630.2(r). Employers should conduct an individualized assessment of four factors in determining whether a direct threat exists: the duration of the risk; the nature and severity of the potential harm; the likelihood that the potential harm will occur; and the imminence of the potential harm. A conclusion that there is a direct threat would include a determination that an unvaccinated individual will expose others to the virus at the worksite. If an employer determines that an individual who cannot be vaccinated due to disability poses a direct threat at the worksite, the employer cannot exclude the employee from the workplace—or take any other action—unless there is no way to provide a reasonable accommodation (absent undue hardship) that would eliminate or reduce this risk so the unvaccinated employee does not pose a direct threat.
If there is a direct threat that cannot be reduced to an acceptable level, the employer can exclude the employee from physically entering the workplace, but this does not mean the employer may automatically terminate the worker. Employers will need to determine if any other rights apply under the EEO laws or other federal, state, and local authorities. For example, if an employer excludes an employee based on an inability to accommodate a request to be exempt from a vaccination requirement, the employee may be entitled to accommodations such as performing the current position remotely. This is the same step that employers take when physically excluding employees from a worksite due to a current COVID-19 diagnosis or symptoms; some workers may be entitled to telework or, if not, may be eligible to take leave under the Families First Coronavirus Response Act, under the FMLA, or under the employer’s policies. See also Section J, EEO rights relating to pregnancy.
Managers and supervisors responsible for communicating with employees about compliance with the employer’s vaccination requirement should know how to recognize an accommodation request from an employee with a disability and know to whom the request should be referred for consideration. Employers and employees should engage in a flexible, interactive process to identify workplace accommodation options that do not constitute an undue hardship (significant difficulty or expense). This process should include determining whether it is necessary to obtain supporting documentation about the employee’s disability and considering the possible options for accommodation given the nature of the workforce and the employee’s position. The prevalence in the workplace of employees who already have received a COVID-19 vaccination and the amount of contact with others, whose vaccination status could be unknown, may impact the undue hardship consideration. In discussing accommodation requests, employers and employees also may find it helpful to consult the Job Accommodation Network (JAN) website as a resource for different types of accommodations, www.askjan.org. JAN’s materials specific to COVID-19 are at https://askjan.org/topics/COVID-19.cfm.
Employers may rely on CDC recommendations when deciding whether an effective accommodation that would not pose an undue hardship is available, but as explained further in Question K.7., there may be situations where an accommodation is not possible. When an employer makes this decision, the facts about particular job duties and workplaces may be relevant. Employers also should consult applicable Occupational Safety and Health Administration standards and guidance. Employers can find OSHA COVID-specific resources at: www.osha.gov/SLTC/covid-19/.
Managers and supervisors are reminded that it is unlawful to disclose that an employee is receiving a reasonable accommodation or retaliate against an employee for requesting an accommodation.
K.6. If an employer requires vaccinations when they are available, how should it respond to an employee who indicates that he or she is unable to receive a COVID-19 vaccination because of a sincerely held religious practice or belief? (12/16/20)
Once an employer is on notice that an employee’s sincerely held religious belief, practice, or observance prevents the employee from receiving the vaccination, the employer must provide a reasonable accommodation for the religious belief, practice, or observance unless it would pose an undue hardship under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act. Courts have defined “undue hardship” under Title VII as having more than a de minimis cost or burden on the employer. EEOC guidance explains that because the definition of religion is broad and protects beliefs, practices, and observances with which the employer may be unfamiliar, the employer should ordinarily assume that an employee’s request for religious accommodation is based on a sincerely held religious belief. If, however, an employee requests a religious accommodation, and an employer has an objective basis for questioning either the religious nature or the sincerity of a particular belief, practice, or observance, the employer would be justified in requesting additional supporting information.
K.7. What happens if an employer cannot exempt or provide a reasonable accommodation to an employee who cannot comply with a mandatory vaccine policy because of a disability or sincerely held religious practice or belief? (12/16/20)
If an employee cannot get vaccinated for COVID-19 because of a disability or sincerely held religious belief, practice, or observance, and there is no reasonable accommodation possible, then it would be lawful for the employer to exclude the employee from the workplace. This does not mean the employer may automatically terminate the worker. Employers will need to determine if any other rights apply under the EEO laws or other federal, state, and local authorities.
Title II of the Genetic Information Nondiscrimination Act (GINA) and Vaccinations
K.8. Is Title II of GINA implicated when an employer administers a COVID-19 vaccine to employees or requires employees to provide proof that they have received a COVID-19 vaccination? (12/16/20)
No. Administering a COVID-19 vaccination to employees or requiring employees to provide proof that they have received a COVID-19 vaccination does not implicate Title II of GINA because it does not involve the use of genetic information to make employment decisions, or the acquisition or disclosure of “genetic information” as defined by the statute. This includes vaccinations that use messenger RNA (mRNA) technology, which will be discussed more below. As noted in Question K.9. however, if administration of the vaccine requires pre-screening questions that ask about genetic information, the inquiries seeking genetic information, such as family members’ medical histories, may violate GINA.
Under Title II of GINA, employers may not (1) use genetic information to make decisions related to the terms, conditions, and privileges of employment, (2) acquire genetic information except in six narrow circumstances, or (3) disclose genetic information except in six narrow circumstances.
Certain COVID-19 vaccines use mRNA technology. This raises questions about genetics and, specifically, about whether such vaccines modify a recipient’s genetic makeup and, therefore, whether requiring an employee to get the vaccine as a condition of employment is an unlawful use of genetic information. The CDC has explained that the mRNA COVID-19 vaccines “do not interact with our DNA in any way” and “mRNA never enters the nucleus of the cell, which is where our DNA (genetic material) is kept.” (See https://www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/vaccines/different-vaccines/mrna.html for a detailed discussion about how mRNA vaccines work). Thus, requiring employees to get the vaccine, whether it uses mRNA technology or not, does not violate GINA’s prohibitions on using, acquiring, or disclosing genetic information.
K.9. Does asking an employee the pre-vaccination screening questions before administering a COVID-19 vaccine implicate Title II of GINA? (12/16/20)
Pre-vaccination medical screening questions are likely to elicit information about disability, as discussed in Question K.2., and may elicit information about genetic information, such as questions regarding the immune systems of family members. It is not yet clear what screening checklists for contraindications will be provided with COVID-19 vaccinations.
GINA defines “genetic information” to mean:
- Information about an individual’s genetic tests;
- Information about the genetic tests of a family member;
- Information about the manifestation of disease or disorder in a family member (i.e., family medical history);
- Information about requests for, or receipt of, genetic services or the participation in clinical research that includes genetic services by the an individual or a family member of the individual; and
- Genetic information about a fetus carried by an individual or family member or of an embryo legally held by an individual or family member using assisted reproductive technology.
29 C.F.R. § 1635.3(c). If the pre-vaccination questions do not include any questions about genetic information (including family medical history), then asking them does not implicate GINA. However, if the pre-vaccination questions do include questions about genetic information, then employers who want to ensure that employees have been vaccinated may want to request proof of vaccination instead of administering the vaccine themselves.
GINA does not prohibit an individual employee’s own health care provider from asking questions about genetic information, but it does prohibit an employer or a doctor working for the employer from asking questions about genetic information. If an employer requires employees to provide proof that they have received a COVID-19 vaccination from their own health care provider, the employer may want to warn the employee not to provide genetic information as part of the proof. As long as this warning is provided, any genetic information the employer receives in response to its request for proof of vaccination will be considered inadvertent and therefore not unlawful under GINA. See 29 CFR 1635.8(b)(1)(i) for model language that can be used for this warning.
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