G. Return to the Workplace
G.1. As government restrictions are lifted or modified , how will employers know what steps they can take consistent with the ADA to screen employees for the virus that causes COVID-19 when entering the workplace?
The ADA permits employers to make disability-related inquiries and conduct medical exams to screen employees for COVID-19 when entering the workplace if such screening is “job-related and consistent with business necessity.” See the full answer for applicable resources.
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 workers to wear personal protective equipment and engage in other infection control practices. Some employees ask for accommodations due to a disability or a sincerely held religious belief, practice, or observance that affects the ability to wear personal protective equipment and/or engage in other infection control practices. How should an employer respond?
In most instances, federal EEO laws permit an employer to require employees to wear personal protective equipment (PPE) (for example, masks and/or gloves) and observe other infection control practices (for example, regular hand washing or physical distancing protocols). Some employers may need to comply with regulations issued by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) that require the use of PPE. OSHA regulations do not prohibit the use of reasonable accommodations under the EEO laws as long as those accommodations do not violate OSHA requirements. Employers also may follow current CDC guidance about who should wear masks.
Regardless of the reason an employer requires PPE (or other infection control measures), when an employee with a disability needs a reasonable accommodation under the ADA to comply with an employer’s requirement to wear PPE (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 when an employee requires a religious accommodation under Title VII (such as modified or alternative equipment due to religious attire or grooming practices), the employer should discuss the request and provide accommodation (either what is requested by the employee or an alternative that is effective in meeting the employee’s needs) if it does not cause an undue hardship on the operation of the employer’s business under the ADA or Title VII. For general information on reasonable accommodation under the ADA, see Section D.
G.3. What does an employee need to do in order to request reasonable accommodation from an employer because the employee has one of the medical conditions that CDC says may put a person at higher risk for severe illness from COVID-19?
An employee—or a third party, such as an employee’s doctor—must let the employer know that the employee needs a change for a reason related to a medical condition. Individuals may request accommodation orally or in writing. While the employee (or third party) does not need to use the term “reasonable accommodation” or reference the ADA, the employee may do so.
The employee or the employee’s representative should communicate that the employee has a medical condition necessitating 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—not all medical conditions meet the ADA’s definition of “disability”—and if there is a reasonable accommodation, barring undue hardship, that can be provided. The full response provides references to additional resources.
G.4. CDC identifies a number of medical conditions that are more likely to cause people to get severely ill if they get COVID-19. An employer knows that an employee has one of these conditions and is concerned that the employee’s health will be jeopardized upon returning to the workplace, but the employee has not requested accommodation. How does the ADA apply to this situation?
The ADA does not mandate that the employer take action in this situation if the employee has not requested reasonable accommodation. Also, an employer’s duty to provide reasonable accommodation applies only if an employee has an actual disability or a record of a disability, as defined in the ADA; this means not every individual with one of the medical conditions that might place them at higher risk of COVID-19 complications will automatically satisfy these ADA definitions of disability.
Assuming the employee has a “disability” as discussed above, if the employer is concerned that the health of an employee with a disability may be jeopardized upon returning to the workplace, the ADA generally does not allow the employer to exclude the employee—or take any other adverse action—because the employee has a disability that CDC identifies as potentially placing the employee at higher risk for severe illness if the employee gets COVID-19. Under the ADA, such an adverse action is not allowed unless the employee’s disability poses a “direct threat” to the employee’s health or safety that cannot be eliminated or reduced by reasonable accommodation.
See the full response for more details on the ADA’s direct threat standard and related issues.
G.5. What are examples of reasonable accommodation that, absent undue hardship, may eliminate (or reduce to an acceptable level) a direct threat to self or others?
Reasonable accommodations that may eliminate (or reduce to an acceptable level) a direct threat to self or others may include additional or enhanced protective gowns, masks, gloves, or other gear beyond what the employer may generally provide to, or require from, employees returning to its workplace. Reasonable accommodations also may include additional or enhanced protective measures, such as High Efficiency Particulate Air (HEPA) filtration systems/units or other enhanced air filtration measures, 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 telework, 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 physical distancing).
See the full response for additional suggestions.
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?
Yes. The ADA, the Rehabilitation Act, and Title VII of the Civil Rights Act do not prohibit employers from making information available in advance to all employees about whom to contact—if they wish—to request reasonable accommodation that they may need for a disability or a sincerely held religious belief, practice, or observance upon return to the workplace. Once requests are received, the employer may begin the interactive process. An employer may choose to include in such a notice all medical conditions identified in CDC guidance that may place people at higher risk of serious illness if they contract COVID-19, provide instructions about whom 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 which may qualify as disabilities.
Alternatively, an employer may send a general notice explaining that the employer is willing to consider employee requests for reasonable accommodation for employees with a disability or a sincerely held religious belief, practice, or observance, or to consider flexibility on an individualized basis for employees not eligible for reasonable accommodation (e.g., employees who request flexibility due to age). The employer should specify if the point of contact is different depending on whether the request is based on disability, sincerely held religious beliefs, pregnancy, age, or child-care responsibilities.
Either approach is consistent with the Age Discrimination in Employment Act (ADEA), the ADA, the Rehabilitation Act, and Title VII.
See the full response for additional information.