Coronavirus and Your Job – the EEOC’s Published Guidelines on Pandemic Preparedness

COVID-19 is here.  Many Americans are in fear for their health.  The EEOC has published the below information that is helpful for individuals who have questions about the potential effect of COVID-19 on their jobs.

The ADA, which protects applicants and employees from disability discrimination, is relevant to pandemic preparation in at least three major ways. First, the ADA regulates employers’ disability-related inquiries and medical examinations for all applicants and employees, including those who do not have ADA disabilities.(7) Second, the ADA prohibits covered employers from excluding individuals with disabilities from the workplace for health or safety reasons unless they pose a “direct threat” (i.e. a significant risk of substantial harm even with reasonable accommodation).(8) Third, the ADA requires reasonable accommodations for individuals with disabilities (absent undue hardship) during a pandemic.(9)

This section summarizes these ADA provisions. The subsequent sections answer frequently asked questions about how they apply during an influenza pandemic. The answers are based on existing EEOC guidance regarding disability-related inquiries and medical examinations, direct threat, and reasonable accommodation.(10)

  • DISABILITY-RELATED INQUIRIES AND MEDICAL EXAMINATIONS

The ADA prohibits an employer from making disability-related inquiries and requiring medical examinations of employees, except under limited circumstances, as set forth below.(11)

  • Definitions: Disability-Related Inquiries and Medical Examinations

An inquiry is “disability-related” if it is likely to elicit information about a disability.(12) For example, asking an individual if his immune system is compromised is a disability-related inquiry because a weak or compromised immune system can be closely associated with conditions such as cancer or HIV/AIDS.(13) By contrast, an inquiry is not disability-related if it is not likely to elicit information about a disability. For example, asking an individual about symptoms of a cold or the seasonal flu is not likely to elicit information about a disability.

“medical examination” is a procedure or test that seeks information about an individual’s physical or mental impairments or health.(14) Whether a procedure is a medical examination under the ADA is determined by considering factors such as whether the test involves the use of medical equipment; whether it is invasive; whether it is designed to reveal the existence of a physical or mental impairment; and whether it is given or interpreted by a medical professional.

  • ADA Standards for Disability-Related Inquiries and Medical Examinations

The ADA regulates disability-related inquiries and medical examinations in the following ways:

          • Before a conditional offer of employment: The ADA prohibits employers from making disability-related inquiries and conducting medical examinations of applicants before a conditional offer of employment is made.(15)
          • After a conditional offer of employment, but before an individual begins working: The ADA permits employers to make disability-related inquiries and conduct medical examinations if all entering employees in the same job category are subject to the same inquiries and examinations.(16)
          • During employment: The ADA prohibits employee disability-related inquiries or medical examinations unless they are job-related and consistent with business necessity. Generally, a disability-related inquiry or medical examination of an employee is job-related and consistent with business necessity when an employer has a reasonable belief, based on objective evidence, that :
            • An employee’s ability to perform essential job functions will be impaired by a medical condition; or
            • An employee will pose a direct threat due to a medical condition.(17)

This reasonable belief “must be based on objective evidence obtained, or reasonably available to the employer, prior to making a disability-related inquiry or requiring a medical examination.(18)

All information about applicants or employees obtained through disability-related inquiries or medical examinations must be kept confidential.(19) Information regarding the medical condition or history of an employee must be collected and maintained on separate forms and in separate medical files and be treated as a confidential medical record.

  • DIRECT THREAT

“direct threat” is “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.”(20) If an individual with a disability poses a direct threat despite reasonable accommodation, he or she is not protected by the nondiscrimination provisions of the ADA.

Assessments of whether an employee poses a direct threat in the workplace must be based on objective, factual information, “not on subjective perceptions . . . [or] irrational fears” about a specific disability or disabilities.(21) The EEOC’s regulations identify four factors to consider when determining whether an employee poses a direct threat: (1) the duration of the risk; (2) the nature and severity of the potential harm; (3) the likelihood that potential harm will occur; and (4) the imminence of the potential harm.(22)

DIRECT THREAT AND PANDEMIC INFLUENZA

Direct threat is an important ADA concept during an influenza pandemic.

Whether pandemic influenza rises to the level of a direct threat depends on the severity of the illness. If the CDC or state or local public health authorities determine that the illness is like seasonal influenza or the 2009 spring/summer H1N1 influenza, it would not pose a direct threat or justify disability-related inquiries and medical examinations. By contrast, if the CDC or state or local health authorities determine that pandemic influenza is significantly more severe, it could pose a direct threat. The assessment by the CDC or public health authorities would provide the objective evidence needed for a disability-related inquiry or medical examination.

During a pandemic, employers should rely on the latest CDC and state or local public health assessments. While the EEOC recognizes that public health recommendations may change during a crisis and differ between states, employers are expected to make their best efforts to obtain public health advice that is contemporaneous and appropriate for their location, and to make reasonable assessments of conditions in their workplace based on this information.

  • REASONABLE ACCOMMODATION

“reasonable accommodation” is a change in the work environment that allows an individual with a disability to have an equal opportunity to apply for a job, perform a job’s essential functions, or enjoy equal benefits and privileges of employment.(23)

An accommodation poses an “undue hardship” if it results in significant difficulty or expense for the employer, taking into account the nature and cost of the accommodation, the resources available to the employer, and the operation of the employer’s business.(24) If a particular accommodation would result in an undue hardship, an employer is not required to provide it but still must consider other accommodations that do not pose an undue hardship.(25)

Generally, the ADA requires employers to provide reasonable accommodations for known limitations of applicants and employees with disabilities.(26)

The information above comes directly from publication of the EEOC located here:

https://www.eeoc.gov/facts/pandemic_flu.html

 

 

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