By: Gerald L. Maatman, Jr., Christopher DeGroff, and Matthew J. Gagnon

Seyfarth Synopsis:  The EEOC recently released updated guidance for employers trying to navigate the federal anti-discrimination laws in the COVID-19 era – entitled What You Should Know About the ADA, the Rehabilitation Act, and COVID-19. The most recent update adds significantly to the EEOC’s position on how employers should treat requests for “reasonable accommodations” in these difficult times, as well as pandemic-related harassment issues, and issues that could arise as employees start returning to work. As such, the EEOC guidance should be required reading for all employers.

As we first reported here, the EEOC released guidance for employers trying to navigate the Americans With Disabilities Act and the Rehabilitation Act in the COVID-19 era: What You Should Know About the ADA, the Rehabilitation Act, and COVID-19. The guidance gives employers practical Q&A-style guidance on how they can navigate the safety concerns associated with COVID-19 while staying in compliance with the federal disability discrimination laws. The guidance has been updated by the EEOC several times since it was issued in March. On April 9 and 17, 2020, in particular, the EEOC added significantly to its discussion of requests for reasonable accommodation during the COVID-19 emergency, pandemic-related harassment issues, and issues that could arise as employees are furloughed or laid off and as they return to work.

Reasonable Accommodation Guidance

The EEOC’s updated guidance adds several Q&A points regarding requests for reasonable accommodations. Some of the most significant points include the following:

  • For individuals who have a pre-existing condition that puts them at higher risk from COVID-19, the EEOC recommends several low-cost 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, or other accommodations that reduce chances of exposure. According to the EEOC, flexibility by employers and employees is key. Temporary job restructuring of marginal job duties, temporary transfers to a different position, or modifying a work schedule or shift assignment are other possible solutions recommended by the EEOC.
  • The EEOC reminds employers that employees’ preexisting mental illnesses or disorders can be exacerbated by the circumstances brought on by the health emergency, meaning that some individuals may now be in need of reasonable accommodations that had not been necessary before. Moreover, some employees may require different accommodations to deal with changed work situations, such as an employee who may need a different accommodation so he or she can effectively work from home.
  • The EEOC also opined that employers may still request information from an employee to determine if a medical condition is a disability and that they may still engage in the interactive process to see whether a disability requires an accommodation. Employers may also choose to shorten or forego the interactive process and simply grant an employee’s accommodation on a temporary basis. Employers are encouraged to be proactive; they may ask employees with disabilities to request accommodations and engage in the interactive process for accommodations that employees believe they may need when the workplace re-opens or they return to work.
  • Employers are also advised that they are not required to provide a reasonable accommodation that would pose an “undue hardship” on the employer. In some cases, the pandemic may have changed what counts as an undue hardship for an employer. In particular, economic concerns brought on by the pandemic are relevant to determining what counts as a significant expense. According to the EEOC, “the sudden loss of some or all of an employer’s income stream because of this pandemic is a relevant consideration.” The EEOC cautions, however, that this does 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.”

Pandemic-Related Harassment Guidance

The EEOC’s updated guidance also points employers to resources and tips they can use to prevent harassment that might arise as a result of the pandemic. Among other things, the EEOC recommends that employers explicitly communicate to their employees that fear of the pandemic should not be misdirected at individuals because of their national origin, race, or other protected characteristic. The EEOC also recommends that employers advise supervisors and managers of their roles in watching for, stopping, and reporting any harassment or other discrimination. Employers can also make it clear that they will continue to immediately review any allegations of harassment or discrimination and take appropriate action.

Guidance Relating To Furloughs, Lay-Offs, And Returning To Work

The EEOC had little to say to employers who are forced to consider layoffs or furloughs of employees, beyond simply reminding them about its guidance regarding waivers of discrimination claims in severance agreements, which can be found here.

With respect to returning employees, however, the EEOC reiterated that the ADA allows employers to make disability-related inquiries and to conduct medical exams if they are job-related and consistent with business necessity. That includes employees who might have a medical condition that would pose a direct threat to health or safety. Determinations as to whether a medical condition is a direct threat should be based on objective medical evidence, such as guidance from the CDC or other public health authority. According to the EEOC, “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.” That can include taking employees’ temperatures and inquiring about symptoms for all employees who enter the workplace because those actions are consistent with CDC guidance.

Finally, the EEOC has stated that it is permissible for employers to require returning workers to wear personal protective gear and observe infection control practices (including social distancing practices, among other things), provided that they continue to engage in the interactive process with any employee who requests an accommodation regarding those requirements. Employers’ requirements to discuss an employee’s requests and determine undue hardship are not lifted even for these COVID-19-related precautions.

Implications For Employers

These are just some of the important points clarified by the EEOC in this updated guidance. The EEOC continues to update this guidance on a rolling basis as it attempts to respond to this fast-moving crisis. It is a valuable resource for employers who every day are finding themselves encountering situations that have never or only rarely been seen before in the American workplace. We encourage all employers to review in detail the entirety of the EEOC’s guidance here, and to review Seyfarth Shaw’s COVID-19 Resource Center for additional guidance and information. Seyfarth Shaw also has a response team standing by to assist however we can.

Readers can also find this post on our EEOC Countdown blog here.