Posts

EEOC updates Q&A, specifically re employees with an underlying disability that puts them at “higher risk” re coronavirus

The EEOC updated its prior Q&A re coronavirus, adding three questions (numbered G3-G5) to address the needs of employees who already suffer from an underlying disability that, now, puts them at “higher risk” related to coronavirus.

First in questions G3-G4, the EEOC advises that an employer is obligated to consider whether a reasonable accommodation exists to permit such an individual to return to work once a request is made. Until a request is made, the employer has no obligation to consider the possibility of a reasonable accommodation. The EEOC explains too that the request need not be made formally — it may be made “in conversation or in writing” — and it need not be made by the employee themselves — it may be made by the employee “or a third party, such as an employee’s doctor.” Indeed the request need not even be a request, it is enough if the employee “let(s) the employer know that she needs a change for a reason related to” an underlying disability.

Question G4 confirms that an employer need not consider a reasonable accommodation even when the company knows the worker has an underlying disability that might put them at a “higher risk” related to coronavirus, until such a request is made. However where the employer is itself concerned that the employee’s disability might put them at a “higher risk” related to coronavirus, the employer cannot on its own initiative “exclude” the worker from work unless it can prove a “direct threat” to the worker’s own health (or the health of others) and, further, that the “direct threat” cannot be removed by reasonable accommodation, such as allowing “telework, leave, or reassignment” if reasonable. The EEOC discusses the possibility of showing such a “direct threat,” noting it “is a high standard,” with proof that “if, after going through all these steps (of considering the relevant risk, the possibility of reasonable accommodation, etc.), 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.”

Question G5 discusses possible accommodations that should be considered by an employer and worker in trying to determine if a reasonable accommodation might exist to permit a worker with an underlying disability to work despite a “higher risk” related to coronavirus (emphasis added).

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.

EEOC issues guidance re Pandemic Preparedness in the Workplace

The EEOC issued a guidance entitled Pandemic Preparedness in the Workplace and the Americans with Disabilities Act. While the guidance does not answer some of the more difficult questions posed in the current coronavirus crisis, it does provide guidance on at least some questions employers are facing and are likely to face, including the following:

  • Before an influenza pandemic occurs, may an ADA-covered employer ask an employee to disclose if he or she has a compromised immune system or chronic health condition that the CDC says could make him or her more susceptible to complications of influenza?

No. …

  • Are there ADA-compliant ways for employers to identify which employees are more likely to be unavailable for work in the event of a pandemic?

Yes. …

Below is a sample ADA-compliant survey that can be given to employees to anticipate absenteeism.

ADA-COMPLIANT PRE-PANDEMIC EMPLOYEE SURVEY

Directions: Answer “yes” to the whole question without specifying the factor that applies to you. Simply check “yes” or “no” at the bottom of the page.

In the event of a pandemic, would you be unable to come to work because of any one of the following reasons:

    • If schools or day-care centers were closed, you would need to care for a child;
    • If other services were unavailable, you would need to care for other dependents;
    • If public transport were sporadic or unavailable, you would be unable to travel to work; and/or;
    • If you or a member of your household fall into one of the categories identified by the CDC as being at high risk for serious complications from the pandemic influenza virus, you would be advised by public health authorities not to come to work (e.g., pregnant women; persons with compromised immune systems due to cancer, HIV, history of organ transplant or other medical conditions; persons less than 65 years of age with underlying chronic conditions; or persons over 65).

Answer: YES______ , NO_______

  • May an ADA-covered employer send employees home if they display influenza-like symptoms during a pandemic?

Yes. …

  • During a pandemic, how much information may an ADA-covered employer request from employees who report feeling ill at work or who call in sick?

ADA-covered employers may ask such employees if they are experiencing influenza-like symptoms, such as fever or chills and a cough or sore throat. Employers must maintain all information about employee illness as a confidential medical record in compliance with the ADA. …

  • When an employee returns from travel during a pandemic, must an employer wait until the employee develops influenza symptoms to ask questions about exposure to pandemic influenza during the trip?

No. …

  • During a pandemic, may an ADA-covered employer ask employees who do not have influenza symptoms to disclose whether they have a medical condition that the CDC says could make them especially vulnerable to influenza complications?

No. …

Employers should take the time to review the EEOC’s guidance and familiarize themselves with the nuances of the EEOC’s carefully worded answers. In the foregoing summaries, for brevity’s sake, only the EEOC’s conclusions (like “No”) are cited, but the EEOC’s answers, as indicated by the ellipses (“…”) proceed to qualify its answers.

Expert testimony not required to prove a “disability,” some of the times

The Tenth Circuit held that a plaintiff doesn’t always need to have a medical expert to confirm the plaintiff’s medical condition rises to the level of a “disability” protected by the Americans with Disabilities Act.

When is a medical expert required? “(W)]here injuries complained of are of such character as to require skilled and professional persons to determine the cause and extent thereof,” and that question needs to be asked by each court in each individual case. This seemingly circular standard — expert medical testimony is required when it is necessary to understand the medical condition — was somewhat clarified by the Tenth Circuit when the Court contrasted such cases, at least, against those where the disability is “obvious.”

In short, the Tenth Circuit’s decision makes clear that expert medical testimony is likely always helpful to a plaintiff, might sometimes be required but isn’t always, and no plaintiff, or defendant, will know until the trial court, after undertaking a case-by-case analysis decides in any given case.

Source: Tesone v. Empire Marketing Strategies, case no. 19-1026 (10th Cir. 11/8/19).

Tenth Circuit reaffirms Adverse Employment Action element of discrimination claims, including failure-to-accommodate claims under the ADA

The Tenth Circuit reaffirmed that plaintiffs must prove they suffered an Adverse Employment Action in all discrimination claims, including claims alleging a failure to accommodate under the ADA.

(A)n adverse employment action is an element of a failure-to-accommodate claim 
To establish an Adverse Employment Action, the plaintiff must prove more than that she suffered a “a mere inconvenience or an alteration of job responsibilities.” Rather, the Tenth Circuit held she must prove that she suffered harm to “a term, condition, or privilege of employment.”