What You Should Know About COVID-19 and the ADA, the Rehabilitation Act, and Other EEO Laws
There are many unknowns right now in these days of COVID, thankfully, below is a useful FAQ of common issues employers like you are facing in deciding how to safely and legally bring your employees back to work.
Hiring and Onboarding
If an employer is hiring, may it screen applicants for symptoms of COVID-19?
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.
May an employer take an applicant’s temperature as part of a post-offer, pre-employment medical exam?
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.
May an employer delay the start date of an applicant who has COVID-19 or symptoms associated with it?
Yes. According to current CDC guidance, an individual who has COVID-19 or symptoms associated with it should not be in the workplace.
May an employer withdraw a job offer when it needs the applicant to start immediately but the individual has COVID-19 or symptoms of it?
Based on current CDC guidance, this individual cannot safely enter the workplace, and therefore the employer may withdraw the job offer.
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?
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.
Disability-Related Inquiries and Medical Exams
How much information may an employer request from an employee who calls in sick, in order to protect the rest of its workforce during the COVID-19 pandemic?
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.
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?
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.
When may an ADA-covered employer take the body temperature of employees during the COVID-19 pandemic?
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.
Does the ADA allow employers to require employees to stay home if they have symptoms of the COVID-19?
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.
When employees return to work, does the ADA allow employers to require a doctor’s note certifying fitness for duty?
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.
May an employer administer a COVID-19 test (a test to detect the presence of the COVID-19 virus) before permitting employees to enter the workplace?
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 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 they enter the workplace to determine if they have the virus.
Consistent with the ADA standard, employers should ensure that the tests are accurate and reliable. For example, employers may review guidance 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, and check for updates. Employers may wish to consider the incidence of false-positives or false-negatives associated with a particular test. Finally, note that accurate testing only reveals if the virus is currently present; 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.
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?
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.
Confidentiality of Medical Information
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?
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.
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?
Yes. The employer needs to maintain the confidentiality of this information.
May an employer disclose the name of an employee to a public health agency when it learns that the employee has COVID-19?
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?
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.