This summary provides information about the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and Section 501 of the Rehabilitation Act and COVID-19 issues in the workplace. It discusses ADA principles that are relevant to questions frequently asked about workplace pandemic planning such as:
- How much information may an employer request from an employee who calls in sick, in order to protect the rest of its workforce when an influenza pandemic appears imminent?
- When may an ADA-covered employer take the body temperature of employees during a pandemic?
- Does the ADA allow employers to require employees to stay home if they have symptoms of the pandemic influenza virus?
- When employees return to work, does the ADA allow employers to require doctors’ notes certifying their fitness for duty?
RELEVANT ADA REQUIREMENTS AND STANDARDS
The ADA, which protects applicants and employees from disability discrimination, is relevant to COVID-19 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. 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). Third, the ADA requires reasonable accommodations for individuals with disabilities (absent undue hardship) during a pandemic such as the COVID-19 outbreak.
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.
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.
Definitions: Disability-Related Inquiries and Medical Examinations:
An inquiry is “disability-related” if it is likely to elicit information about a disability.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. 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.
A “medical examination” is a procedure or test that seeks information about an individual’s physical or mental impairments or health. 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.
- 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.
- 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.
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."
All information about applicants or employees obtained through disability-related inquiries or medical examinations must be kept confidential.
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.
A "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." 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. 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.
DIRECT THREAT, COVID-19, AND OTHER PUBLIC HEALTH EMERGENCIES
Based on guidance of the CDC and public health authorities as of March 2020, the COVID-19 pandemic meets the direct threat standard. The CDC and public health authorities have acknowledged community spread of COVID-19 in the United States and have issued precautions to slow the spread, such as significant restrictions on public gatherings. In addition, numerous state and local authorities have issued closure orders for businesses, entertainment and sport venues, and schools in order to avoid bringing people together in close quarters due to the risk of contagion. These facts manifestly support a finding that a significant risk of substantial harm would be posed by having someone with COVID-19, or symptoms of it, present in the workplace at the current time. At such time as the CDC and state/local public health authorities revise their assessment of the spread and severity of COVID-19, that could affect whether a direct threat still exists.
A "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.
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. 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.
Generally, the ADA requires employers to provide reasonable accommodations for known limitations of applicants and employees with disabilities.
QUESTIONS AND ANSWERS CONCERNING ADA-COMPLIANT EMPLOYER PRACTICES FOR COVID-19
1. May an employer require new entering employees to have a post-offer medical examination to determine their general health status?
Yes, if all entering employees in the same job category are required to undergo the medical examination and if the information obtained regarding the medical condition or history of the applicant is collected and maintained on separate forms and in separate medical files and is treated as a confidential medical record.
ExampleA: An employer in the international shipping industry implements its pandemic plan when the WHO and the CDC confirm that a pandemic may be imminent because a new influenza virus is infecting people in multiple regions, but not yet in North America. Much of the employer’s international business is in the affected regions. The employer announces that, effective immediately, its post-offer medical examinations for all entering international pilots and flight crew will include procedures to identify medical conditions that the CDC associates with an increased risk of complications from influenza. Because the employer gives these medical examinations post-offer to all entering employees in the same job categories, the examinations are ADA-compliant.
- May an employer rescind a job offer made to an applicant based on the results of a post-offer medical examination if it reveals that the applicant has a medical condition that puts her at increased risk of complications SUCH AS COVID-19?
No, unless the applicant would pose a direct threat within the meaning of the ADA. A finding of "direct threat" must be based on reasonable medical judgment that relies on the most current medical knowledge and/or the best available evidence such as objective information from the CDC or state or local health authorities. The finding must be based on an individualized assessment of the individual’s present ability to safely perform the essential functions of the job, after considering, among other things, the imminence of the risk; the severity of the harm; and the availability of reasonable accommodations to reduce the risk. Before concluding that an individual poses a direct threat, the employer must determine whether a reasonable accommodation could reduce the risk below the direct threat level.
Example B: The same international shipping employer offers a financial position at its U.S. headquarters to Steve. This position does not involve regular contact with flight crew or travel to the affected WHO region. Steve’s post-offer medical examination (which is the same examination given to all U.S. headquarters employees) reveals that Steve has a compromised immune system due to recent cancer treatments. Given the fact that the position does not involve regular contact with flight crew or travel, and that the influenza virus has not spread to North America, Steve would not face a significant risk of contracting the virus at work and does not pose a "direct threat" to himself or others in this position. Under the ADA, it would be discriminatory to rescind Steve’s job offer based on the INCREASED possibility of COVID-19 infection.
- May an ADA-covered employer send employees home if they display COVID-19 symptoms during a pandemic?
Yes. The CDC states that employees who become ill with symptoms of COVID-19 like infection at work during a pandemic should leave the workplace. Additionally, the action would be permitted under the ADA if the illness were serious enough to pose a direct threat. Applying this principle to current CDC guidance on COVID-19, this means an employer can send home an employee with COVID-19 or symptoms associated with it.
- During the COVID-19 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 known COVID-19 like symptoms such as fever or chills, a dry cough, sore throat, shortness of breath and overall weakness or fatigue. Employers must maintain all information about employee illness as a confidential medical record in compliance with the ADA.
- During the COVID-19 pandemic, may an ADA-covered employer take its employees’ temperatures to determine whether they have a fever?
Because the CDC and state/local health authorities have acknowledged community spread of COVID-19 and issued attendant precautions as of March 2020, employers may measure employees' body temperature. As with all medical information, the fact that an employee had a fever or other symptoms would be subject to ADA confidentiality requirements.
- When an employee returns from travel during the COVID-19 pandemic, must an employer wait until the employee develops COVID-19 like symptoms to ask questions about potential exposure to COVID-19 during the trip?
No. These would not be disability-related inquiries. If the CDC or state or local public health officials recommend that people who visit specified locations remain at home for several days until it is clear they do not have COVID-19 symptoms, an employer may ask whether employees are returning from these locations, even if the travel was personal.
- During the COVID-19 pandemic, may an ADA-covered employer ask employees who do not have COVID-19 symptoms to disclose whether they have a medical condition that the CDC says could make them especially vulnerable to influenza complications?
Probably not. Making disability-related inquiries or requiring medical examinations of employees without symptoms is prohibited by the ADA. If an employee voluntarily discloses (without a disability-related inquiry) that he has a specific medical condition or disability that puts him or her at increased risk of COVID-19 exposure or complications, the employer must keep this information confidential. The employer may ask him to describe the type of assistance (i.e. reasonable accommodation) the employee thinks will be needed (e.g. telework or leave for a medical appointment). Employers should not assume that all disabilities increase the risk of COVID-19 complications. Many disabilities do not increase this risk.
- May an employer encourage employees to telework (i.e., work from an alternative location such as home) as an infection-control strategy during the COVID-19 pandemic?
Yes. Telework is an effective infection-control strategy that is also familiar to ADA-covered employers as a reasonable accommodation. In addition, employees with disabilities that put them at high risk for complications of pandemic influenza may request telework as a reasonable accommodation to reduce their chances of infection during a pandemic.
- During the COVID-19 pandemic, may an employer require its employees to adopt infection-control practices, such as regular hand washing, at the workplace?
Yes. Requiring infection control practices, such as regular hand washing, coughing and sneezing etiquette, and proper tissue usage and disposal, does not implicate the ADA.
- During the COVID-19 pandemic, may an employer require its employees to wear personal protective equipment (e.g., face masks, gloves, or gowns) designed to reduce the transmission of pandemic infection?
Yes. An employer may require employees to wear personal protective equipment during a pandemic. However, where an employee with a disability needs a related reasonable accommodation under the ADA (e.g., non-latex gloves, or gowns designed for individuals who use wheelchairs), the employer should provide these, absent undue hardship.
- May an employer covered by the ADA and Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 compel all of its employees to take all precautions recommended by the employer regardless of their medical conditions or their religious beliefs during the COVID-19 pandemic?
No. An employee may be entitled to an exemption from mandatory employment precautions if such precautions (based on an ADA disability) would prevent the employee from engaging in such a practice in light of their disability. For example, if an employer mandated use of certain gloves during the pandemic and an employee had an allergy to that type of glove, then the employee might be exempt from using that glove or the employer must make a reasonable accommodation to the employee such as providing other types of gloves or protective gear. Similarly, under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, once an employer receives notice that an employee’s sincerely held religious belief, practice, or observance prevents him from taking certain employer mandated precautions, the employer must provide a reasonable accommodation unless it would pose an undue hardship as defined by Title VII ("more than de minimis cost" to the operation of the employer’s business, which is a lower standard than under the ADA).
- During the COVID-19 pandemic, must an employer continue to provide reasonable accommodations for employees with known disabilities that are unrelated to the pandemic, barring undue hardship?
Yes. An employer’s ADA responsibilities to individuals with disabilities continue during the COVID-19 pandemic. Only when an employer can demonstrate that a person with a disability poses a direct threat, even after reasonable accommodation, can it lawfully exclude him from employment or employment-related activities.
- During the COVID-19 pandemic, if an employee with a disability needs the same reasonable accommodation at a telework site that he had at the workplace, should an employer provide that accommodation, absent undue hardship?
Generally yes absent “undue hardship.”
Example: An accountant with low vision has a screen-reader on her office computer as a reasonable accommodation. In preparation for telework during a pandemic or other emergency event, the employer issues notebook computers to all accountants. In accordance with the ADA, the employer must provide the accountant with a notebook computer that has a screen-reader installed.
All employees with disabilities whose responsibilities include management during a pandemic must receive reasonable accommodations necessitated by pandemic conditions, unless undue hardship is established.
- During a pandemic, may an employer ask an employee why he or she has been absent from work if the employer suspects it is for a medical reason?
Yes. Asking why an individual did not report to work is not a disability-related inquiry. An employer is always entitled to know why an employee has not reported for work.
Example: During the COVID-19 pandemic, an employer directs a supervisor to contact an employee who has not reported to work for five business days without explanation. The supervisor asks this employee why he is absent and when he will return to work. The supervisor’s inquiry is not a disability-related inquiry under the ADA.
HIRING DURING THE COVID-19 PANDEMIC
- 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. 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 allowing post-offer (but not pre-offer) medical inquiries and exams applies to all applicants, 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.
- 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.
CDC has issued guidance applicable to all workplaces generally, but also has issued more specific guidance for particular types of workplaces (e.g. health care employees). Guidance from public health authorities is likely to change as the COVID-19 pandemic evolves. Therefore, employers should continue to follow the most current information on maintaining workplace safety. To repeat: the ADA does not interfere with employers following recommendations of the CDC or public health authorities, and employers should feel free to do so.
- 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.
RETURN TO WORK ISSUES
- May an ADA-covered employer require employees who have been away from the workplace during a pandemic to provide a doctor’s note certifying fitness to return to work?
Yes. Such inquiries are permitted under the ADA either because they would not be disability-related or, and since the COVID-19 outbreak is considered severe by the CDC, 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.
EEOC AND RELATED RESOURCES
Employees are encouraged to consult the following EEOC publications for further information about the Americans with Disabilities Act, as well as other agency materials regarding COVID-19.
- Disability-Related Inquiries and Medical Examinations:
- Disability-Related Inquiries & Medical Examinations of Employees Under the ADA (2000) at https://www.eeoc.gov/policy/docs/guidance-inquiries.html;
- Obtaining and Using Employee Medical Information as Part of Emergency Evacuation Procedures (2001) at https://www.eeoc.gov/facts/evacuation.html;
- Enforcement Guidance: Preemployment Disability-Related Questions & Medical Examinations (1995) at https://www.eeoc.gov/policy/docs/preemp.html.
- Reasonable Accommodation and Undue Hardship: Enforcement Guidance: Reasonable Accommodation and Undue Hardship under the ADA (as revised 2002) at https://www.eeoc.gov/policy/docs/accommodation.html.
- Telework as a Reasonable Accommodation: Work at Home/Telework as a Reasonable Accommodation (2003) at https://www.eeoc.gov/facts/telework.html.
- Centers for Disease Prevention and Control: www.cdc.gov
- CDC Guidance for Employers and Workplaces on COVID-19:
- CDC Guidance for Employers and Workplaces on COVID-19:
- U.S. Department of Labor
- Occupational Safety and Health Administration
- Occupational Safety and Health Administration
- Disability-Related Inquiries and Medical Examinations:
"Preparing Workplaces for COVID-19," https://www.osha.gov/Publications/OSHA3990.pdf
- Wage and Hour Division
"COVID-19 or Other Public Health Emergencies and the Family and Medical Leave Act"