Tag Archives: ADA

EEOC Updates COVID-19/ADA Guidance As We Move Toward Reopening the Economy

Contributed by Carlos Arévalo and Suzanne Newcomb, April 17, 2020

Back on March 18th as we were entering the COVID-19 health crisis, we addressed EEOC guidance on the impact of the ADA on COVID-19 preventative measures.  Fast forward to today, as our collective focus shifts to talk of “re-opening the economy,” the EEOC has updated its guidance.  Uncertainty abounds as to whether it will be business as usual or a new normal.  Undoubtedly though, employers will need to be mindful to avoid ADA pitfalls as restrictions are lifted, furloughed workers return and/or as new hires are brought onboard. 

The EEOC’s updated guidance addresses the following areas (new and revised information in bold):

Disability-Related Inquiries and Medical Exams

  • Our prior guidance regarding questioning employees about COVID-19 symptoms, measuring temperature, requiring employees with symptoms to stay at home and asking them to provide doctor’s notes is unchanged.
  • Employers can still ask employees to disclose whether they are experiencing COVID-19 symptoms.  The list of symptoms has been expanded, and may continue to expand, as experts learn more (symptoms now include loss of smell/taste and gastrointestinal problems).
  • As the burden on health care providers is lightened, it will become easier to require employees to provide doctors notes and fitness-for-duty documentation.  Of course, as we recommended before, employers should follow CDC and WHO guidelines on this issue.

Confidentiality of Medical Information

  • Consistent with the ADA and our prior guidance, any medical information, including temperature checks, must be kept confidential and stored in employee’s medical files (kept separately from personnel files).
  • Information may be disclosed to local public health agencies.
  • Staffing agencies may disclose information of any affected individual to employers.

Hiring and Onboarding guidance

  • When hiring, employers may continue to screen or conduct medical examinations following a conditional offer, bearing in mind that candidates may still be asymptomatic.
  • Start dates may be delayed.
  • Offers may be withdrawn if an individual is unable to start right away as a result of a COVID-19 diagnosis or symptoms.

Reasonable Accommodation

  • Individuals might require accommodation because their disability makes them particularly vulnerable to COVID-19. This could give rise to new forms of accommodations. Examples given include one way aisles and plexiglass or other physical barriers to provide protection and/or ensure distancing.  
  • Pandemic might exacerbate some disabilities such as anxiety, OCD and PTSD.
  • The duty to provide reasonable accommodation can extend to any work environment.
  • Temporary changes prompted by the pandemic (including work from home) can give rise to (or eliminate) the need for reasonable accommodation or alter the effectiveness of an accommodation provided previously.
  • Employees can still be asked to substantiate disability and need for accommodation.
  • As always, engage with employees to assess accommodation needs and undue hardship on a case by case basis, given the particular circumstances. 

Pandemic-Related Harassment

  • Harassment based on an individual’s race or national origin, or other legally protected characteristic, must not be tolerated. Enough said.

Furloughs and Layoffs

  • Reminder that special rules apply when severance or other benefits are offered to a group of employees in exchange for a release – a reference to the OWBPA requirements for group terminations. The law here has not changed.

Return to Work

  • As stay-at-home orders or other restrictions are lifted, employers will still be able to take action pursuant to EEOC, CDC and/or state health officials’ guidance.
  • Disability-related inquiries and medical exams will be appropriate if job-related and consistent with business necessity.
  • As with any ADA analysis, employers will be able to exclude employees with medical conditions that pose a direct threat to the health or safety of others.
  • Employers will need to review CDC guidelines with respect to returning employees, including those deemed “critical workers.” 
  • Employers will need to work with returning employees about protective equipment requirements and infection control practices.
  • Employers will need to engage in the interactive process with any employees seeking ADA reasonable accommodations regarding protective equipment, i.e. non-latex gloves, modified facemasks, or religious accommodations under Title VII (modified equipment due to religious garb).

Combatting the Opioid Crisis from Within

Contributed by Suzannah Wilson Overholt, December 27, 2019

Studio macro of a stethoscope and digital tablet with shallow DOF evenly matched abstract on wood table background copy space

The average life expectancy in the U.S. has declined for three consecutive years. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) links that decline to three factors: the rise in drug overdoses, an increase in liver disease, and a rise in suicide rates. More than 2 million Americans from all walks of life suffer from an opioid use disorder (OUD), and about two-thirds of those people are in the workforce. This has a tremendous financial impact on employers:  In 2016, U.S. large employers covered $2.6 billion on treatment for OUD and overdose, up from $0.3 billion in 2004.  

OUD and substance use disorder (SUD) more generally have a negative impact on the workplace through increased absenteeism, impaired job performance, and a decrease in the eligible workforce either due to candidates failing pre-employment drug screenings or fewer candidates applying as a result of their dependency. Employers can combat these issues by increasing accessibility to various treatments through their health plans and adopting policies allowing time for necessary treatment.

Studies indicate that the majority of employees would not seek help for a prescription opioid problem due to perceived stigma in the workplace. Educating employees about the risks and signs of opioid use disorder and taking steps to minimize stigma surrounding OUD/SUD can help address – and reduce – the problem before it starts. This can be accomplished by discussing the prevalence of OUD/SUD in America across all races, genders and socio-economic groups and recognizing individuals who have overcome the disease.  

If an employee does come forward to seek help with OUD or SUD, understanding the interplay of leave policies is important. As usual, the FMLA and ADA play the leading role here. Under both, there is a distinction between an employee’s ongoing substance use (not protected) and seeking treatment for that use (protected). 

Under the FMLA, the employee has to be in treatment or scheduled to start treatment for such time to qualify as FMLA covered leave. The addiction to be treated must constitute a serious health condition. The employee has to be referred for rehabilitation by a health care provider and the rehabilitation needs to be provided by a health care provider or by a provider of health care services, as those terms are defined by the FMLA.

The ADA provides that a person who has successfully completed a supervised drug or alcohol rehabilitation program or is participating in a supervised rehabilitation program and who is no longer engaging in substance use may be deemed a qualified individual with a disability. 

Employers may also want to evaluate their zero tolerance policies related to drug tests and drug and alcohol related conduct. Rather than require dismissal for a failed drug test or inappropriate behavior linked to OUD/SUD, a revised policy could refer the employee for treatment.

Any crisis requires a response plan to overcome and move beyond it. The opioid crisis is no different and, like most other issues, is best addressed through education and the consistent implementation of appropriate policies and procedures.

Register Today! Reasonable Accommodations: Employer Obligations under the ADA and Beyond — Complimentary Webinar

Join Suzanne Newcomb at noon ET on June 19 for an in-depth look at workplace accommodations, specifically legal obligations, best practices, and emerging trends.

Workplace accommodations take many forms. Most often, accommodations are thought of as modifications which allow individuals with disabilities to perform essential functions of positions for which they are otherwise qualified.

While certainly the most common, workplace accommodations are not limited to an employer’s obligations under the ADA. Accommodations can also allow employees to practice their religious beliefs, allow pregnant employees to continue working until they give birth, allow new mothers to return to work and breastfeed their newborns, and assist transgender employees to navigate workplace obstacles.

During this webinar attendees will learn:

  1. How to determine whether an individual is entitled to ADA protection
  2. How to distinguish between “reasonable” accommodations and those that impose “undue hardship”
  3. How to properly document the ADA-mandated “interactive process”

Federal Court Strikes Down Certain EEOC Wellness Program Regulations, Effective January 1, 2019

Contributed by Steven Jados, January 12, 2018

In a recent decision with a nation-wide effect, the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia struck down certain provisions of the EEOC’s Wellness Program regulations.

As we have previously discussed, workplace wellness programs generally provide certain incentives to employees as part of programs intended to prevent illness and encourage healthier lifestyles.  But these programs can run afoul of various federal and state anti-discrimination laws, particularly the Americans with Disabilities Act (“ADA”) and the Genetic Information Nondiscrimination Act (“GINA”), if the programs require employees to disclose private medical information under circumstances that are not truly “voluntary.”

The inherent difficulty with wellness program incentives is the notion that, at some point, a reward or penalty becomes so great that it becomes impossible to refuse.  At that point, the incentives are so coercive that the wellness program can no longer be considered voluntary under the ADA and GINA.

To assist employers with implementing ADA and GINA-compliant wellness programs, the EEOC issued regulations in May 2016 that set an upper limit on incentives (which can take the form of rewards or penalties) linked to wellness program participation of 30% of the cost of employee-only health care coverage.  Under the regulations, the EEOC considered wellness programs that complied with the 30% incentive threshold as falling within the definition of “voluntary.”

In August 2017, however, the D.C. district court ruled that the 30% incentive regulations were improper.  The main shortcoming of the regulations, as identified by the court, is that the EEOC apparently set the 30% threshold without any concrete data or reasoning to support the proposition that an incentive crosses the line from voluntary to involuntary at 30% of the cost of health insurance.  Instead of striking down the regulations entirely at that time, the court gave the EEOC the opportunity to modify the regulations.

In the closing days of 2017, the court revisited the issue and determined that the EEOC was not moving quickly enough to correct the regulations on its own, and the court vacated the 30% incentive regulations—but did so with an effective date of January 1, 2019, in order to minimize disruptions to existing wellness programs and to allow employers sufficient time to modify their wellness programs in the future.

The court also noted that the effective date of January 1, 2019, was intended in part to provide the EEOC additional time to issue new regulations.  Prior to the December ruling, the EEOC told the court that the EEOC intended to issue proposed regulations by August 2018, but that final regulations would not go into effect until 2021.  The court’s response was that 2021 is “unacceptable,” and the court “strongly encouraged” the EEOC to accelerate its timeline.

With all of that in mind, the bottom line is that until the EEOC issues new regulations, employers must consider structuring wellness program incentives with an eye toward documenting, with concrete data and analysis, that the program’s incentives are not so great–and, therefore, not so coercive—that the program becomes involuntary.  Stay tuned, as we will closely monitor any further action and guidance from the EEOC on this issue.

Responding to Violence in the Workplace – A “Catch 22” for Employers

Contributed by Michael Wong, August 10, 2017

Workplace investigation

The recent instances of violence in the workplace remind us of the complex task facing employers. Employers must maintain a safe work environment for employees while operating within the parameters of the many federal and state laws that may protect certain employee conduct. More importantly, because an employer has no objective “litmus test” for predicting which employee may become violent under particular triggering circumstances, there is no foolproof way to effectively eliminate the hazard.

Employers today can find themselves in a seemingly untenable dilemma when they have violence threaten to invade their workplace, as disciplining or terminating the problem employee can result in a legal claim as well.

In Mayo v. PCC Structurals, Inc., 795 F.3d 941, 942 (9th Cir. 2015), the employer, PCC, terminated the plaintiff, Thomas Mayo, after he made threatening comments to three co-workers that he was going to bring a gun to work and start “shooting people.” After the threats were reported, the employer took the proper precautions by immediately suspending the plaintiff, barring him from company property, and notifying the police. The police took him to the hospital for medical treatment on the basis that he was an imminent threat to himself and others.

After taking three months of leave under the FMLA and Oregon’s equivalent state law, a treating psychologist cleared Mayo to return to work, but recommended a new supervisor assignment. Instead, the employer terminated Mayo. Plaintiff then sued PCC alleging he was terminated because of his disability in violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and state law.

In Mayo v. PCC, the United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit held that an employee who made serious and credible threats of violence against coworkers is not a qualified individual with a disability under the ADA or Oregon’s disability discriminatory law. In granting summary judgment to the employer, the Court held that an essential function of almost every job is the ability to appropriately handle stress and interact with others, and that an individual is not qualified and cannot perform the essential functions of the job if he or she threatens to kill co-workers – regardless of whether such threats stem from a mental condition or disability.

What should employers do?

Against this potential liability minefield, an employer should develop an effective written workplace violence preventative policy. For those who already have policies in place, it would be a good idea to review your policies and practices with your legal counsel to make sure that these issues and any potential concerns are properly addressed.

Ask yourself the following questions to see if your policy needs to be modified in light of the recent lawsuits:

  1. Do your policies advise employees that they will be subject to discipline (up to and including termination) if they “fail to foster collegiality, harmony, positive attitude, and good relations in the workplace?”
  2. Do you have a statement that there is “zero tolerance” regarding threats or acts of violence?
  3. Do your managers/supervisors know what steps should be taken if there is a threat, complaint of bullying or violence?
  4. Have your managers, supervisors and employees been trained on identifying signs and symptoms of behavior which may predict potential violence (erratic behavior; comments regarding violence, homicide or suicide; provocative communications; disobedience of policies and procedures; presence of alcohol, drugs or weapons on the worksite; evidence of violent tendencies or abuse of alcohol or drug use)?
  5. Have your managers and supervisors been trained and regularly reminded about the importance of good documentation and dangers of bad documentation?

Save the Date! SmithAmundsen Complimentary Webinar – August 23rd – FMLA & ADA: Understanding a Complicated Legal Relationship

Employers of all shapes and sizes face the challenge of managing employee medical issues. Suzanne Newcomb provides insight to help employers manage risk and avoid liability by learning to better manage medical issues that arise. This program focuses on the FMLA and the ADA, and offers attendees specific insight on:

  • Identifying triggers requiring action under the FMLA and the ADA
  • Effectively managing employee medical leave
  • Avoiding common pitfalls
  • And more!

Register for the webinar here!

An Employer’s Guide on Service Animals and the ADA

Contributed by Amanda Biondolino, July 17, 2017

Under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) it is unlawful for an employer to discriminate against a qualified individual on the basis of disability, and this includes not making reasonable accommodations to the known physical or mental limitations of an otherwise qualified individual. A qualified individual is a person with a disability who can perform the essential functions on the job with or without a reasonable accommodation. A reasonable accommodation includes making existing facilities used by employees readily accessible to individuals with disabilities. If an employee with a disability can perform the essential functions of the job utilizing a reasonable accommodation, they fall within the protections of the ADA.

guide dog silhouettes

Silhouettes of a blind man with his guide dog

There are no bright-line limitations on what is reasonable or what is not. What if your employee asks to bring a service animal to the worksite?  Must an employer allow dogs or other animals on the premises alongside their employees if an employee claims the animal is needed to assist them in maintaining their employment? Perhaps. Although uncommon, requests for service animals have been litigated, and the courts often allow the issue to proceed through a jury trial, a very expensive process for any employer. Examples include a paraplegic physician utilizing her dog to pull her wheel chair, open and close doors, and retrieve items, and a mechanic with PTSD utilizing a service dog around the shop.

It is important to remember that Title I of the ADA governs employment, while Title II and Title III of the ADA govern places of public accommodation. A reasonable accommodation under Title I is not necessarily limited to a service animal as defined for Titles II & III. If an employee with a disability requests a reasonable accommodation to assist in the performance of his or her job, an employer should engage in a good faith interactive dialogue with the employee about his or her request. Failure to do so is a violation of the ADA. The employer should analyze the job purpose and essential functions, and consult with the employee to ascertain the precise job-related limitations caused by his or her disability and how those limitations would be overcome with a reasonable accommodation, such as the service animal or other alternatives. If the disability or need for the animal is non-obvious, an employer can request reliable documentation verifying the employee’s disability and the relationship of the animal to that disability.

Issues to consider include the nature of the worksite (i.e., office setting versus production facility), the relationship between the animal’s function and the employee’s disability, how well the service animal will improve the employee’s ability to perform his or her job, and the temperament and behavior of the animal. If an employee shows their request is reasonable, the employer is required to provide a reasonable accommodation unless the accommodation would impose an undue hardship on the operation of the business. It is important to keep an open mind and evaluate every request on a case-by-case basis. Although the employee’s preference should always be considered, an employer is not required to grant the specific request simply because it is the employee’s preference. The employer should implement the accommodation that is most appropriate for both the employee and the workplace.

For a refresher on the obligations of a business to accommodate its customers’ needs for services animals, read this article on service animals and the ADA.