Wyatt Employment Law Report

EEOC’s Updated Return to Work Guidance

by Courtney Ross Samford

On June 11, 2020, the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) updated its Q&A’s regarding COVID-19 and the Americans with Disabilities Act  (ADA), the Rehabilitation Act and other EEOC laws.  In particular, parts of the new guidance address specific issues that may arise as older workers, pregnant employees, and those with high-risk family members return to the workplace.  

The guidance includes a best practice for inviting employees’ requested flexibility prior to their return.

G.6.  As a best practice, and in advance of having some or all employees return to the workplace, are there ways for an employer to invite employees to request flexibility in work arrangements? (6/11/20)

Yes.  The ADA and the Rehabilitation Act permit employers to make information available in advance to all employees about who to contact – if they wish – to request accommodation for a disability that they may need upon return to the workplace, even if no date has been announced for their return.  If requests are received in advance, the employer may begin the interactive process. An employer may choose to include in such a notice all the CDC-listed medical conditions that may place people at higher risk of serious illness should they contract COVID-19, provide instructions about who to contact, and explain that the employer is willing to consider on a case-by-case basis any requests from employees who have these or other medical conditions.

An employer also may send a general notice to all employees who are designated for returning to the workplace, noting that the employer is willing to consider requests for accommodation or flexibilities on an individualized basis. The employer should specify if the contacts differ depending on the reason for the request – for example, if the office or person to contact is different for employees with disabilities or pregnant workers than for employees whose requests are based on age or child-care responsibilities.

Either approach is consistent with the Age Discrimination in Employment Act (ADEA), the ADA, and the May 29, 2020 CDC guidance that emphasizes the importance of employers providing accommodations or flexibilities to employees who, due to age or certain medical conditions, are at higher risk for severe illness.

Regardless of the approach, however, employers should ensure that whoever receives inquiries knows how to handle them consistent with the different federal employment nondiscrimination laws that may apply, for instance, with respect to accommodations due to a medical condition, a religious belief, or pregnancy.

Despite the CDC’s warning that individuals over the age of 65 are at a higher risk of developing complications related to COVID-19, the EEOC warned that employers cannot exclude workers that fall into this category from returning to the workplace.

H.1.  The CDC has explained that individuals age 65 and over are at higher risk for a severe case of COVID-19 if they contract the virus and therefore has encouraged employers to offer maximum flexibilities to this group.  Do employees age 65 and over have protections under the federal employment discrimination laws? (6/11/20)

The Age Discrimination in Employment Act (ADEA) prohibits employment discrimination against individuals age 40 and older.  The ADEA would prohibit a covered employer from involuntarily excluding an individual from the workplace based on his or her being 65 or older, even if the employer acted for benevolent reasons such as protecting the employee due to higher risk of severe illness from COVID-19.

Unlike the ADA, the ADEA does not include a right to reasonable accommodation for older workers due to age.  However, employers are free to provide flexibility to workers age 65 and older; the ADEA does not prohibit this, even if it results in younger workers ages 40-64 being treated less favorably based on age in comparison.

Workers age 65 and older also may have medical conditions that bring them under the protection of the ADA as individuals with disabilities.  As such, they may request reasonable accommodation for their disability as opposed to their age.

Regarding employees with high-risk family members, the EEOC provided the following guidance:

D.13.  Is an employee entitled to an accommodation under the ADA in order to avoid exposing a family member who is at higher risk of severe illness from COVID-19 due to an underlying medical condition? (6/11/20)

No.  Although the ADA prohibits discrimination based on association with an individual with a disability, that protection is limited to disparate treatment or harassment.  The ADA does not require that an employer accommodate an employee without a disability based on the disability-related needs of a family member or other person with whom that person is associated.

For example, an employee without a disability is not entitled under the ADA to telework as an accommodation in order to protect a family member with a disability from potential COVID-19 exposure.

Of course, an employer is free to provide such flexibilities if it chooses to do so.  An employer choosing to offer additional flexibilities beyond what the law requires should be careful not to engage in disparate treatment on a protected EEO basis.

Finally, the EEOC warned employers not to provide more favorable treatment to female employees regarding childcare responsibilities, and reiterated that pregnant employees may not be involuntarily excluded:

I.1.  If an employer provides telework, modified schedules, or other benefits to employees with school-age children due to school closures or distance learning during the pandemic, are there sex discrimination considerations? (6/11/20)

Employers may provide any flexibilities as long as they are not treating employees differently based on sex or other EEO-protected characteristics.  For example, under Title VII, female employees cannot be given more favorable treatment than male employees because of a gender-based assumption about who may have caretaking responsibilities for children.

J.1.  Due to the pandemic, may an employer exclude an employee from the workplace involuntarily due to pregnancy? (6/11/20)

No.  Sex discrimination under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act includes discrimination based on pregnancy.  Even if motivated by benevolent concern, an employer is not permitted to single out workers on the basis of pregnancy for adverse employment actions, including involuntary leave, layoff, or furlough.

J.2.  Is there a right to accommodation based on pregnancy during the pandemic? (6/11/20)

There are two federal employment discrimination laws that may trigger accommodation for employees based on pregnancy.

First, pregnancy-related medical conditions may themselves be disabilities under the ADA, even though pregnancy itself is not an ADA disability.  If an employee makes a request for reasonable accommodation due to a pregnancy-related medical condition, the employer must consider it under the usual ADA rules.

Second, Title VII as amended by the Pregnancy Discrimination Act specifically requires that women affected by pregnancy, childbirth, and related medical conditions be treated the same as others who are similar in their ability or inability to work.  This means that a pregnant employee may be entitled to job modifications, including telework, changes to work schedules or assignments, and leave to the extent provided for other employees who are similar in their ability or inability to work.  Employers should ensure that supervisors, managers, and human resources personnel know how to handle such requests to avoid disparate treatment in violation of Title VII.

The EEOC’s full guidance is available here.

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