With businesses reopening thanks to modifications of state stay at home orders, employers are beginning to contemplate what their new work environments will look like when employees return. Over the past several months, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (‘EEOC”) has provided guidance to employers regarding the ways that a company can safeguard its workplace in this new era of COVID-19. One hot question is whether employers, out of fear of legal liability from possible COVID-19 workplace exposure, can prevent high risk employees who suffer the greatest possible complications from COVID-19 from returning to work merely because of that possibility of greater harm. The EEOC says no, at least not automatically, just because of that high risk of possible complications.
According to the EEOC, employers cannot bar high risk employees from returning to work merely because of that high risk. Rather, before an employer can take such action, the employer must engage in the traditional interactive process required under the Americans with Disabilities Act (“ADA’) any time an employee with a disability needs a workplace accommodation. Since high risk employees have one or more underlying medical conditions that cause them to be high risk, the EEOC directs that employers engage in the interactive process to determine whether there are ways of minimizing that employee’s exposure to COVID-19 in the workplace. As part of that interactive process, the employer can assess whether the employee would pose a direct risk of harm to either themselves or others, but in making that assessment, there must be actual objective proof of possible harm.
Under this standard, a direct threat assessment cannot be based solely on an underlying condition being on the Center for Disease Control’s list of high risk factors. Rather, the determination must be an individualized assessment based on a reasonable medical judgment about a particular employee’s disability – not the disability in general – using the most current medical knowledge and/or on the best available objective evidence. The ADA regulations require an employer to consider the duration of the risk, the nature and severity of the potential harm, the likelihood that the potential harm will occur, and the imminence of the potential harm. According to the EEOC, assessment of these factors should also include considerations based on the severity of the pandemic in a particular area and the employee’s own health (for example, is the employee’s disability well-controlled), and his/her particular job duties. A determination of direct threat also should include an analysis of the likelihood that an individual will be exposed to the virus at the worksite. Measures that an employer may be taking in general to protect all workers, such as mandatory social distancing or the wearing of face masks and gloves, also would be relevant in determining the possibility of a direct threat of harm. Thus, according to the EEOC, ultimately an employer may only bar an employee from the workplace only if, after going through all the foregoing steps, the facts support the conclusion that the employee poses a significant risk of substantial harm to himself/herself that cannot be reduced or eliminated by reasonable accommodation.
In light of this EEOC directive, employers should not rush to judgment in deciding to bar a high risk employee from returning to the workplace due to COVID-19. Adherence to the traditional interactive process required by the ADA will enable an employer to navigate through this complicated issue and reduce the chances of significant legal harm arising from the mishandling of such fears during this continuingly evolving pandemic.
Ralph R. Smith, 3rd is Co-Chair of the Employment and Labor Practice Group. He practices in employment litigation and preventative employment practices, including counseling employers on the creation of employment policies, non-compete and trade secret agreements, and training employers to avoid employment-related litigation. He represents both companies and individuals in related complex commercial litigation before federal states courts and administrative agencies in labor and employment cases including race, gender, age, national origin, disability and workplace harassment and discrimination matters, wage-and-hour disputes, restrictive covenants, grievances, arbitration, drug testing, and employment related contract issues.