Maintaining the Confidentiality of Employee Health Information During the Pandemic

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In order to take the CDC recommended precautions to minimize the spread of COVID-19 in the workplace, employers must gather information about employee health. What can they gather, and what should they do with it? For answers, we look to the the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). 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.

Not surprisingly, the EEOC has concluded that based on guidance of the CDC and public health authorities as of March 2020, the COVID-19 pandemic meets the direct threat standard, which justifies making inquiries to determine if employees are infected with COVID-19.  Therefore, employers may ask employees who report feeling ill at work, or who call in sick, questions about their symptoms to determine if they have or may have COVID-19.  Currently these symptoms include, for example, fever, chills, cough, shortness of breath, or sore throat.

Employers may also receive information from employees regarding certain health conditions that may make them or close family members more vulnerable to complications from COVID-19.

What’s an employer to do with all of this health information? Keep it confidential.

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.

It is also a good idea to limit access to confidential employee health information to a few trusted management level employees, such as a Human Resources Manager or Safety Manager, and if your company has one, a company nurse. Remember, if someone doesn’t know about an employee’s health condition, she can’t use that knowledge as a basis to discriminate against the employee.

What happens if employees ask whether a certain employee has tested positive for COVID-19? The correct response is to say that you cannot give out confidential health information. Even if it is a small workplace, and folks may guess that the employee who has been out for 14 days may have COVID-19, do not be tempted to confirm any rumors.

Keep quiet, and keep washing those hands!

Kathleen J. Jennings is an attorney licensed to practice law in Georgia and New York. She graduated from Cornell University, College of Arts & Sciences, with distinction and New York University School of Law. She is a principal in the Atlanta office of Wimberly, Lawson, Steckel, Schneider, & Stine, P.C. and defends employers in employment matters, such as sexual harassment, discrimination, Wage and Hour, OSHA, restrictive covenants, and other employment litigation and provides training and counseling to employers in employment matters. She can be contacted at kjj@wimlaw.com.

©2020 Kathleen J. Jennings

The materials available at this blog site are for informational purposes only and not for the purpose of providing legal advice. You should contact your attorney to obtain advice with respect to any particular issue or problem. Use of and access to this Web site or any of the e-mail links contained within the site do not create an attorney-client relationship between Kathleen J. Jennings and the user or browser. The opinions expressed at or through this site are the opinions of the individual author.

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