Lawfully Handling Employee Mental Health Issues

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By Kathleen J. Jennings (kjj@wimlaw.com)

Thanks to the effects of a worldwide pandemic and revelations by high profile athletes, the issue of mental health is being openly discussed. Such discussions may even happen in your workplace. So how do you deal with employees who reveal that they are struggling with mental health issues, either their own or those of a close family member?

As a starting point, employers that are covered by the Americans WIth Disabilities Act (ADA) cannot discriminate against employees who suffer from mental health conditions that would be considered “disabilities.” Morever, the ADA prohibits employment discrimination against a person, whether or not he or she has a disability, because of his or her known relationship or association with a person with a known disability.

The ADA also protects employees from harassment on the basis of their mental health disabilities. Additionally, the ADA imposes a duty on covered employers to determine whether they can provide reasonable accommodations to disabled employees. An employer is not required to provide an accommodation that would impose an undue hardship.

These are complicated issues, and the EEOC has provided detailed (albeit not up to date–it was issued in 1997) Enforcement Guidance on the Americans With Disabilities Act and Psychiatric Disabilities. More recently, in 2016, the EEOC issued a technical assistance document targeted toward employees entitled “Depression, PTSD, & Other Mental Health Conditions in the Workplace: Your Legal Rights.” This is something your employees may review if they feel like they are not being treated lawfully, so it is worth the time for employers to review it as well.

Every situation is different, so an employer should deal with employees with mental health disabilities on a case by case basis and with the assistance of qualified counsel. However, the following are some general guidelines:

  • If an employee reveals that he or she has been diagnosed with a mental illness, that information must be kept confidential.
  • There are very limited circumstances under which an employer can ask an employee if he or she is mentally ill. Before making such an inquiry, consult with counsel.
  • It is inappropriate for anyone to refer to another employee as “crazy,” “nutcase,” “cuckoo for coco puffs,” “insane,” or other types of derogatory words and phrases. If the use of such terms is considered to be severe or pervasive, the employer could be liable for harassment. Your harassment prevention training should cover this issue.
  • Some examples of possible accommodations for employees with mental health disabilities include altered break and work schedules (e.g., scheduling work around therapy appointments), quiet office space or devices that create a quiet work environment, changes in supervisory methods (e.g., written instructions from a supervisor who usually does not provide them), specific shift assignments, and permission to work from home.
  • The Family and Medical Leave Act may come into play, if the employer and employee are covered by it.

Most of all, a little compassion goes a long way.

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.

Copyright 2021 Kathleen 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.

Can An Employer Fire Employees Who Refuse To Come Back to the Office?

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By Kathleen J. Jennings (kjj@wimlaw.com)

As COVID restrictions ease, many employers are deciding whether to require employees who have been working remotely to come back to the office. So can an employer fire employees who refuse to come back to the office? Yes–with some important exceptions.

Let’s face it, we have learned over the past year that remote work has some advantages. No commute, no need to dress up and put on makeup very day (unless there is a Zoom meeting), no uncomfortable shoes, and you can fix your own pretty inexpensive lunch. And that super-chatty co-worker can’t stop by and take up your time with another story about his cats. But there are disadvantages as well. It’s hard to have a consistent corporate culture when employees are not in the same place. Employees may not feel connected to their co-workers because they don’t have the water cooler or break room conversations. Mental health issues have arisen for people who have felt lonely or isolated during remote work. And we cannot underestimate the value of face-time in furthering career advancement. The bottom line: some people thrive in a remote work setting, and some people don’t. Some people simply prefer to be in an office setting with co-workers.

If an employer decides that it wants employees back in the office, it can generally terminate employees who refuse to give up their remote work lifestyles; it is insubordination for an employee to refuse a reasonable directive of her/his employer. However, and this is a big however, if an employer is covered by the Americans With Disabilities Act, it may need to consider whether allowing a disabled employee to continue to work remotely is considered a reasonable accommodation. For example, in Massachusetts, a worker with asthma sued their employer regarding a work from home accommodation, and the federal district court allowed the case to go forward.

The success of remote work in the past year or so will make it more difficult for an employer to convince a court that working remotely is not a “reasonable” accommodation or that working at a particular location is an “essential function” of the job. It’s a good idea to consult an attorney in this situation.

Just because you CAN do something does not mean that you must do it. There are going to be some folks who feel so strongly about working remotely that they are willing to quit rather than return to the office. Or maybe they still don’t have reliable child care. Is it worth losing employees, especially valuable employees, over this issue? How easily will you be able to replace them?

And finally–if you want to avoid claims for discrimination on the basis of characteristics other than disability, you’d better have some valid, non-discriminatory reasons for allowing some employees to work remotely while others are required to go into the office. Don’t play favorites.

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.

Copyright 2021 Kathleen 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.

Can An Employer Ask for Proof of COVID Vaccination?

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By Kathleen J. Jennings (kjj@wimlaw.com)

Today, the CDC issued new guidance regarding persons who have been fully vaccinated aganst COVID-19. Now, fully vaccinated people no longer need to wear a mask or physically distance in any setting, except where required by federal, state, local, tribal, or territorial laws, rules, and regulations, including local business and workplace guidance. [People are considered to be fully vaccinated approximately two weeks after receiving the second of a 2 shot series (Pfizer or Moderna), or two weeks after receiving the one J&J shot.]

There are some places where even fully vaccinated should continue to wear masks, such as healthcare settings, public transportation, transportation hubs, homeless shelters, prisons, and jails.

For non-healthcare settings, employers can allow their fully vaccinated employees to stop wearing masks and socially distancing from one another. But how does an employer know which employees have been fully vaccinated, and which have not? Just ask.

The U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commision (EEOC) has issued its own guidance regarding employer inquiries about employee vaccination status. In fact, the EEOC states that it is not only lawful for an employer to ask an employee about his/her vaccination status, but the employer can also require proof of vaccination:

Is asking or requiring an employee to show proof of receipt of a COVID-19 vaccination a disability-related inquiry? 

No.  There are many reasons that may explain why an employee has not been vaccinated, which may or may not be disability-related.  Simply requesting proof of receipt of a COVID-19 vaccination is not likely to elicit information about a disability and, therefore, is not a disability-related inquiry.  However, subsequent employer questions, such as asking why an individual did not receive a vaccination, may elicit information about a disability and would be subject to the pertinent ADA standard that they be “job-related and consistent with business necessity.”  If an employer requires employees to provide proof that they have received a COVID-19 vaccination from a pharmacy or their own health care provider, the employer may want to warn the employee not to provide any medical information as part of the proof in order to avoid implicating the ADA.

What You Should Know About COVID-19 and the ADA, the Rehabilitation Act, and Other EEO Laws

And what about the employee who refuses to disclose his/her vaccination status on the grounds that “HIPAA protects this information?” Unless your business is the employee’s health care provider, this is not a valid excuse. Many people misunderstand the scope of HIPAA and believe it has a greater reach than it really does. HIPAA only applies to what are called ” covered entities.” Essentially, those are health care providers (doctors, hospitals, and pharmacies, for instance), health insurers, and health care clearinghouses (which process medical data). It also covers their “business associates,” or contractors who have to handle medical records in some way to do work for those covered entities.  It does not apply to the average person or to a business outside health care. 

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.

Copyright 2021 Kathleen 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.