When is COVID-19 Considered a “Disability” Under the ADA?

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

Today, the EEOC issued some new guidance that purports to clarify circumstances in which COVID-19 may or may not cause effects sufficient to meet the definition of “actual” or “record of” a disability for various purposes under Title I, as well as section 501 of the Rehabilitation Act. However, finding clarity on anything related to the ADA is a challenge, to say the least.

As an initial matter, the EEOC tells us that COVID-19 is not always considered to be a “disability.” Rather, each case must be examined on its own facts.

The ADA’s three-part definition of disability applies to COVID-19 in the same way it applies to any other medical condition. A person can be an individual with a “disability” for purposes of the ADA in one of three ways:

  1. “Actual” Disability: The person has a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits a major life activity (such as walking, talking, seeing, hearing, or learning, or operation of a major bodily function);
  2. “Record of” a Disability: The person has a history or “record of” an actual disability (such as cancer that is in remission); or
  3. “Regarded as” an Individual with a Disability: The person is subject to an adverse action because of an individual’s impairment or an impairment the employer believes the individual has, whether or not the impairment limits or is perceived to limit a major life activity, unless the impairment is objectively both transitory (lasting or expected to last six months or less) and minor.

The ADA uses a case-by-case approach to determine if an applicant or employee meets any one of the three above definitions of “disability.”

How does this apply to COVID-19? Depending on the specific facts involved in an individual employee’s condition, a person with COVID-19 has an actual disability if the person’s medical condition or any of its symptoms is a “physical or mental” impairment that “substantially limits one or more major life activities.” An individualized assessment is necessary to determine whether the effects of a person’s COVID-19 substantially limit a major life activity. This will always be a case-by-case determination that applies existing legal standards to the facts of a particular individual’s circumstances.

Keep in mind that a person infected with the virus causing COVID-19 who is asymptomatic or a person whose COVID-19 results in mild symptoms similar to those of the common cold or flu that resolve in a matter of weeks—with no other consequences—will not have an actual disability within the meaning of the ADA.

Examples of Individuals with an Impairment that Substantially Limits a Major Life Activity:

  • An individual diagnosed with COVID-19 who experiences ongoing but intermittent multiple-day headaches, dizziness, brain fog, and difficulty remembering or concentrating, which the employee’s doctor attributes to the virus, is substantially limited in neurological and brain function, concentrating, and/or thinking, among other major life activities.
  • An individual diagnosed with COVID-19 who initially receives supplemental oxygen for breathing difficulties and has shortness of breath, associated fatigue, and other virus-related effects that last, or are expected to last, for several months, is substantially limited in respiratory function, and possibly major life activities involving exertion, such as walking.
  • An individual who has been diagnosed with COVID-19 experiences heart palpitations, chest pain, shortness of breath, and related effects due to the virus that last, or are expected to last, for several months. The individual is substantially limited in cardiovascular function and circulatory function, among others.
  • An individual diagnosed with “long COVID,” who experiences COVID-19-related intestinal pain, vomiting, and nausea that linger for many months, even if intermittently, is substantially limited in gastrointestinal function, among other major life activities, and therefore has an actual disability under the ADA.

Examples of Individuals with an Impairment that Does Not Substantially Limit a Major Life Activity:

  • An individual who is diagnosed with COVID-19 who experiences congestion, sore throat, fever, headaches, and/or gastrointestinal discomfort, which resolve within several weeks, but experiences no further symptoms or effects, is not substantially limited in a major bodily function or other major life activity, and therefore does not have an actual disability under the ADA. This is so even though this person is subject to CDC guidance for isolation during the period of infectiousness.
  • An individual who is infected with the virus causing COVID-19 but is asymptomatic—that is, does not experience any symptoms or effects—is not substantially limited in a major bodily function or other major life activity, and therefore does not have an actual disability under the ADA. This is the case even though this person is still subject to CDC guidance for isolation during the period of infectiousness.
  • As noted above, even if the symptoms of COVID-19 occur intermittently, they will be deemed to substantially limit a major life activity if they are substantially limiting when active, based on an individualized assessment.

To further complicate matters, in some cases, regardless of whether an individual’s initial case of COVID-19 itself constitutes an actual disability, an individual’s COVID-19 may end up causing impairments that are themselves disabilities under the ADA. For example:

  • An individual who had COVID-19 develops heart inflammation. This inflammation itself may be an impairment that substantially limits a major bodily function, such as the circulatory function, or other major life activity, such as lifting.
  • During the course of COVID-19, an individual suffers an acute ischemic stroke. Due to the stroke, the individual may be substantially limited in neurological and brain (or cerebrovascular) function.
  • After an individual’s COVID-19 resolves, the individual develops diabetes attributed to the COVID-19. This individual should easily be found to be substantially limited in the major life activity of endocrine function.

In some cases, an individual’s COVID-19 may also worsen the individual’s pre-existing condition that was not previously substantially limiting, making that impairment now substantially limiting. For example:

  • An individual initially has a heart condition that is not substantially limiting. The individual is infected with COVID-19. The COVID-19 worsens the person’s heart condition so that the condition now substantially limits the person’s circulatory function.

The situations in which an employer might “regard” an applicant or employee with COVID-19 as an individual with a disability are varied. Some examples include:

  • An employer would regard an employee as having a disability if the employer fires the individual because the employee had symptoms of COVID-19, which, although minor, lasted or were expected to last more than six months. The employer could not show that the impairment was both transitory and minor.
  • An employer would regard an employee as having a disability if the employer fires the individual for having COVID-19, and the COVID-19, although lasting or expected to last less than six months, caused non-minor symptoms. In these circumstances, the employer could not show that the impairment was both transitory and minor.

It is possible that an employer may not have engaged in unlawful discrimination under the ADA even if the employer took an adverse action based on an impairment. For example, an individual still needs to be qualified for the job held or desired. Additionally, in some instances, an employer may have a defense to an action taken on the basis of the impairment. For example, the ADA’s “direct threat” defense could permit an employer to require an employee with COVID-19 or its symptoms to refrain from physically entering the workplace during the CDC-recommended period of isolation, due to the significant risk of substantial harm to the health of others.

Of course, an employer risks violating the ADA if it relies on myths, fears, or stereotypes about a condition to disallow the employee’s return to work once the employee is no longer infectious and, therefore, medically able to return without posing a direct threat to others.

The Takeaway: Most people who become sick with COVID-19 are not going to have a “disability” as defined by the ADA. However, there is a small subset of people, such as the “COVID long-haulers” who may be affected by COVID-19 to such an extent that they have a disability, as defined by the ADA, and therefore, those folks are protected from unlawful discrimination. This should be determined on a case-by-case basis.

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.

The Cost of Ignoring Racist Behavior in the Workplace

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What is the cost of ignoring racist behavior in the workplace? For a California company, it is $1.25 million dollars.

Air Systems Inc., a subcontractor for the construction of Apple Inc.’s new headquarters in Cupertino, California, paid $1.25 million dollars to eight employees to settle a lawsuit brought by the EEOC that alleged race discrimination in violation of Title VII. Among the allegations: ASI management refused to discipline a White co-worker who repeatedly taunted Black workers with a racist word; the company allowed racist graffiti to remain at the construction site; and it did nothing to address a noose that was hung at the site when it was reported to management.

The Consent Decree entered as part of the settlement also provides substantial non-monetary relief: ASI must retain an Equal Employment Opportunity Consultant to monitor ASI’s compliance with Title VII and the Decree; it must conduct training of its employees; and it must submit regular reports to the EEOC. Basically, ASI will have the EEOC all up in its business until December 31, 2022.

The Black Lives Matter movement has shined a spotlight on the issue of race discrimination. Now, more than ever, companies that ignore complaints of race discrimination, racist comments, and racially charged symbols such as nooses, do so at their peril. Indeed, companies need to be proactive in their training and messaging to employees that racist comments and behavior will not be tolerated in the workplace.

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.

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.