The year 2020 upended nearly every aspect of society and affected our personal and professional lives due to the novel coronavirus (“COVID-19”). No business industry was immune to COVID-19’s impact as a significant number of businesses moved employees to remote work, furloughed employees, or laid off employees entirely. As the job market recovers and strategies to combat COVID-19 develop, including testing and vaccines, employers are transitioning employees back to commercial office spaces. In doing so, however, each employer must consider the effect COVID-19 may have on in-person work and must realize that it may need to accommodate various employees due to legitimate health or religious concerns associated with COVID-19 or the vaccines associated with the virus.
AT-RISK EMPLOYEES, COVID-19, AND POTENTIAL REASONABLE ACCOMMODATIONS FOR IN-PERSON WORK
Generally, at-risk individuals for COVID-19 are classified by the Center for Disease Control as individuals with immunocompromised diseases or conditions such as diabetes, high-blood pressure, obesity, cystic fibrosis, and liver disease. “At-risk” individuals also include those with a high risk mental condition, such as depression and anxiety brought on by COVID-19. Though the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (“EEOC”), one of the leading federal workplace discrimination enforcement agencies, has not commented on whether contracting COVID-19 qualifies as a “disability,” various state and local laws broadly construe what is defined as a “disability” which would likely include COVID-19. As such, an individual at high risk for COVID-19, or someone who has already contracted COVID-19, could qualify as disabled and require reasonable accommodations if an employer requires the individual to return to work.
Under 42 U.S.C. § 12102(1)(A) (Equal Opportunity for Individuals with Disabilities), federal law provides that an individual is entitled to a reasonable accommodation at his or her place of employment if he or she has a “disability” defined as a physical or mental impairment that “substantially limits” a major life activity and that impairment is not transitory or minor. Though COVID-19 is not specifically referenced in section 12102, an employer must likely make a good-faith effort to “reasonably accommodate” the impacted employee under section 12102’s broad “disability” definition. To the extent that individuals who are at high risk for COVID-19 or who have contracted COVID-19 and are entitled to reasonable accommodations, examples of these accommodations may include telework, modified work schedules, job restructuring, and greater accessibility to work facilities (i.e. spaced out work spaces). 42 U.S.C. § 12111 (9); 19 C.F.R. § 1630.2(0)(2). Although teleworking became the norm due to the pandemic, it is not currently a required reasonable accommodation by the EEOC. However, this is likely to change as multiple states have confronted civil suits by terminated employees who opted for remote work due to health concerns associated with contracting COVID-19. EEOC v. Gentiva Health Services, Inc., No. 1:20-cv-03936 (N.D. Ga. Sept. 22, 2020); Peeples v. Clinical Support Options, 2020 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 169167 (D. Mass. Sept. 16, 2020). If an employer reasonably accommodates its employees affected by COVID-19 by allowing them to work remotely, an employer should also protect
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