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How to ask for COVID-19 accommodations at work

By The Understood Team

Diabetes. Anxiety. HIV infection. Autism. These are only a few examples of the conditions that may count as a disability under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). If you have a disability, you may be protected by the ADA. Qualified workers can use this law to ask for coronavirus accommodations at work.

Many people have disabilities that could make COVID-19 more dangerous if they get it. And lots of workplaces are changing their rules and systems, which can create new problems for employees with disabilities.

For example, a worker with hearing loss who relies on lip-reading may have trouble understanding people wearing masks. An employer might make an accommodation so the employee can continue to perform their job.

An accommodation is a change at work that removes a barrier for an employee. In the example of the worker with hearing loss, an employer might make an accommodation by switching around shifts so the worker doesn’t need to work with customers.

Many employees may not realize they’re protected by the ADA. And they may not know how this law protects people with disabilities from discrimination, including at work.

Here are some facts about employee rights under the ADA, and some tips for asking about COVID-19 at work.

Who does the ADA protect?

The ADA protects people with disabilities who are “qualified” workers. This means they meet the general requirements of the job and can perform its essential functions, with or without reasonable accommodations. The ADA applies to employers with 15 or more employees.

What disabilities are covered by the ADA?

The ADA considers a disability to be any “physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activities.” There’s no comprehensive list of disabilities covered under the ADA, but many conditions qualify. 

Disabilities can be:

  • Visible or invisible

  • Physical, mental, or both

  • Lifelong or temporary

The ADA also protects workers from discrimination because of a past disability, or because an employer thinks the worker has a disability.

How can the ADA help protect workers during the pandemic? 

Under the ADA, employers must provide reasonable workplace accommodations to workers with disabilities.

Here are some examples of accommodations that employers have made due to the coronavirus:

  • Changing job duties at a store so the employee has less interaction with the public

  • Allowing a desk-based employee to work from home

  • Offering changed or flexible schedules so fewer employees are in the same area at once

  • Providing personal protective equipment such as gloves and masks

It’s important to know that there’s no “one size fits all” when it comes to workplace accommodations. An accommodation that works in one case may not work in another, even if two workers have the same type of disability. 

How can I ask for accommodations related to the coronavirus at work?

Start by talking to your manager and/or HR department. You can do this either in person or in writing. 

There’s no special form that you need to fill out to ask for reasonable accommodations under the ADA. But your workplace may offer a request form to make the process easier.

Make sure to say that you’re requesting an accommodation because of a disability or medical condition. That will help your employer to understand that your request relates to the ADA. 

It’s also important to connect your request for an accommodation with your ability to do the essential functions of the job. Make clear that this is about need, not preference.

Can I suggest a specific accommodation?

You can suggest an accommodation that you think would work for you.

Many employers will appreciate the guidance. But it’s possible that your employer will make another suggestion. A reasonable accommodation doesn’t have to be the specific accommodation that you request, as long as there’s another accommodation that would work just as well. 

Employers aren’t required to do things that fundamentally change their business. For example, an employee might ask to work remotely because of the coronavirus. But sometimes the essential functions of the job may be difficult to perform remotely. An example might be a restaurant server who needs to be in the restaurant in order to do the work.

Your employer may engage in what’s called an interactive process. That means working with you to see if there’s a reasonable accommodation that works for everyone. 

Can my employer ask for more information about my disability?

Your employer may ask for more specific information about the nature of your disability and how it relates to your ability to perform the essential functions of the job. The ADA permits employers to request documentation, such as a note from a doctor. But the law requires employers to keep that information confidential.

Where can I find more information about COVID-19 accommodations in the workplace?

Here are some ways to get more information about workplace accommodations and the ADA, including information related to COVID-19.

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