Coronavirus at work: FAQs around disabilities

Updated November 2, 2020

COVID has changed the work landscape in many ways. As your company continues to adjust and adapt, you may have questions about disability and the coronavirus pandemic at work. Here are answers to some common questions employers have.

How does the Americans with Disabilities Act apply to coronavirus (COVID-19) in the workplace?

The ADA is a federal civil rights law that protects people with disabilities from discrimination at work and elsewhere. The agency that enforces it is the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC).

Having COVID-19 (or being in a high-risk group) may or may not be considered a disability under the ADA. It depends on the impact on the employee. But if their COVID-related circumstances are considered a disability, employees are entitled to the protections under the ADA.

The EEOC says that the pandemic meets the “direct threat” standard under the law. That means some of the rules in the ADA don’t apply right now.

During the pandemic, employers can follow COVID-19 guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and state and local public health authorities and do things that normally wouldn’t be allowed. For example, they can ask workers about the illness, take temperatures, and send sick employees home. But overall, the ADA and its rules and protections still apply.

This is a complex area of employment and disability law. Fortunately, the EEOC has detailed guidance about what employers can and can’t do. Here are two important EEOC documents related to the coronavirus pandemic and the workplace that answer many key questions.

How does COVID-19 impact accommodations in the workplace?

The ADA requires employers to make reasonable accommodations so employees with disabilities can have equal work opportunities. Employers must still provide accommodations while following CDC and state and local health guidelines.

Whether your company’s work takes place on-site, remotely, or a mix of both, there are coronavirus-related accommodations you may be able to put into place to support your employees. The CDC offers guidance for employers on their website, including specific advice for different sectors.

As an employer, it may not always be clear that a request for coronavirus accommodations is related to an employee’s disability. But many times, it is.

For example, a worker may be at higher risk of infection or serious complications from the virus because of a disability. Another worker might have a mental health condition that’s impacted by the pandemic. 

Some examples of accommodations that employers have provided include masks, socially distant workstations, or the ability to work away from the public. When possible, many employers have offered remote work as a reasonable accommodation.

Keep in mind that technology used in remote work, such as video calls, can create new barriers for some people with disabilities. There are ways you can make remote technology more accessible for all of your employees, like transcribing video calls

What if an employee asks for an accommodation to work at home, but the job is hard to do remotely? 

Sometimes, the “essential functions” of the job may be hard or even impossible to perform remotely. An example might be a server who needs to be in the restaurant in order to do the work.

In these cases, the EEOC says the employer and worker should engage in what’s called an “interactive process.” That means working together to see if there’s an accommodation that works for everyone. The EEOC provides guidance around how to approach remote work as a workplace accommodation. 

A reasonable accommodation doesn’t have to be the specific one an employee requests if there’s another accommodation that would work just as well. The EEOC has detailed guidance around accommodations.

Does the ADA apply to workers who need to stay home or take time to care for kids and family with disabilities?

With many parents juggling new school schedules and remote learning, employees with kids might have extra childcare duties during work hours. This can be especially hard if the kids have disabilities.

For example, let’s say an employee’s child gets physical therapy at school, but school is now remote. The employee might ask for time off to take their child for private therapy.

According to the Job Accommodation Network, the ADA only applies to employees and job applicants. That means the ADA doesn’t cover an employee on the basis of a family member’s disability.

However, there are a number of other laws that may apply. It’s important to be aware of the Family and Medical Leave Act. There may also be other laws, including state laws, that come into play.

For more information about coronavirus at work, check out the coronavirus portal from the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM).

We’ve compiled this coronavirus information specifically in relation to employees with disabilities. Information about other types of workplace issues related to the coronavirus can be found on the website of the U.S. Department of Labor.

The coronavirus pandemic is a current event. We’ll update this page as we have more information.


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