Category: Disability

EEOC Injects Guidance on COVID-19 Vaccine Practices in the Workplace

In the wake of the Food and Drug Administration’s Emergency Use Authorization of the Pfizer and Moderna COVID-19 vaccines, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) addressed a question weighing heavily on the minds of businesses and their employees: can an employer require its employees to get vaccinated? The EEOC’s December 16, 2020 guidance answered that question in the affirmative, but, as with most pronouncements during the pandemic, the issue is far from simple, and employers must pay close attention to what the guidance says, and what it does not say, when crafting their COVID-19 vaccination policies. The EEOC Guidance characterizes an employer-mandated vaccine as an Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA)-permitted, safety-based qualification standard, akin to “a requirement that an individual shall not pose a direct threat to the health or safety of individuals in the workplace.” Employers can require employees to get a COVID-19 vaccine, but must allow for exceptions where employees are unable to receive the vaccine because of either disabilities or sincerely held religious beliefs. Employees with Disabilities: Where a mandatory vaccination policy would screen out an individual with a disability, the employer must show that the unvaccinated employee would pose a direct threat in the workplace due to a “significant risk of substantial harm to the health or safety of the individual or...

EEOC Updates “COVID-19 Technical Assistance Questions and Answers” with a Focus on Return-to-Work Guidance

The U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) is continuing to offer COVID-19 related guidance to support employers and employees in navigating the workplace during the pandemic. As we discussed in a previous blog post, the EEOC updated its Pandemic Preparedness in the Workplace and the Americans with Disabilities Act guidance (first published in 2009) to specifically address the COVID-19 pandemic. In addition to the Pandemic Preparedness guidance, the EEOC has issued What You Should Know About COVID-19 and the ADA, the Rehabilitation Act, and Other EEO Laws, technical assistance guidance that contains numerous COVID-19 related questions and answers. Similar to the pandemic preparedness guidance, the technical assistance addresses employer’s obligations under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), specifically as they relate to accommodation requests and medical exams due to COVID-19, as well as other COVID-19 related workplace issues. The EEOC has continued to regularly update the technical assistance since its initial publication in March 2020, with the most recent updates in June 2020. The EEOC has explained that EEO laws like the ADA and Rehabilitation Act continue to apply during the COVID-19 pandemic, but do not interfere with or prevent employers from following guidelines and suggestions made by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) or state and local public health authorities concerning preventative...

Third Circuit Clarifies Requirements for “Regarded As” ADA Claims

In Eshleman v. Patrick Industries, the United States Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit issued a significant decision concerning claims brought under the American With Disabilities Act (ADA) by employees alleging their employers perceived them to be disabled. The decision clarifies the pleading requirements in such cases and explains the ADA provision that exempts employers from liability for disabilities that are “transitory and minor.” Notably, the Court did not provide a specific definition of a “minor” disability, leaving that determination for the lower courts on a case-by-case basis. Background William Eshleman took leave from his job as a truck driver for Patrick Industries to have a module removed from his lungs. Six weeks after he returned to work he suffered a severe respiratory infection and was out of work for four days. Patrick Industries terminated his employment after his second shift back to work. At various times, the employer gave Eshleman different reasons for his termination. Eshleman brought suit alleging the shifting reasons for his termination were pretextual and the true reason was that his employer regarded him as disabled in violation of the ADA. The perceived disability was alleged to be that he “suffered from [a] long-term or chronic medical condition which would affect his attendance in the future, like it had in...

EEOC and NJ’s DCR Publish COVID-19 Guidance

The U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) and the New Jersey Division on Civil Rights (DCR) have joined a growing number of governmental agencies and public health organizations in issuing specific COVID-19 related guidance. The EEOC and DCR guidance each includes a series of frequently asked questions directed at ensuring compliance with federal and state anti-discrimination laws in the treatment of individuals affected by the novel coronavirus, in connection with employment, housing, and places of public accommodation. The DCR guidance, “Civil Rights and COVID-19: Frequently Asked Questions,” reminds employers, housing providers, and places of public accommodation of their obligations under the New Jersey Law Against Discrimination (LAD) and the New Jersey Family Leave Act (NJFLA). Among the topics covered by the DCR, the guidance: Reminds employers that the prohibitions against discrimination and harassment because of an LAD-protected characteristic apply even when the conduct at issue “stems from concerns related to COVID-19.” The DCR explains that firing an employee who is perceived to have a disability related to COVID-19 is unlawful. In addition, behavior such as referring to COVID-19 as the “the Chinese virus” or harassing employees of East Asian heritage by claiming Asian people caused COVID-19 is expressly prohibited, and employers must take steps to immediately stop the behavior. Reminds landlords and building managers that...

The U.S. Supreme Court Declines Review of Seventh Circuit Decision Rejecting Extended Leave as a Reasonable Accomodation for Disabled Employees under the ADA

On April 2, 2018, the United States Supreme Court declined to hear an appeal in Severson v. Heartland Woodcraft, Inc., a decision of the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals that rejected a disabled employee’s claim that, as an accommodation for his disability, he was entitled under the Americans with Disabilities Act (“the ADA”) to leave beyond the maximum 12 weeks authorized by the Family and Medical Leave Act (“the FMLA”). The Seventh Circuit’s Decision Because of back pain, Raymond Severson took the maximum 12 weeks of leave permitted by the FMLA. On the last day of his leave he underwent back surgery, which required him to remain out of work for another two to three months. His employer rejected his request to extend his leave for an additional three months and terminated his employment, although did invite him to reapply when he was medically cleared to return to work. Instead of reapplying, Severson brought suit under the ADA, alleging that the employer failed to provide a reasonable accommodation for his disability by denying his request for extended leave. The district court granted the employer’s motion for summary judgment, and the Seventh Circuit affirmed. The Seventh Circuit’s analysis of the issue was straightforward. “A ‘reasonable accommodation’ is one that allows the disabled employee to ‘perform the...

Eleventh Circuit Widens Circuit Split on Accommodation Issue

Consider the following scenario: Because of a disability an employee is unable to perform an essential function of his or her current position and there is no reasonable accommodation that will enable the employee to remain in that position. The disability, however, will not prevent the employee from performing the essential functions of an open position for which the employee is qualified. A number of courts presented with this scenario have had to decide the extent to which the Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA) mandates that the employer assign the disabled worker to the open position as a reasonable accommodation without requiring the employee to compete for the position with other qualified candidates. Recently, in Equal Employment Opportunity Commission v. St. Joseph’s Hospital, Inc., the United States Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit joined the Eighth Circuit in concluding that there is no ADA violation if the employer requires the disabled employee to compete for the open position. Other courts, however, including the Seventh, Tenth, and D.C. Circuits have concluded that, in most instances, a qualified disabled employee should be placed in the open position as a reasonable accommodation. The Seventh Circuit’s decision is the subject of an earlier blog. The St. Joseph’s Hospital Decision The EEOC brought suit on behalf of Leocadia Bryk, who worked as...

Sixth Circuit Upends EEOC Victory in Telecommuting Case

We previously reported on a decision by a panel of the United States Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit in Equal Opportunity Employment Commission v. Ford Motor Co., in which the panel held that the EEOC was entitled to a jury trial on its claim that Ford discharged an employee in violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act (“ADA”) after it denied her request to work from home 4 days per week as an accommodation for her irritable bowel syndrome (“IBS”). In an en banc decision the Sixth Circuit has now reversed the original panel’s decision, concluding that the district court properly granted Ford’s motion for summary judgment on the ADA claim. In so ruling, the Court credited Ford’s business judgment that the employee’s presence in the work place was an essential function of her job, and thus her request to telecommute four days per week was not a request for a reasonable accommodation to which Ford had to accede. The EEOC had heralded the original panel’s decision as a major victory. The Sixth Circuit’s en banc reversal of that decision should be cause for equal celebration by employers.

Federal Court of Appeals Addresses Testing Employees for Lawful Prescription Drug Use

The Americans with Disabilities Act (“ADA”) makes it unlawful for an employer to either require its employees to undergo medical examinations or make disability-related inquiries that cannot be justified as “job related and consistent with business necessity.” The statute, however, expressly provides that testing an employee for illegal drug use is not a “medical examination” that must be justified under this standard. But what about an employer, who, because of safety concerns, requires employees to be tested for substances for which the employee has a valid prescription? Does such a test constitute a medical examination or a disability-related inquiry? In Bates v. Dura Automotive Systems, Inc., the United States Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit recently undertook to provide guidance on this issue. The Court concluded that whether testing for prescription drugs constitutes a medical examination or a disability-related inquiry for ADA purposes depends on the specific facts of the case at hand and, ultimately, may be an issue for a jury to resolve. It is clear that this is an area where employers must tread carefully. The difficulty of implementing a prescription drug testing program that will comply with the ADA suggests that such testing should be used only as a last resort when other safety measures have proved insufficient.

EEOC Focusing on Telecommuting as a Reasonable Accommodation

The EEOC is heralding a recent decision from the United States Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit, Equal Opportunity Employment Commission v. Ford Motor Co., a case in which the agency brought suit on behalf of a Ford employee who alleged she was terminated in retaliation for filing a charge of discrimination with the EEOC. In her charge, the employee alleged Ford violated the Americans with Disabilities Act (“ADA”) by not allowing her to telecommute to work. The district court granted Ford’s motion for summary judgment, but, in a 2-to-1 decision, the Sixth Circuit reversed, finding that the EEOC had presented evidence sufficient to survive summary judgment that (a) by requesting to telecommute the employee had sought a reasonable accommodation for her disability and (b) the alternative accommodations offered by the company were insufficient. Of concern to employers is the little weight given by the majority opinion to the employer’s business judgment that the employee’s presence in the workplace was an essential function of her job.

New York City Now Requires Reasonable Accommodation of Pregnant Employees

On October 2, 2013, New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg signed into law Int. No. 974-2012A, amending the New York City Human Rights Law (NYCHRL) to prohibit discrimination in employment based on pregnancy, childbirth or a related medical condition. The law goes into effect on January 30, 2014. It prohibits an employer from refusing to provide a reasonable accommodation to the needs of an employee for her pregnancy, childbirth, or related medical condition that will allow the employee to perform the essential requisites of the job. According to the New York City Council’s legislative findings accompanying the amendment, reasonable accommodations for an employee’s pregnancy, childbirth, or related medical condition may include “bathroom breaks, leave for a period of disability arising from childbirth, breaks to facilitate increased water intake, periodic rest for those who stand for long periods of time, and assistance with manual labor.”