Under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), employers with at least 15 employees must grant employee requests for ADA accommodations, except in cases where such accommodation would lead to “undue hardship.” It is worth noting that under the ADA, accommodations do not mean special treatment. In fact, in most cases, they benefit all employees.
The Equal Employment Opportunity (EEO) laws (including ADA) continue to apply during the current pandemic. While these laws do not interfere with or prevent employers from following guidelines provided by CDC or state/local public health authorities, employers must keep in mind that regulations imposed by the public authorities are likely to change throughout the pandemic.
Hence, business owners need to be vigilant about the most current changes in guidelines related to maintaining workplace safety during COVID-19.
Here’s what you need to know while recognizing employee requests for ADA accommodations during COVID-19.
Employees with Disabilities That Increase Vulnerability to COVID-19
Where a job role requires the employee to be present at the workplace, reasonable accommodations must be made to protect employees whose disabilities put them at greater risk from COVID-19 and who request such accommodation to eliminate possible exposure.
The employer may consider low-cost solutions with materials that are either readily available or are at hand. Using plexiglass, tables, or other barriers to ensure a safe distance between coworkers and customers are all ways to reduce the chances of exposure. Modifying work schedules or temporary transfer to different locations are other options that can be considered.
Employees with Pre-existing Mental Illness or Disorders Aggravated by COVID-19
Though the current pandemic has caused panic and stress among the masses, employees with pre-existing mental health conditions like obsessive-compulsive disorder or post-traumatic stress disorder have suffered immensely because of the disruptions faced in their daily activities.
The employer may ask questions to determine whether the condition is a disability while exploring alternatives that may meet the employee’s needs and request medical documents if required.
Employees’ Request for Additional or Altered Accommodations
Any employee who was receiving adequate accommodation before COVID-19 may request additional or altered accommodations provided such changes do not imply “undue hardship” to the employers. For instance, an employee who is teleworking because of the pandemic may require a different type of accommodation than was needed while working from the office.
Employees’ Request for ADA Accommodation to Protect a Vulnerable Family Member
The ADA’s prohibition on workplace discrimination is limited to disparate treatment or harassment. It does not require an employer to accommodate a healthy employee based on the disability needs of his family member. However, an employer can offer such flexibilities beyond the legal requirements provided he doesn’t encourage disparate treatment.
Can Requests for Accommodations Be Denied?
An accommodation that posed no “undue hardship” before the pandemic may pose one now. In such a circumstance, where the employer may face “significant difficulty or expense” to meet the accommodation request, he may deny doing the same.
How to Determine If a Requested Accommodation Poses “Significant Difficulty”?
Before the pandemic, most accommodations didn’t amount to significant expenses when considered against the employer’s overall resources and budget. However, post COVID-19, the sudden loss of all or part of the employer’s income because of business interruption, has become a matter of concern.
The overall availability of funds and the lifting of current restrictions on the employer’s business operations are also relevant when determining the possibility of accepting an accommodation request. This doesn’t mean that the employer can reject all accommodations that cost money. An employer must compare the cost of accommodation against the current budget while considering the budget constraints created by the pandemic.
Thus, as an employer, you must use your discretion while choosing among effective accommodations, keeping in mind the constraints imposed by COVID-19.
You must also purchase workers’ compensation insurance coverage to cover yourself in the event of accidental workplace injuries to employees and potential lawsuits. To learn more about the benefits of workers’ compensation insurance, contact the experts at CIA Insurance and Risk Management.
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