RA and ADA in the Time of COVID-19

August 13, 2020 by Lisa Sigler

How do the ADA’s Reasonable Accommodation provisions apply to COVID-19?

RA and ADA in the Time of COVID-19

The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) was signed into law on July 26, 1990, which means it just had a significant anniversary last month. For 30 years, this landmark legislation has protected individuals with disabilities, including the provisions in Title I that provide for reasonable accommodations (RA) for disabled workers. The COVID-19 pandemic has created many new situations that employers and government agencies will have to deal with when it comes to accommodating employees with existing disabilities as well as new accommodations that this novel pandemic will necessitate.

Who is Eligible for COVID-19 Related Reasonable Accommodations?

Employers must consider accommodations for pre-existing conditions that put their employees at a higher risk of COVID-19 severity. As reported by the U.S. Department of Labor’s Job Accommodation Network, the CDC has identified conditions such as heart disease and diabetes among others that can be contributing factors. Other conditions including anxiety disorders, OCD, and PTSD, that might be caused by or exacerbated by the current pandemic, are also eligible for specific accommodations by employers. It is important for employers to recognize that even if employees have been deemed as “critical infrastructure workers” or “essential critical workers,” they are still entitled to ADA protections and reasonable accommodations.

What Kinds of Accommodations Are Expected?

Current guidelines from the EEOC suggest that accommodations may include work from home arrangements as well as logistical or physical changes to the work environment. Logistical adjustments might include a change in schedule or in duties. Physical changes may include:

  • Measures to reduce contact between employees
  • Discontinued use of conference rooms
  • Changes to in-building traffic patterns (such as one-way aisles)
  • Physical barriers between customers and/or coworkers

Where Can Agencies Get Guidance?

The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission has been hard at work trying to keep expectations for employers clear when it comes to COVID-19, ADA, and reasonable accommodations. All EEOC materials related to COVID-19 are collected at www.eeoc.gov/coronavirus. For specific ADA and RA information, they’ve updated their page “What You Should Know About COVID-19 and the ADA, the Rehabilitation Act, and Other EEO Laws” multiple times since the pandemic started, with at least two updates in May and the latest on June 17, 2020. When it comes to reasonable accommodation, that page has a distinct section currently comprising 13 individual FAQs covering RA. These are particularly useful for determining the timing for requests and the kinds of information that employers need to process any RA request.

Looking Ahead

Many organizations are re-opening offices, if they haven’t already done so. Under the ADA, employers are permitted to ask employees to request the accommodations they feel they will need to safely and effectively transition back into an in-office environment. The COVID-19 pandemic does not circumvent the interactive process that the employer and employee engage in to determine the validity of the reasonable accommodation request.

In addition, as organizations roll out new health and safety procedures, it is important to be prepared for the accommodations and exemptions that employees may request. Individuals with hearing loss may request transparent masks to enable them to continue to lip-read. Wheelchair users may require a different kind of protective clothing. In the event that a vaccine becomes available, some employees may have health or religious grounds to request an exemption. Employers are wise to plan ahead for these circumstances in making their return-to-work plans.

A Challenging Milestone

The ADA turns 30 in a time of uncertainty when it comes to public health. It remains an important safeguard to individuals with disabilities, and its provisions are especially important as we deal with the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic in our workplaces.

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