Written by my partner, Isaac Mamaysky. This article is germane to health care providers during this COVID19 pandemic.
The governor of Ohio recently made national headlines by telling employers across the state to check employees’ temperatures every day before work. Whenever employers conduct health screenings or otherwise make decisions based on their employees’ health, the Americans with Disabilities Act becomes a key consideration.
The ADA regulates employer-mandated medical examinations, the medical questions employers are allowed to ask employees, and of course, the provision of reasonable accommodations to disabled individuals, including during a pandemic.
During the 2009 H1N1 swine flu pandemic, the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission published a document called Pandemic Preparedness in the Workplace and the Americans With Disabilities Act. Having faded into relative obscurity in the intervening years, the EEOC’s guidance once again became relevant when COVID-19 was named a global pandemic.
Since that time, employment attorneys have referenced the 2009 guidance and wrestled with its implications for 2020. Last week, the EEOC updated its H1N1 guidance to clarify exactly how the principles apply today. The EEOC also updated a separate guidance document called What You Should Know About the ADA, the Rehabilitation Act, and COVID-19 and released a supplemental webinar titled Ask the EEOC.
Perhaps not surprisingly, the Ohio governor’s request aligns with the EEOC’s compliance guidelines, which help employers navigate ADA considerations while keeping COVID-19 out of the workplace. While medical examinations are normally prohibited under the ADA, the EEOC explains that examinations are appropriate when an employee would pose a “direct threat” to others by transmitting COVID-19.
Taken together, the EEOC’s updated guidance materials provide the following key takeaways for employers.
Employers should not ask questions related to disabilities, such as whether an employee has a compromised immune system or a medical condition that makes the employee more susceptible to COVID-19.
Employers can ask questions about symptoms of COVID-19 to ensure that sick employees stay home. Likewise, when employees call in sick without giving details, employers can ask about symptoms of COVID-19 in order to protect the rest of the workforce. However, employers should not ask these questions of employees who are already working remotely and have not been interacting with customers or coworkers.
Employers can check temperatures and conduct COVID-19 screenings of current employees, and of new employees but only after making a conditional job offer. If an employer has a reasonable belief based on objective evidence that a particular employee might have COVID-19 (due to a hacking cough, for example), the employer may conduct a health screening only of that one employee, rather than the entire workforce.
If an employee refuses to answer COVID-19 screening questions or refuses a temperature check, then the employer may bar the employee from the workplace. The EEOC encourages employers to assure employees that their medical information will remain confidential, which may make employees more likely to comply with employer requests.
Any records resulting from medical screenings should be maintained in a separate medical file (i.e., not as part of an employee’s personnel file) and treated as a confidential medical record. If a manager receives medical information while teleworking, and thus cannot follow the employer’s usual confidentiality protocols, the medical information should be safeguarded to the greatest extent possible until it can be properly filed when the manager returns to the workplace. This may mean documenting medical information using initials or ensuring that laptops and devices cannot be accessed by others in the household.
Likewise, employers who send an employee home should keep the decision confidential. Employers can tell other employees that they were exposed to a coworker with COVID-19, and then send home all employees who worked in close proximity to that person, but employers should not identify the coworker in question.
That person’s identity should only be shared with those who have a need to know, such as a supervisor who interviews the coworker about who might have been exposed to them in the workplace. Likewise, if an employee is teleworking due to having COVID-19, the employer can share the fact that the employee is teleworking but should not share the reason the employee is teleworking.
Employers can delay the start date of an employee who has symptoms of COVID-19. If an employer needs an employee to start working immediately, then the employer can withdraw a job offer to an employee with COVID-19.
Employers can request that employees who recently traveled to affected areas or were exposed to a person with symptoms of COVID-19 stay out of work until a certain number of days passes without symptoms. Employers should not specifically ask employees if they have a family member with COVID-19, which would be prohibited by the Genetic Information Nondiscrimination Act. Employers can ask, more generally, if employees have been exposed to any person with symptoms of COVID-19.
Employers can require a doctor’s clearance prior to allowing an employee to return to work. Note, however, that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention tells employers not to require a doctor’s note to validate symptoms, because that discourages employees from staying home.
Employers can require employees to adopt infection-control practices in the workplace, such as prohibiting handshakes and requiring frequent hand-washing, wearing masks, maintaining six feet of distance from other employees, and related measures.
For the moment, much of this guidance applies to essential businesses, such as supermarkets and transportation companies, which are still open despite quarantines and other social distancing measures. Many nonessential businesses, which are currently closed, aspire to reopen as soon as possible.
While the exact timeline is still unclear, many businesses will likely reopen while COVID-19 is more controlled than it is today but still a risk, especially for employees with compromised immune systems and other medical conditions (such as lung disease and heart issues).
Since employers cannot ask questions related to disabilities, how can they determine which employees may be unavailable when they reopen? The EEOC explains that an inquiry is not disability-related if it identifies nonmedical reasons for absence on the same footing with medical reasons.
So, for example, an employer is permitted to ask a survey question along the following lines: In the event our business reopens in the near future, would you be unable to come to work for a reason such as your child’s day care center being closed, public transportation being sporadic, other dependents needing care, or having a compromised immune system or other health condition?
In this way, employers can determine which staff will be unavailable without running afoul of the ADA.
Depending on how early a particular business reopens, certain vulnerable employees might need to continue working from home for some period of time. Of course, employers are not absolved of their obligations to provide reasonable accommodations during a pandemic.
The EEOC observes that the rapid spread of COVID-19 has increased the number of requests for reasonable accommodations. This number will continue to increase if businesses reopen while the virus is not fully contained.
If an employer’s usual reasonable accommodation processes are delayed due the volume of inquiries, the EEOC encourages employers to implement temporary solutions that enable employees to keep working while the discussion and potential provision of reasonable accommodations is pending. The EEOC’s webinar provides extensive details on this topic.
Reflecting the general uncertainty surrounding current events, the EEOC is still unsure whether COVID-19 is a disability under the ADA. As the EEOC observes, our knowledge of COVID-19’s spread and containment changes day by day and its status as a disability will become clearer as time goes on.
As employers and their attorneys have seen, federal and state laws and regulations are changing equally fast. For now, while much of the country is on pause, employers should watch the changing landscape closely.
In the coming weeks and months, and especially as businesses reopen, states are expected to implement many new safety protocols. Perhaps a number will even follow Ohio’s lead by beginning each workday with a temperature check.
This article originally appeared in Law 360’s Expert Analysis section on March 31, 2020.
To learn more about the issues raised by this client bulletin, please contact Isaac Mamaysky at firstname.lastname@example.org
Note: This bulletin is for general use and should not be construed to provide legal advice as to particular factual situations.
I think of Bob Dylan’s raspy voice singing:
Then you better start swimmin’
Or you’ll sink like a stone
For the times they are a-changin’.
In 1933, Franklin D. Roosevelt took the presidency during a time of severe poverty. The Great Depression, which would last until the late 1930s or early 1940s, cast shadows and doubt over the future of America. People were starving. Unemployment and homelessness were at an all-time high.
FDR’s first 100 days in office were monumental. In fact, FDR’s first 100 days in office changed America forever. With bold legislation and a myriad of executive orders, he instituted the New Deal. The New Deal created government jobs for the homeless, banking reform, and emergency relief to states and cities. During those 100 days of lawmaking, Congress granted every major request Roosevelt asked. This is an example of what I call blending of the separation of powers. In a time of great national need, Congress took an expansive view of the president’s constitutional powers and cooperated with him to effect major change.
I am in no way comparing our General Assembly to Congress back in the 1930s nor am I comparing FDR to Gov. McCrory. In fact, there are vast differences. I am only making the point that rarely does the legislative body create such change.
But North Carolina’s current Senate Bill 744 may create this change. For example, if Senate Bill 744 passes the House, the Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS), Division of Medical Assistance (DMA) may no longer manage Medicaid. That’s right. A whole new state agency may manage Medicaid.
This past Friday, May 30, 2014, the state Senate passed a $21.2 billion budget, which is known as Senate Bill 744. On May 31, 2014, Senate Bill 744 passed its 3rd reading and will now go on to the House. So far, it has been revised 3 times, so we do not know whether the House will make substantial changes. But, as it stands today, it is shocking. Is it good? Bad? I don’t think we can know whether the changes are good or bad yet, and, quite honestly, I have not had time to digest all of the possible implications of Senate Bill 744. But, regardless, the changes are shocking.
Of the most shocking changes (should SB 744 get passed), consider the following:
1. DHHS must immediately cease all efforts to transition Medicaid to the affordable care organizations (ACOs) system that DHHS had touted would be in effect by July 2015;
2. DHHS’s DMA will no longer manage Medicaid. Instead, a new state entity will be formed to manage Medicaid. (A kind of…”scratch it all and start over” method);
3. All funds previously appropriated to DMA will be transferred to the Office of State Budget and Management (OSBM) and will be used for Medicaid reform and may not be used for any other purpose such as funding any shortfalls in the Medicaid program.
4. Categorical coverage for recipients of the optional state supplemental program State County Special Assistance is eliminated.
5. Coverage for the medically needy is eliminated, except those categories that the State is prohibited from eliminating by the “maintenance of effort” requirement of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act. Effective October 1, 2019, coverage for all medically needy categories is eliminated.
6. It is the intent of the General Assembly to reduce optional coverage for certain aged, blind, and disabled persons effective July 1, 2015, while meeting the State’s obligation under the Americans with Disabilities Act and the United States Supreme Court decision in Olmstead v. L.C. ex rel. Zimring, 527 U.S. 581 (1999).
7. Repeal the shared savings program and just reduce the reimbursement rates by 3%.
8. DHHS shall implement a Medicaid assessment program for local management entities/managed care organizations (LME/MCOs) at a rate of three and one-half percent (3.5%).
9. For additional notices as to State Plan Amendments (SPAs), DHHS must post the proposed SPAs on its website at least 10 days prior to submitting the SPAs to the federal Center for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS).
10. Reimbursement rate changes become effective when CMS approves the reimbursement rate changes.
11. The Department of Health and Human Services shall not enter into any contract involving the program integrity functions listed in subsection (a) of this section of SB 774 that would have a termination date after September 1, 2015.
12. The Medicaid PROVIDER will have the burden of proof in contested case actions against the Department.
13. The Department shall withhold payment to any Medicaid provider for whom the DMA, or its vendor, has identified an overpayment in a written notice to the provider. Withholding shall begin on the 75th day after the day the notice of overpayment is mailed and shall continue during the pendency of any appeal until the overpayment becomes a final overpayment (can we say injunction?).
Senate Bill 744 purports to make immense modifications to our Medicaid system. I wonder what Gov. McCrory and Secretary Wos think about Senate Bill 744. If SB 744 passes, McCrory and Wos can no longer continue down the ACO path. Does the General Assembly even have the authority to bind their hands from creating ACOs? It seems so.
As for the “new state agency” that will manage Medicaid, maybe the General Assembly is right and we do need to scratch out the current Medicaid management and start over…I doubt anyone would disagree that DHHS has had some “oops” moments in the past year or so. But (a) is this the way to start all over; and (b) does the General Assembly have the legal power to remove the management of Medicaid from Secretary Wos?
Going to the reduction of optional services for the “medically needy,” what services are considered optional? Here is a list of optional services, as defined by the Center of Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS):
• Case Management
• Mental Health
• Intermediate Care Facilities (ICF-MR)
• Personal Care Services
• Respiratory Therapy
• Adult Dentures
• Prescription Drugs
• Community Alternative Programs (CAP)
• Private Duty Nursing
• Home Infusion Therapy
• Physical Therapy/Speech Therapy
I cannot comment on all the changes proposed by Senate Bill 744; I simply have not had enough time to review them in detail, because there are so many changes. I do not purport to know whether these modifications are ultimately for the good or for the bad.
All I know is that we better start swimming or we will sink like a stone, because the times they are a-changin’.