As businesses begin to reopen and bring employees back to the workplace, a majority of employers are receiving requests for workplace accommodations related to COVID-19. According to surveyed attendees of a recent webinar hosted by XpertHR, most requests are from employees who are at-risk or vulnerable to infection from COVID-19, but many are from employees who have a fear of returning to the workplace.
According to updated Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) guidance, it is best practice for employers to make information about who to contact to request an accommodation for a disability available in advance to all employees. The information may be provided even if no date has been announced for employees to return to the workplace. If requests are received in advance, the employer may begin the interactive process.
Of 276 respondents to the XpertHR webinar survey, six out of 10 employers reported that they have received a request for accommodations related to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Who is Asking for Accommodations?
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) guidance emphasizes the importance of providing accommodations or flexibilities to employees who are at higher risk for severe illness, including:
- People 65 years and older;
- People who live in a nursing home or long-term care facility;
- People with chronic lung disease or moderate to severe asthma;
- People who have serious heart conditions;
- People who are immunocompromised;
- People with severe obesity (body mass index (BMI) of 40 or higher);
- People with diabetes;
- People with chronic kidney disease undergoing dialysis; and
- People with liver disease.
Some states may have additional definitions of at-risk or vulnerable populations.
According to webinar attendees, the top three reasons employees have requested an accommodation are because they:
- Are at-risk or vulnerable for infection (77%);
- Fear returning to the workplace (61%); and
- Have childcare needs (58%).
Additionally, attendees noted that about one-third of employees have requested an accommodation because of a disability and just under another one-third for a pregnancy.
What Accommodations are Being Provided?
- Are simple or low-cost;
- May be achieved with materials already on hand or easily obtained; and
- Include work adaptations that permit an individual to safely perform essential job functions while reducing the risk of exposure to COVID-19.
According to the surveyed employers, by far, the accommodation provided most by employers is remote work. Modifying an employee’s work schedule or shift assignment is a distant second, followed by providing or modifying personal protective equipment (PPE). Accommodations, ranked by percentage of respondents that have provided them, include:
|Modified work schedule or shift assignment||64.00%|
|PPE or modified PPE||60.20%|
|Changes to work environment||57.80%|
|Temporary job restructuring or assignment||19.40%|
Tips for Employers
The most important thing for employers to remember regarding requests for reasonable accommodations for disabilities is that the law regarding them is the same, regardless of which phase of reopening a business is in. Furthermore, an employer has the same obligation to its remote employees with disabilities to engage in the interactive process and provide reasonable accommodations as it does to employees working at the worksite.
When processing requests for accommodations, an employer must ensure that inquiries and requests are handled consistently and in compliance with the different federal employment nondiscrimination laws that may apply (e.g., due to a medical condition, religious belief or pregnancy).
An employer is not required to provide an accommodation if doing so would cause undue hardship (e.g., significant expense or difficulty to the employer’s business operations under current circumstances). During the ongoing pandemic, an employer may consider whether current circumstances create “significant difficulty” in acquiring or providing certain accommodations.
For example, it may be significantly more difficult during the pandemic to conduct a needs assessment. Acquiring certain items and delivery of needed equipment may be impacted, particularly for employees who are teleworking. It also may be significantly more challenging to provide employees with temporary assignments, remove marginal functions, or readily hire temporary workers for specialized positions.
As always, flexibility by both employers and employees is important in determining if an accommodation is possible under the circumstances and to making the accommodation work.