EEOC Webinar Answers Important COVID-19 Questions

Author: Beth P. Zoller, XpertHR Legal Editor

April 1, 2020

On March 27, 2020, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) hosted a webinar providing valuable advice and answers to employers' Frequently Asked Questions concerning COVID-19 and compliance with federal antidiscrimination laws, such as Title VII of the Civil Rights Act (Title VII) and the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). The webinar covered a broad range of topics in connection with COVID-19 including:

  • Permissible inquiries and examinations;
  • Maintaining the confidentiality of employee medical information;
  • Providing at-risk individuals with reasonable accommodations;
  • Understanding the parameters of telework as a reasonable accommodation; and
  • Complying with other antidiscrimination laws providing protections based on age, pregnancy and national origin.

The webinar built upon issues addressed in the EEOC's existing publications What You Should Know About COVID-19, the ADA, the Rehabilitation Act, and Other EEO Laws and Pandemic Preparedness in the Workplace and the Americans with Disabilities Act.

The EEOC emphasized that the federal antidiscrimination laws enforced by the EEOC (Title VII, ADA, etc.) continue to apply and reiterated the need to create a respectful workplace. The EEOC also advised that the laws enforced by the EEOC do not stop employers from following guidance released by the Centers for Disease Control and local public health directives.

Questions addressing challenging issues employers may face included:

Question: Is a manager permitted to ask only one employee (as opposed to all employees) questions to determine if an employee has COVID-19 or ask to take their temperature?

Answer: Yes. The EEOC states that if an employer seeks to question only one employee regarding COVID-19 or take their temperature, the employer must have a reasonable belief based on objective evidence that the employee may have COVID-19. For example, an employer may ask an employee with a persistent hacking cough if they have seen a doctor or might have COVID-19 because this is a symptom of COVID-19. If an employer notices that an employee is merely distracted from work this would be an insufficient reason to question them regarding COVID-19.

Question: May an employer ask employees physically coming to work if they have family members who have COVID-19 or related symptoms?

Answer: No. The EEOC advises that an employer should avoid asking employees physically coming to work if they have family members who have COVID-19 or related symptoms because this unnecessarily limits the possible extent of an employee's potential exposure to COVID-19 and may violate the Genetic Information Nondiscrimination Act's (GINA) prohibition on asking employees medical questions about family members.

A better question from a public health and workforce management perspective is to ask the employee if they had contact with anyone they know that has COVID-19 or related symptoms.

Question: Is an employer permitted to exclude individuals who are 65 or older and who do not have symptoms associated with COVID-19 from the workplace solely because the CDC has identified this age group as being at higher risk of severe illness if they contract COVID-19?

Answer: No. The EEOC advises that the Age Discrimination in Employment Act's (ADEA) prohibition on employment discrimination against workers 40 years of age and older prevents an employer from taking any of the following actions based on age-related concerns with respect to COVID-19:

  • Barring an older employee from the workplace;
  • Placing them on telework; or
  • Placing them on involuntary leave.

For additional information on COVID-19 and compliance with federal, state and local laws, visit XpertHR's Coronavirus (COVID-19): Workplace Resource Center.