EEOC GIVES EMPLOYERS LIMITED EMPLOYER GUIDANCE ABOUT ADA ISSUES IN SWINE FLU RESPONSE

May 13, 2009

Recent concerns over the H1N1 Swine Flu (swine flu) pandemic and warnings of a possible resurgence of the swine flu pandemic or some other pandemic in the future is forcing many employers to question when concerns that an employee suffers from a contagious disease can justify the employer making inquires about the health of an employee or the exclusion of the employee from the workplace. New guidance set forth in the “U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission ADA-Compliant Employer Preparedness For the H1N1 Flu Virus” (Guidance) published by the U.S. Department of Labor Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) on May 4, 2009 provides some insights for employers about the EEOC’s perspective on these questions. 

The Guidance details the EEOC’s answers to certain basic questions about when the EEOC views certain workplace preparation strategies for responding to the 2009 flu virus as compliant with the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA).  Employers considering updates to their current pandemic and infectious disease response plans are cautioned that in addition to potential ADA exposures, practices for periods after November 21, 2009 also generally must be tailored to comply with new restrictions on employer’s collection of and discrimination based on genetic information based on the Genetic Information Nondiscrimination Act of 2008 (GINA).  Proposed regulations interpreting the employment provisions of GINA published by the EEOC in March 2009 do not specifically address the implications of GINA on employer planning or response to pandemic concerns.

ADA Concerns Apply To Employers  Planning For & Applying Swine Flu Response 

Title I of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) protects applicants and employees from disability discrimination. Among other things, the ADA regulates when and how employers may require a medical examination or request disability-related information from applicants and employees, regardless of whether the individual has a disability.  The Guidance confirms that the EEOC views this requirement as affecting when and how employers may request health information from applicants and employees regarding H1N1 flu virus.  

Effective January 1, 2009, Congress amended the Americans with Disabilities Act pursuant to the Americans with Disabilities Act Amendments Act of 2008 (ADAAA) to change the way that the ADA’s statutory definition of the term “disability” historically has been interpreted by certain courts.  The ADAAA amendments generally are intended and expected to make it easier for certain individuals to qualify as disabled under the ADA.  While the Guidance announces that the EEOC intends to revise its ADA regulations to reflect the broader group of persons protected as disabled under the ADAAA amendments, it also indicates that the EEOC does not perceive that the ADAAA changes the actions prohibited by the ADA as they relate to common pandemic planning and response activities.  Consequently, the Guidance states that the EEOC views the  guidance in “Disability-Related Inquiries & Medical Examinations of Employees Under the ADA” published by the EEOC in 2000 and its “Enforcement Guidance: Preemployment Disability-Related Questions & Medical Examinations” published in 1995 as setting forth the governing rules for medical testing, inquires and other pandemic response planning under the ADA.

Under the ADA, an employer’s ability to make disability-related inquiries or require medical examinations is analyzed in three stages: pre-offer, post-offer, and employment.

  • At the first stage (prior to an offer of employment), the ADA prohibits all disability-related inquiries and medical examinations, even if they are related to the job.
  • At the second stage (after an applicant is given a conditional job offer, but before s/he starts work), an employer may make disability-related inquiries and conduct medical examinations, regardless of whether they are related to the job, as long as it does so for all entering employees in the same job category.
  • At the third stage (after employment begins), an employer may make disability-related inquiries and require medical examinations only if they are job-related and consistent with business necessity.
  • The ADA requires employers to treat any medical information obtained from a disability-related inquiry or medical examination (including medical information from voluntary health or wellness programs), as well as any medical information voluntarily disclosed by an employee, as a confidential medical record. Employers may share such information only in limited circumstances with supervisors, managers, first aid and safety personnel, and government officials investigating compliance with the ADA.

Employers deviating from these requirements when administering their pandemic planning or response risk disability discrimination liability under the ADA unless they otherwise can defend their action under one of the exceptions to the ADA’s disability discrimination prohibitions.  When making post-offer inquiries or requiring post offer examinations or imposing other conditions for safety reasons, the Guidance and EEOC in unofficial discussions have emphasized the importance of the employer’s ability to demonstrate the job or safety relevance of the medical inquiry or examination based on credible scientific evidence such as the latest scientific evidence available from the World Health Organization (WHO) and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). 

Other than emphasizing the importance of acting appropriately in response to credible scientific evidence and pointing to preexisting guidance, the Guidance does not extensively address with specificity the circumstances under which the EEOC will view any particular action taken by an employer as defensible under the safety or other exceptions of the ADA.  Likewise, the Guidance does not discuss in any details the conditions, if any, under which the EEOC would view suffering, a history of suffering or association with or exposure to swine flu as qualifying an individual as disabled or perceived to be disabled for purposes of the ADA.  Consequently, employer must rely on other less specifically tailored guidance for purposes of assessing the defensibility of a proposed action on these grounds.

Planning for Absenteeism Under ADA

When planning for a possible pandemic, employers must be careful about when and how they ask employees about factors, including chronic medical conditions that may cause them to miss work in the event of a pandemic.  According to the Guidance, an employer may survey its workforce to gather personal information needed for pandemic preparation if the employer asks broad questions that are not limited to disability-related inquiries.  An inquiry would not be disability-related if it identified non-medical reasons for absence during a pandemic (e.g., mandatory school closures or curtailed public transportation) on an equal footing with medical reasons (e.g., chronic illnesses that weaken immunity). The Guidance includes a sample of what the EEOC views as ADA-compliant survey that could be given to all employees before a pandemic.

The Guidance also indicates that where appropriate safeguards are applied to comply with the ADA, it also may be appropriate for an employer under certain limited circumstances, to require entering employees to have a medical test post-offer to determine their exposure to the influenza virus.  According to the EEOC, the ADA permits an employer to require entering employees to undergo a job relevant medical examination after making a conditional offer of employment but before the individual starts work, if all entering employees in the same job category must undergo such an examination.  Thus, the Guidance reflects that the requirement by an employer as part of its pandemic influenza preparedness plan that all entering employees in the same job categories undergo the same post offer medical testing for the virus in accordance with recommendations by the WHO and the CDC in response to a new influenza virus may be ADA-compliant.

Infection Control in the Workplace Under the ADA

The Guidance also discusses the EEOC’s perceptions about the ADA implications of employer use of certain infection control practices in the workplace during a pandemic provided that the requirements are applied in a nondiscriminatory fashion consistent with the ADA.  For instance, the Guidance states that employers generally may apply with following infection control practices without implicating the ADA:

  • Require all employees to comply with certain infection control practices, such as regular hand washing, coughing and sneezing etiquette, and tissue usage and disposal without implicating the ADA;
  • May require employees to wear personal protective equipment provided that where an employee with a disability needs a related reasonable accommodation under the ADA (e.g., non-latex gloves, or gowns designed for individuals who use wheelchairs), employer provides these accommodations absent undue hardship;
  • Encourage or require employees to telework as an infection-control strategy, based on timely information from public health authorities about pandemic conditions or offer telework as a possible reasonable accommodation.  

In all cases, of course, the Guidance cautions that employers must not single out employees either to telework or to continue reporting to the workplace on a basis prohibited by the ADA or any of the other federal Equal Employment Opportunity laws.

Impending GINA Rules

 As signed into law, GINA amends Title VII of the Civil Rights Act, the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act of 1996 (HIPAA), the Employee Retirement Income Security Act of 1974 (ERISA), the Public Health Service Act, the Internal Revenue Code of 1986, and Title XVIII (Medicare) of the Social Security Act to implement sweeping new federal restrictions on the collection, use, and disclosure of  “genetic information” by employers, employment agencies, labor organizations, joint labor-management committees, group health plans and insurers and their agents.  GINA’s group health plan restrictions are scheduled to take effect May 21, 2009.  The employment related genetic testing rules of GINA take affect November 21, 2009.  Employers and other covered entities will need to carefully review and timely update their pandemic and other infectious disease response practices as well as their group health plan, family leave, disability accommodation, and other existing policies in light of these new federal rules.

Although EEOC has not finalized its implementing regulations for GINA yet, employers should anticipate that GINA will impact their pandemic and other related practices.  The implications of GINA for employers and other entities covered by its provisions because of its broad definition of genetic information. 

Under GINA, “genetic information” is defined to mean with respect to any individual, information about:

  • Such individual’s genetic tests;
  • The genetic tests of family members of such individual; and
  • The manifestation of a disease or disorder in family members of such individual.

GINA also specifies that any reference to genetic information concerning an individual or family member includes genetic information of a fetus carried by a pregnant woman and an embryo legally held by an individual or family member utilizing an assisted reproductive technology.

Pending issuance of final regulatory guidance, Gina’s inclusion of information about the “manifestation of a disease or disorder in family members” raises potential challenges for a broad range of wellness and safety, leave, and other employment and benefit practices, particularly as apparently will reach a broader range of conditions than those currently protected under the disability discrimination prohibitions of the Americans With Disabilities Act (“ADA”).  

Depending on the contemplated inquiry or practice, certain inquiries or actions intended for use as part of an employer’s pandemic preparedness or response activities could fall within the scope of GINA’s protections. For this reason, employers also should consider the potential treatment of a proposed pandemic preparation or response activity intended to be applied after GINA takes effect in light of GINA.  Additionally, employers also should consider the risk that information collected under existing or previously applied pandemic or other infectious disease prevention and response activities might qualify for additional protection when GINA takes effect in November, 2009.

Other Resources

Businesses, health care providers, schools, government agencies and others concerned about preparing to cope with pandemic or other infectious disease challenges also may want to review the following resources authored by Curran Tomko Tarski LLP partner Cynthia Marcotte Stamer:

Cynthia Marcotte Stamer and other members of Curran Tomko and Tarski LLP are experienced with advising and assisting employers with these and other labor and employment, employee benefit, compensation, and internal controls matters. If your organization needs assistance with assessing, managing or defending its wage and hour or other labor and employment, compensation or benefit practices, please contact Ms. Stamer at cstamer@cttlegal.com, (214) 270-2402; or your favorite Curran Tomko Tarski, LLP attorney.  For additional information about the experience and services of Ms. Stamer and other members of the Curran Tomko Tarksi, LLP team, see the www.cttlegal.com.


Mitigating Workplace Fallout of Pandemic Response

May 5, 2009

As the U.S. rushes to try to contain the spread of the swine influenza A (H1N1) virus infection (swine flu), businesses increasingly are facing employee leave requests and other employment and operational disruptions plans caused by school, day care or other closures and other business disruptions resulting from efforts to contain the disease while also working to take appropriate steps to prevent the spread of the disease within their own organizations.

Regardless of how deadly it ultimately proves to be, the pandemic proportion of the swine flu outbreak now ensures that most U.S. businesses will experience some disruption in operations as a result of the epidemic and efforts to contain it.

According to officials from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), as of 11:00 a.m. Eastern Time, 36 states had reported a total of 236 confirmed cases of swine flu and more cases are expected. That number includes the first U.S. swine flu fatality: a 22-month-old child from Mexico who died of the illness at a Houston, Texas hospital while visiting the United States last week. States currently hardest hit include New York (73 cases), Texas (41 cases), California (30 cases), Delaware (20 cases) and Arizona (17 cases). In the near future, however, CDC officials anticipate confirmed cases in all 50 states.

CDC officials and other experts continue to emphasize that the success of efforts to prevent the unnecessary spread of the disease depends largely on good health habits, limiting exposure to the virus and prompt diagnosis and treatment of afflicted persons. Employers can help reduce the risk that members of their workforce and their families will catch the virus by promoting good health habits and encouraging workers and their families to stay home and seek prompt treatment in the event of an illness. Simultaneously planning for and dealing with absences and other staffing challenges result from school, day care and other closings prevents a greater challenge for many employers, however.

Easy Preventive Safeguards

While the CDC says getting employees and their families to get a flu shot remains the best defense against a flu outbreak, it also says getting employees and family members to consistently practice good health habits like covering a cough and washing hands also is another important key to prevent the spread of germs and prevent the spread of respiratory illnesses like the flu. To help promote health habits within their workforce, many businesses may want to download and circulate to employees and families the free resources published by the CDC at http://www.cdc.gov/flu/protect/habits.htm. These and other resources make clear that Employers should encourage employees and their families to practice good health habits by telling employees and their families to take the following steps:

  • Avoid close contact with people who are sick. When you are sick, keep your distance from others to protect them from getting sick too.
  • Stay home when you are sick to help prevent others from catching your illness. Cover your mouth and nose.
  • Cover your mouth and nose with a tissue when coughing or sneezing. It may prevent those around you from getting sick.
  • Clean your hands to protect yourself from germs.
  • Avoid touching your eyes, nose or mouth.
  • Germs are often spread when a person touches something that is contaminated with germs and then touches his or her eyes, nose, or mouth.
  • Practice other good health habits. Get plenty of sleep, be physically active, manage your stress, drink plenty of fluids, and eat nutritious food.

Many businesses are promoting these and other conducts that help prevent the spread of disease by sharing educational materials such as the growing range of free materials provided by the CDC and others available at the government sponsored website, http://www.pandemicflu.gov. For instance, business can access and download free copies of the following publications at http://www.cdc.gov/flu/protect/habits.htm:

  • Cover Your Cough
  • Be a Germ Stopper: Healthy Habits Keep You Well
  • Flu Prevention Toolkit: Real People. Real Solutions
  • Stopping the Spread of Germs at Home, Work & School

Dealing With Lost Time & Productivity Challenges

Businesses also should begin preparing backup staffing and production strategies to prepare for disruptions likely to result if a significant outbreak occurs. Whether or not the disease afflicts any of its workers, businesses can anticipate the swine flu outbreak will impact their operations -either as a result of occurrences affecting their own or other businesses or from workflow disruptions resulting from safeguards that the business or other businesses implement to minimize swine flu risks for its workforce or its customers.

For many employers, however, planning for and dealing with requests for time off or other workplace disruptions resulting from pandemic containment efforts presents special challenges. While most employers have well established policies and procedures for providing medical leave to employees during periods of their own or a family member’s illness under the Family & Medical Leave Act (FMLA) or otherwise, many employers are experiencing difficulty in responding to leave requests of healthy employees necessitated by school or day care closings, suspected exposures, or other pandemic response disruptions.

Certainly, whether or not legally mandated, the CDC and other official advisories make clear that sick employees should not be in the workplace. Employers of course must provide medical leave as required by the FMLA or other similar state laws as well as any contractually agreed to leave. To better insulate their workforce against potential exposure to the virus, however, many employers also may wish consider temporarily modifying existing leave or other work policies with an eye to better defending their workforce against a major outbreak. In this respect, employers need to consider both how to respond to the present wave of the virus and to plan for the possible need to respond to another potentially stronger outbreak of the swine flu virus that the CDC and other experts caution likely may arise in the Fall or Winter.

As part of their efforts to insulate their workplaces against exposure to the virus, employers generally should discourage workers from coming to work if they or a family member are experiencing symptoms or have been exposed to the virus. For this reason, businesses generally evaluate workplace policies or practices that may pressure or encourage employees with swine flu or any other contagious disease to report to work. Employers should consider whether the potential risks make advisable adjustments to their current attendance, telecommuting, leave and paid time off and other policies.

In light of the current situation, many businesses may want to consider temporarily adjust their leave, telecommuting and other policies in light of the impending health risk. For instance, recognizing that the decision to close a school or child care facility in response to a known or suspected infection seeks to minimize the spread of the disease through exposure to other then undiagnosed cases, businesses generally should think twice about allowing employees to bring these potentially exposed children into the workplace. Instead, employers may wish to consider being more flexible in allowing employees to work from home or take leave to care for children whose schools or child care facilities are closed due to concerns about possible exposure to reduce the risk of creating unnecessary exposure in their workplace.

To help minimize financial pressures on workers to report to work when they may be ill or exposed to the virus, many employers also may want to consider providing or offering short-term disability insurance, expanding the availability of paid or unpaid leave or both.

Regardless of the specific choices a particular business makes, businesses need to take appropriate steps to document, implement, and communicate their decisions. If considering allowing or requiring employees to work from home, employers need to implement appropriate safeguards to monitor and manage employee performance, and to protect the employer’s ability to comply with applicable wage and hour, worker’s compensation, safety, privacy and other legal and operational requirements. They also should review and update family and medical leave act and other sick leave policies, group health plan medical coverage continuation rules and notices and other associated policies and plans for compliance with existing regulatory requirements, which have been subject to a range of statutory and regulatory amendments in recent years.

If considering allowing or requiring employees to work from home, for instance, employers need to implement appropriate safeguards to monitor and manage employee performance, and to protect the employer’s ability to comply with applicable wage and hour, worker’s compensation, safety, privacy and other legal and operational requirements. They also should review and update family and medical leave act and other sick leave policies, group health plan medical coverage continuation rules and notices and other associated policies and plans for compliance with existing regulatory requirements, which have been subject to a range of statutory and regulatory amendments in recent years.

In light of the growing responsibilities and exposures of business to medical privacy and disability liabilities associated with knowledge, collection, protection and use of information about the health and medical conditions of workers and their families, businesses also should review and update their procedures regarding the use, collection, disclosure, and protection of this and other sensitive information. Businesses, health care providers, schools, government agencies and others concerned about preparing to cope with pandemic or other infectious disease challenges also may want to review the publication “Planning for the Pandemic” authored by Curran Tomko Tarski LLP partner Cynthia Marcotte Stamer available at http://www.cynthiastamer.com/documents/speeches/20070530%20Pan%20Flu%20Workplace%20Privacy%20Issues%20Final%20Merged.pdf. Schools, health care organizations, restaurants and other businesses whose operations involve significant interaction with the public also may need to take special precautions. These and other businesses may want to consult the special resources posted at http://www.pandemicflu.gov/health/index.html.

Cynthia Marcotte Stamer and other members of Curran Tomko and Tarski LLP are experienced with advising and assisting employers with these and other labor and employment, employee benefit, compensation, and internal controls matters. Ms. Stamer in particular has worked extensively with health care providers, government officials, and businesses to plan for and deal with pandemic and other absence, disease management and disaster preparedness concerns. If your organization needs assistance with assessing, managing or defending its wage and hour or other labor and employment, compensation or benefit practices, please contact Ms. Stamer at cstamer@cttlegal.com, (214) 270-2402, or your favorite Curran Tomko Tarski, LLP attorney. For additional information about the experience and services of Ms. Stamer and other members of the Curran Tomko Tarksi, LLP team, see the http://www.cttlegal.com.