The ADA is a federal law that requires employers with 15 or more employees to provide reasonable accommodations to qualified employees and applicants with disabilities, unless they create an undue hardship. Most states have a similar law with similar obligations.
As it relates to COVID-19, there are many accommodations that could be requested. They can generally be divided into three main categories:
- The employee is requesting an accommodation for their COVID-19 illness;
- The employee is requesting an accommodation for a non-COVID-19 disability because of a COVID-19 surge; and
- The employee is requesting an accommodation for their family member.
An employee requests an accommodation for their COVID-19 illness:
Employees requesting accommodations for their own COVID-19 related illness are likely not able to take advantage of the formal accommodation process under the ADA because COVID-19 is typically not considered a disability. Nonetheless, COVID-19 may occasionally rise to the level of a disability if the employee’s medical condition or any of their symptoms is a “physical or mental” impairment that “substantially limits one or more major life activities.” The EEOC advises that:
“An individual who is diagnosed with COVID-19 who experiences congestion, sore throat, fever, headaches, and/or gastrointestinal discomfort, which resolve within several weeks, but experiences no further symptoms or effects, is not substantially limited in a major bodily function or other major life activity, and therefore does not have an actual disability under the ADA. This is so even though this person is subject to CDC guidance for isolation during the period of infectiousness.”
In contrast, Long COVID is likely a disability under the ADA. Long COVID (or long-haul COVID) is a group of health problems persisting or developing after an initial COVID-19 infection. Symptoms can last weeks, months or years and are often debilitating. Long COVID is considered a disability under the ADA and, therefore, requires formal accommodations under the ADA.
Employees requesting accommodations for Long COVID should be treated as any other qualified employee requesting accommodations.
An employee requesting accommodations for a non-COVID disability because of a COVID-19 surge:
Employees with disabilities may request accommodations because they have a non-COVID related disability that makes them more vulnerable to COVID-19 or makes the recommended preventive steps (such as masks) untenable for medical reasons. For example, employees undergoing chemo may request an accommodation during a surge because the chemotherapy makes them more susceptible to serious sickness. Individuals with an otherwise eligible disability can request accommodations in this scenario.
An employee is requesting accommodations for a family member:
The ADA prohibits discrimination based on association with an individual with a disability. This protection is limited to disparate treatment or harassment claims. The ADA does not require an employer to accommodate an employee without a disability based on the disability-related needs of a family member or other person with whom the employee is associated. So, if an employee requests an accommodation because a family member is very susceptible to COVID-19, the employer has no obligation to grant that request.