The Legal Brief: Responding to Employee Requests for Accommodations Due to COVID-19

As many employees begin to return to work, school districts may be receiving requests from employees for accommodations due to concerns regarding potential exposure to COVID-19.  Remember, under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), employees may be legally entitled to a reasonable accommodation to perform the essential functions of their job if they have a disability. If you receive such requests, you can follow the four steps below:

Engage in the Interactive Process

As with any accommodation request, employers should engage in the interactive process such as: asking questions to determine if the employee is requesting the accommodation due to a medical condition; discussing with the employee how the requested accommodation would assist him and enable him or her to keep working; exploring alternative accommodations that may effectively meet their needs; and requesting medical documentation if needed.

Modify Letter Requesting Medical Documentation for Determining ADA Eligibility

            Many employers have sample letters requesting medical documentation from an employee’s treating physician to determine: (1) whether the employee has a disability, (2) the duration of the disability, and (3) whether the employee can perform the essential functions of their job with or without a reasonable accommodation.  It is always recommended that the school district include the employee’s job description so that the physician can determine the essential job functions. For accommodation requests related to COVID-19, when the school district is requiring all staff to be physically present on campus to perform their jobs, it is recommended that district include the following in the ADA Physician letter:

COVID-19 Information

Please note that currently, the District is requiring all teachers and administrators to be physically present on campus to perform their jobs, and that this is considered an essential function of their positions. 

If, due to the COVID-19 pandemic, an employee’s job duties have been temporarily modified, that information is included as an addendum to the attached job description. 

If the Employee has a condition that places them at high risk of severe illness from COVID-19, please indicate how it may impact the Employee’s ability to perform his or her job. If you recommend specific precautionary measures to reduce risk, please indicate those measures in your response.

Offer Temporary Accommodations

Due to the pandemic, employers may wish to shorten or adapt the interactive process. For example, employers may opt to provide an accommodation on an interim or trial basis, with an end date, while awaiting receipt of medical documentation. Providing the accommodation on a short-term basis would give protection to an employee who because of a pre-existing disability is put at greater risk during this pandemic. This could also pertain to employees who have disabilities exacerbated by the pandemic.

There may be reasonable accommodations that could offer protection to an individual whose disability puts him at greater risk from COVID-19 and therefore requests such actions to prevent exposure. Even with the constraints imposed by a pandemic, some accommodations may meet an employee’s needs on a temporary basis without causing undue hardship on the employer.

If not already implemented for all employees, accommodations for those who request reduced contact with others due to a disability may include changes to the work environment such as designating one-way aisles; using plexiglass, tables, or other barriers to ensure minimum distances between customers and coworkers whenever feasible per CDC guidance or other accommodations that reduce chances of exposure.

Consider Eligibility for Emergency Paid Sick Leave (the “EPSL”) 

If the employee is able to provide the name of their physician and written assurance that their physician has recommended that the employee minimize social contact due to an underlying condition (e.g., pregnancy, diabetes), the employee may be eligible for up to ten (10) days of paid leave under the EPSL, which may provide a temporary accommodation option until the district is able to obtain additional information from the employee’s physician.  If they can perform duties, such as remote instruction, during the period of isolation, then they would only need EPSL for those periods when they are unable to perform duties.