In HR Dive's Mailbag series, we answer HR professionals' questions about all things work. Have a question? Send it to [email protected]
Q: Does the ADA allow us to require masks in the workplace?
A: "Absolutely," Michael D. Wong, a partner at SmithAmundsen, told HR Dive in an interview. "If an employer feels that they want to require employees to wear masks, then they can." But as is often the case with workplace policies, the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) may require an adjustment as an accommodation for an employee with a disability.
So when it comes to adopting a policy on face coverings, Wong said he believes it’s a best practice to include a statement inviting accommodation requests. It can be as simple as, for example, "If you have any medical conditions or disabilities that impair your ability to wear a face mask, see our ADA accommodation policy and contact human resources," he said.
And upon receipt of such a request, Wong said he recommends HR pros thank the employee for calling attention to the need and then ask for medical documentation. "Especially on such a hot topic like this, I think it’s important to take that step," he said — both as protection for the employer and so HR clearly understands the restriction. Specifically, Wong said, ask the employee to have a healthcare provider review the relevant job description and identify restrictions and capabilities regarding face coverings and social distancing.
That essentially begins the ADA's interactive process, he explained. Employers can continue this process when working to identify a reasonable accommodation. HR should examine each individual’s particular restrictions and circumstances as it would with any other request. And often the accommodation may be as simple as allowing the employee to remove his or her face covering while at their desk, Wong said, assuming their workstation is six feet from others’.
Notably, businesses may have less leeway when it comes to customers; the ADA’s public accommodation provisions differ from its employment provisions. "That’s a very different realm," Wong said, adding that he recommends a business approach the issue in much the same manner it would service animals: If a customer says they cannot wear a mask, a company can ask whether that restriction is due to a disability — and then stop there, Wong said. If that’s the case, a business should work to provide the same goods or services with that restriction accommodated. For a grocery store, for example, that could include curbside pickup, he said.