- A Massachusetts engineer who refused to return to work amid the novel coronavirus pandemic has alleged that the employer refused to grant him a disability accommodation, in violation of state law (Lin v. CGIT Systems, Inc., No. 1:20-cv-11051 (D. Mass., June 2, 2020)).
- Yiyu Lin had an impairment that placed him at high risk for COVID-19 complications, and also lived with a high-risk individual, he said in his lawsuit. When Massachusetts' governor issued a stay-at-home order, he began working from home with approval from his supervisor. A few days later, however, the employer allegedly directed employees working from home to return to the office.
- When Lin refused, citing his impairment, the employer fired him. He sued, alleging, among other things, discrimination based on the employer's refusal to reasonably accommodate his disability.
The U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) has reminded employers that the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and other nondiscrimination laws are still enforced during the pandemic. And as employers look to reopen as states lift restrictions, many may be wondering about obligations to accommodate workers with disabilities.
The agency said in May 7 guidance that the ADA generally requires employees to request accommodations, so an employer need not seek out employees with medical conditions that could place them at higher risk for severe illness from the novel coronavirus. Notably, however, an employer may be responsible for initiating the interactive process if it knows or should know that an employee's disability is interfering with his or her work.
But what happens when an employee with a disability requests an accommodation like an exemption from a return-to-work order or a mask policy? As always, employers will need to evaluate each request on a case-by-case basis and consider whether it meets the law's reasonableness standard or whether it poses an undue hardship. "[W]here an employee with a disability needs a related reasonable accommodation under the ADA (e.g., non-latex gloves, modified face masks for interpreters or others who communicate with an employee who uses lip reading, or gowns designed for individuals who use wheelchairs), or a religious accommodation under Title VII (such as modified equipment due to religious garb)," the agency said, "the employer should discuss the request and provide the modification or an alternative if feasible and not an undue hardship on the operation of the employer's business under the ADA or Title VII."
Employers also must beware benevolent discrimination, EEOC has cautioned. While telework has been encouraged as an infection-control or prevention strategy and often is viewed as a reasonable accommodation, employers must not single out employees for telework or leave based on a protected characteristic, such as disability.