Wrangling all that COVID-19 news – The Last (nope…) we mean NEXT Round-Up

by Marti Cardi, Esq. - Vice President, Product Compliance

& Armando Rodriguez, JD - Law Clerk, Compliance And Legal Department

April 29, 2020

 

Cowboy Radar

COVID news just keeps coming. In our last Roundup we covered the DOL’s latest FFCRA Q&As, USERRA and COVID-19, and orders from the governors of California and Washington. Today we saddle up with:

  • More ADA guidance from the EEOC
  • OSHA – employer obligations to provide a safe workplace
  • COVID goes to court
  • COVID in the city
  • Colorado joins the rodeo

More ADA Guidance from the EEOC

As we previously reported here and here, the EEOC offers employers assistance regarding the COVID-19 pandemic and compliance with the Americans with Disabilities Act in its document What You Should Know About COVID-19 and the ADA. The agency has lately added more questions and answers to the guidance. In short, all the usual ADA rules and requirements continue to apply but they may take on a new hue in a request related to COVID-19.

Here are some of the key takeaways, but be sure to consult the full document – this is a summary and the EEOC has much more info for you!

A.6. May an employer administer a COVID-19 test (a test to detect the presence of the COVID-19 virus) before permitting employees to enter the workplace? 4/23/20

Yes. Employers may take steps to determine if employees entering the workplace have COVID-19 because an individual with the virus will pose a direct threat to the health of others. However, employers should ensure that the tests are accurate and reliable and should still require – to the greatest extent possible – that employees admitted to the workplace observe infection control practices to prevent transmission of the virus. (And see the OSHA segment below.)

D.6. [See also D.5] During the pandemic, may an employer still engage in the interactive process and request information from an employee about why an accommodation is needed?  (4/17/20)

Yes, even during COVID days, an employer may ask questions or request medical documentation to determine whether the employee’s disability necessitates an accommodation, either the one he requested or any other. Possible questions for the employee, now and in any ADA case, may include: (1) how the disability creates a limitation, (2) how the requested accommodation will effectively address the limitation, (3) whether another form of accommodation could effectively address the issue, and (4) how a proposed accommodation will enable the employee to continue performing the “essential functions” of his position (that is, the fundamental job duties).  

D.7. If there is some urgency to providing an accommodation, or the employer has limited time available to discuss the request during the pandemic, may an employer provide a temporary accommodation? (4/17/20)

Yes. Employers may choose to forgo or shorten the “interactive process” and grant the request. In addition, employers may wish to set an end date for an accommodation expected to be temporary or approve it on a trial basis. This may be pertinent while awaiting medical documentation in order to allow an accommodation that provides protection due to an employee’s heightened risk due to the pandemic. If circumstances change the employer should consider an extension of a temporary accommodation or whether a different accommodation is needed.

D.10. and D.11. What types of undue hardship considerations may be relevant to determine if a requested accommodation poses “significant difficulty” or “significant expense during the COVID-19 pandemic? (4/17/20)

An employer may consider whether current circumstances create “significant difficulty” in acquiring or providing certain accommodations, considering the facts of the particular job and workplace. Examples include increased difficulty due to the pandemic in obtaining special equipment, providing temporary assignments, or removing marginal functions.

As to “significant expense,” the employer can consider sudden loss of some or all of an its income stream because of this pandemic and when current restrictions on an employer’s operations may be lifted. An employer cannot simply reject any accommodation that costs money but must weigh the cost of an accommodation against its current budget and current constraints created by this pandemic. Even under current circumstances, there may be many no-cost or very low-cost accommodations.

If a particular accommodation poses an undue hardship, employers and employees should work together to determine if there may be an alternative that could be provided that does not pose such problems. 

D.12. Does the ADA apply to applicants or employees who are classified as “critical infrastructure workers” or “essential critical workers” by the CDC?

Yes. All employees continue to be covered under the ADA and employers must consider accommodation requests during the pandemic, engage in the interactive process, and provide an effective reasonable accommodation if it doesn’t pose an undue hardship.

Coronavirus Goes to Court

The first known COVID-19 lawsuit has hit the courts! (Can a Movie-of-the-Week be far behind?) Plaintiff Amy Reggio lives in Dallas County, TX. According to the complaint, Dallas County Judge Clay Jenkins, who is in charge of Dallas County’s coronavirus response, issued orders requiring all individuals anywhere in Dallas County to “shelter in place.” Reggio worked as general counsel for a real estate development and investment firm which, she alleges, is not an “essential business” under the Dallas County stay-at-home order. Reggio informed her boss Mark Tekin of the order and of her inability to leave home and go to work as a result. Reggio told Tekin she could perform all of her job duties from home, but claims Tekin said “working from home did not work for him and it would not be allowed or considered.” Reggio explained to Tekin that if she violated the Dallas County order she could be subject to criminal prosecution, including imprisonment. Tekin terminated Reggio on March 27 when she continued to refuse to violate the Dallas County order and go to work.

Reggio’s claim is based on a legal theory known as “public policy wrongful discharge.” An employee may assert this claim when (1) her employer required her to commit an illegal act that carries criminal penalties; (2) the employee refused to engage in the illegality; (3) the employee was discharged by employer; and (4) the sole reason for the employee’s discharge was her refusal to commit the unlawful act. Reggio’s allegations check all four of these boxes, so game on! She is asking for $1 million in damages, include lost wages and benefits, other compensatory damages, and punitive damages. It’s very early yet in this litigation but my bets are on Reggio and a quick settlement – although probably not a million bucks.

The case is Reggio v. Tekin & Assoc., LLC (Dallas County Court, Texas No. CC-20-01986 B).

Lessons for employers. These tough times call for new ways of doing things. Employers need to be flexible and approach difficult situations with an open mind. Remember, special measures imposed as a result of COVID-19 are temporary, so allowing something that is not usually done can also be temporary. This was not a situation where the employee, on her own, decided not to go to work because she was uncomfortable or concerned about being exposed to the virus. In that case the employer might be able to require the employee come to work, but it needs to take appropriate measures in the workplace to ensure a safe environment – and for that issue, read on!

OSHA, COVID-19, and the Employer’s Obligation to Provide a Safe Workplace

As we look forward to a return to the usual workplace and routines, understanding an employer’s OSHA obligations with respect to COVID-19 is especially important. Employers are required to provide a safe workplace and appropriate safety equipment for workers. Employers outside of a manufacturing, processing, or other heavy industry may not regularly think about OSHA requirements. The occasional office paper cut just doesn’t stir much concern.

But now we are in COVID-land. The federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration administers laws that regulate worker safety, which will take on new significance as employees go back to the office. Two provisions of the Occupational Safety and Health Act are particularly applicable to COVID-19 in the workplace:

The General Duty Clause, Section 5(a)(1) requires employers to furnish to each worker “employment and a place of employment, which are free from recognized hazards that are causing or are likely to cause death or serious physical harm.”

OSHA’s Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) standards (in general industry, 29 CFR 1910 Subpart I), requires using gloves, eye and face protection, and respiratory protection when job hazards warrant it.

So, new measures like spacing of desks, ample supplies of hand sanitizers and wipes, and limitations on use of common spaces and facilities may become necessary to fulfill an employer’s OSHA obligations. OSHA recently issued a booklet, Guidance on Preparing Workplaces for COVID-19. Recommendations include the now-familiar handwashing and covering coughs and sneezes, but also an important reminder that employees should not use each other’s workspace, telephone, and other work tools and equipment. You can find more information at the OSHA COVID-19 website, and there are loads of on line resources with ideas.  

In addition, states may have their own workplace safety laws and regulations. There are twenty-eight OSHA-approved State Plans, operating state-wide occupational safety and health programs. State Plans are required to have standards and enforcement programs that are at least as effective as OSHA’s and may have different or more stringent requirements.

In these days of increasing work from home, there is one bit of good news: OSHA will not conduct inspections of employees’ home offices, will not hold employers liable for employees’ home offices, and does not expect employers to inspect the home offices of their employees. For more information see OSHA’s Directive on Home-Based Worksites.

As we move toward returning employees to the workplace, employers should develop a plan for what that will look like. Just be safe and be smart.

COVID in the City

OK, that doesn’t have the same ring as that TV show title – and it’s not nearly as much fun. Still, several cities are making news with their very own COVID-19 leave of absence laws. California seems to be the hotbed of such activity (Who saw that coming?). These COVID-19 ordinances vary by city (of course) but most have some common features:

  • Employer coverage picks up where FFCRA left off – most apply to employers with 500 or more employees.
  • Leave reasons mimic FFCRA, although some add new leave reasons as well, such as closure of a family
    member’s senior care facility or if the employee is age 65 or older or has an underlying high-risk
    health condition
  • Amount of paid sick leave also mimics FFCRA, with 80 hours of paid leave for full-time employees and
    the equivalent of two weeks’ pay for part-time employees, often capped at $511 per day or $5,110
    total per employee.
  • Health care workers are often exempted, at least as to leave for any reason other than their own
    COVID-19 diagnosis or quarantine.

San Francisco’s Public Health Emergency Leave Ordinance is in effect from April 17 through June 16, expiring on June 17, 2020 or when the Public Health Emergency is terminated, whichever is first.  Guidance from the Office of Labor Standards Enforcement is available here.

Los Angeles’s ordinance for Supplemental Paid Sick Leave has been superseded by an Emergency Order signed by Mayor Garcetti, cutting back on the scope of the ordinance. The Emergency Order will remain in effect until two calendar weeks after the expiration of the COVID-19 local emergency period.

San Jose’s Urgency Ordinance providing temporary paid sick leave for COVID-19-related reasons is in effect from April 7 through December 31, 2020. Guidance and additional resources from the San Jose Office of Equality are available here.

Remember that many municipalities (and states) have existing paid sick leave laws that are likely to cover a variety of COVID-related needs for time off. My go-to resource is A Better Balance for a chart of paid sick leave laws across the country.

Colorado Joins the Rodeo

Colorado originally passed its Health Emergency Leave with Pay (Nominee for Best Acronym in a COVID-related program: HELP) rules on March 11 but has since significantly increased the scope of industries covered and the duration of paid leave. The rules are effective for 30 days after adoption (presently through May 27) or the duration of the State of Disaster Emergency declare by the Colorado governor, but with a maximum of 120 days after April 27. Including amendments adopted through April 27, here’s what the rules now provide:

All employees of a covered industry and working in a covered position are eligible for HELP. (Heehee, that totally works in a sentence! Good job, Colorado!)

Covered employers include those engaged in, or employing workers in, numerous industries, with no employer size limitations (coverage was effective as of March 11 unless a different date is indicated). Examples: leisure and hospitality, retail, real estate, office work, elective health services, personal care services, food and beverage manufacturing and services, education, and various elder or community care services. For details see the Colorado HELP website.

Paid leave is available for up to two weeks, with a maximum of 80 hours. Pay is at 2/3 of the employee’s usual rate, with no dollar caps. Paid sick leave ends following certain periods of being symptom free.

HELP provides leave for only one reason, to an employee:

  • with flu-like or respiratory illness symptoms and
  • who is (1) being tested for COVID-19 or (2) under instructions from a health care provider or
    authorized government official to quarantine or isolate due to a risk of having COVID-19.
A employer who already provides as much paid sick leave as required by the rules is excused from compliance. An employer who provides less paid sick leave than required by the rules must provide additional paid sick leave up to the amount required by HELP.

However, if an employee has exhausted all paid sick leave allotted by the employer, then the employer must provide additional paid sick leave up to the amount required by HELP.

The employer can require documentation to support the leave but with certain limitations:

  • Documentation can be required only after the employee’s return from leave, not as a precondition
    of taking or remaining on leave. An employee may not be terminated for failure to provide
    documentation during the illness.
  • If documentation is not available from a health care provider or the provider of the employee’s
    COVID-19 test, the employer must accept a written statement from the employee providing the
    pertinent information.

In an odd provision that is likely to give small employers heartburn, the rules provide, “To the extent feasible, employees and employers should comply with the procedures of the federal Family [and] Medical Leave Act (“FMLA”) to pursue and provide paid sick leave under these rules . . . ” This leaves a whole lot of open range as to exactly what that means and to what extent it is mandatory.

Employees must provide advance notice of the need for leave as soon as possible, unless they are too ill to communicate, and notice within 24 hours of getting a COVID-19 test or receiving instructions to quarantine or isolate.

Additional information is available on the Colorado HELP website.

Just When You Thought It was Safe: COVID Webinar II: The Revenge

Hopefully you joined my Reliance Standard colleague Karen Joseph a couple weeks ago for our webinar on COVID related federal and state leave legislation and how to apply it. If you didn’t, or even if you did and you want to prepare for the follow-up, you can access the slides as well as the recording. And while it’s no Season 3 of Ozark, I would say it’s required if you want to join us for the sequel:

On Thursday, May 7 at 2 PM Eastern, Karen and I will get back in that saddle and peel back some of these new developments at the national (OSHA), state and even local levels – plus we’ll incorporate some of your awesome questions from the first round. Plan to attend! Click here to register. Once you see the screen pop up with your name, go ahead and close the box: We will email you a confirmation before the event. (If you don’t get your email confirmation, note the date and time, because the link to join is the same as the registration link.)

See you there!