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Employers now have clarification that they will be able mandate the COVID-19 vaccine among their workers in certain circumstances without running afoul of key federal anti-discrimination laws, according to updated guidance issued Wednesday by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. While there are numerous issues to consider before mandating that your employees get vaccinated, this guidance is the first official pronouncement on the subject from the employment law watchdog agency and provides an outline of various hurdles to overcome. Here are the top seven takeaways for employers from this critical development.
1. The EEOC indicates that employers can require their workers to get a COVID-19 vaccine in certain circumstances, even under the Emergency Use Authorization.
The agency’s updated FAQs do not unequivocally state that “employers can require the vaccine.” However, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) repeatedly answers questions discussing what actions employers can take in response to various circumstances after an employer has mandated the vaccine. This approach plainly suggests there must be circumstances where employers are legally permitted to require vaccine immunization of their workers without violating the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), Title VII, and other federal anti-discrimination laws. According to the EEOC, this is true even though the COVID-19 vaccine is only authorized under the FDA’s Emergency Use Authorization (EUA), rather than approved under the full and comprehensive FDA vaccine licensure process, known as a Biologics License Application or “BLA.”
To be clear, the only scenario described by the EEOC as a permissible basis to mandate vaccination under the ADA is when a worker poses a “direct threat” to themselves or others by their physical presence in the workplace without being immunized. This means mandating vaccines is only permitted if workers would pose “significant risk of substantial harm to the health or safety of the individual or others that cannot be eliminated or reduced by reasonable accommodation.” Therefore, if an employee is capable of fully performing their current job duties remotely without the potential spread of the virus to co-workers or work-related third parties, it does not appear that you can require that they get vaccinated.
2. Employers that require the COVID-19 vaccine must consider reasonable accommodations for employees with disabilities.
Notably, simply because your company chooses to mandate vaccine usage for those workers who may pose a direct threat to themselves or others does not mean you have complete freedom to require the vaccine for all such workers. If an individual cannot be vaccinated because of a disability, you need to determine whether you can provide a reasonable accommodation (absent undue hardship) that would eliminate or reduce the safety risk. You cannot automatically exclude them from the workplace or take any other negative action against them.
First and foremost, the EEOC recommends that those managers responsible for communicating with your employees about compliance with your vaccination requirement should know how to recognize an employee’s accommodation request. You should also train your managers about the process they should follow to refer accommodation requests through the proper channels for consideration. While the EEOC’s guidance does not mention this, you should strongly consider providing details about the accommodation request procedure in writing to all of your employees (whether in hard copy, electronically, or both).
Next, the EEOC indicates you should engage in a flexible, interactive process with any employee requesting an accommodation to identify options that do not constitute an undue hardship (significant difficulty or expense). This process should include determining whether it is necessary to obtain supporting documentation about the employee’s disability and considering the possible options for accommodation given the nature of the workforce and the employee’s position. Some things you should consider include the prevalence in the workplace of employees who already have received a COVID-19 vaccination, the amount of involvement with customers, and the rate of vaccination in your community, as well as the amount of contact with others whose vaccination status could be unknown. You should consult your Fisher Phillips’ attorney in developing a medical inquiry for an employee’s doctor or a protocol for responding to requests for accommodation more generally.
Finally, the EEOC reminds employers that it is unlawful to disclose that an employee is receiving a reasonable accommodation, just as it is a violation of federal law to retaliate against an employee for requesting an accommodation. Likewise, you should not reveal which employees have or have not been vaccinated.
3. Similarly, employers need to consider reasonable accommodations for employees who are unable to receive the vaccine for religious reasons.
The EEOC says you must provide a reasonable accommodation if an employee’s sincerely held religious belief, practice, or observance prevents them from receiving the vaccination – unless it would pose an undue hardship under Title VII. The definition of “undue hardship” is slightly different in the religious context compared to the disability context, as courts have defined it as simply “having more than a de minimis cost or burden” on an employer.
While you should ordinarily assume that an employee’s request for religious accommodation is based on a sincerely held religious belief, you would be justified in requesting additional supporting information if you have an objective basis for questioning either the religious nature or the sincerity of a particular belief, practice, or observance. The key word here is “objective.” This is a delicate area of the law and you should not unilaterally contact the employee’s place or worship seeking proof about their level of belief, or engage in any conduct that could raise potential discrimination issues. We recommend consulting with an attorney before making such a request to any of your employees.
4. Employers can require employees to show proof that they received a COVID-19 vaccination.
Assuming you can demonstrate that a mandatory vaccine is appropriate and that no accommodation requirements are in play, the EEOC indicates you can require workers to prove they have received the COVID-19 vaccine. The EEOC says that simply requesting proof of receipt of the vaccination is not likely to elicit information about a disability and, therefore, is not a disability-related inquiry.
However, subsequent questions, such as asking why an individual did not receive a vaccination, may elicit information about a disability and would be subject to the pertinent ADA standard that disability-related inquiries be “job-related and consistent with business necessity.” For this reason, if you require employees to provide proof that they have received a COVID-19 vaccination from a pharmacy or their own healthcare provider, you may want to warn the employee not to provide any medical information as part of the proof in order to avoid implicating the ADA. If you do receive medical information along with proof of vaccination, you should store the medical information in a confidential medical file consistent with ADA requirements.
5. The administration of a COVID-19 vaccine is not a “medical examination” for purposes of the ADA.
The EEOC confirmed that the act of administering the COVID-19 vaccine is not an ADA “medical examination.” Therefore, if you (or a third party with whom you contract to administer the vaccine) simply administer the vaccine to an employee, the EEOC does not consider you to be seeking information about an individual’s impairments or current health status – but see the next point about questionnaires relating to giving the vaccine.
6. Employers can pose pre-screening vaccination questions, so long as they comply with ADA requirements.
The EEOC’s FAQs offered some direction for employers who want to ask pre-screening vaccination questions as they administer the inoculation. The first thing employers need to know is that pre-screening vaccination questions may implicate the ADA’s provision on disability-related inquiries (defined as any such inquiries likely to elicit information about a disability). Therefore, if you administer the vaccine, you must show that any pre-screening questions are job-related and consistent with business necessity. To meet this standard, the EEOC says, you need to have a reasonable belief, based on objective evidence, that an employee who does not answer the questions and, therefore, does not receive a vaccination, will pose a direct threat to the health or safety of themselves or others.
The EEOC does explain that there are two circumstances in which these screening questions can be asked without needing to satisfy the “job-related and consistent with business necessity” requirement. First, you can offer the vaccination to employees on a voluntary basis (i.e. employees choose whether to be vaccinated), which means the employee’s decision to answer pre-screening, disability-related questions would also be voluntary. If an employee chooses not to answer these questions, you may decline to administer the vaccine to them but may not retaliate against, intimidate, or threaten them for refusing to answer the questions.
Second, if an employee receives an employer-required vaccination from a third party with whom your organization does not have a contract (such as a pharmacy or other healthcare provider), the ADA “job-related and consistent with business necessity” restrictions on disability-related inquiries would not apply.
Finally, regardless of whether you meet the “job-related and consistent with business necessity” standard, the ADA requires you to keep any employee medical information obtained in the course of the vaccination program confidential. On a related note, the agency reminds employers that any pre-screening questions that ask about genetic information, such as family members’ medical histories or immune systems of family members, may violate the Genetic Information Nondiscrimination Act (GINA). As the EEOC explicitly says that “it is not yet clear what screening checklists for contraindications will be provided with COVID-19 vaccinations,” this is an issue that employers should be aware of as we move closer to vaccines being provided to members of the general population.
To avoid these complications, the EEOC says that employers who want to ensure that employees have been vaccinated may want to request proof of vaccination instead of administering the vaccine themselves. However, to steer clear of unintended GINA violations, you may still want to warn the employee not to provide genetic information as part of the proof. If this warning is provided, the EEOC says any genetic information you receive in response to your request for proof of vaccination will be considered inadvertent and, therefore, not a GINA violation.
7. Employees may be confused about their ability to “refuse” the vaccine as a result of the EUA.
We expect that some employees may believe they have the right the “refuse” the vaccine even if mandated by their employer. That’s because of language in the EEOC’s updated guidance about the EUA that may cause confusion.
The EEOC notes that, for any vaccine issued under an Emergency Use Authorization, the FDA (and the vaccination provider) has an obligation to inform vaccine recipients about its potential benefits and risks, the extent to which such benefits and risks are unknown, whether any alternative products are available, and “that they have the option to accept or refuse the vaccine.” This language comes from the federal statute governing the EUA.
The FDA’s website (cited by the EEOC) says that the option to refuse is typically included in a “fact sheet” provided to the individual receiving the vaccine (or, alternatively, the party administering the vaccine can direct the individual to the weblink to view the fact sheet online). That fact sheet for the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine can be found here, and it explicitly says that “the recipient or their caregiver has the option to accept or refuse [the] Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 Vaccine.”
This directive seems to be targeted at whether an individual can be forced to take the vaccine by a government entity (as a New York lawmaker recently suggested), not whether an employer can condition an individual’s continued employment on taking the vaccine. After all, in at-will employment settings, an employee can always pursue alternative employment if they do not want to get vaccinated as a condition of their current job. Note that this analysis may be different in unionized settings governed by a collective bargaining agreement. If you are working with a union, you should consult with your Fisher Phillips counsel before proceeding with any mandatory vaccination plan.
Although the EEOC seems to permit mandating vaccinations of employees in certain circumstances, most employers should consider encouraging rather than mandating vaccinations due to potential related risks. Whether you simply encourage or mandate vaccinations, you should be prepared with at least a policy framework and a communications plan as wider availability of the vaccine draws closer.
Article courtesy of Fisher Phillips
Courtesy of Fisher & Phillips LLP
The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) recently rolled out a pilot program to electronically notify employers of new charges filed against them. Instead of mailing the Notice of Charge of Discrimination form through conventional means, the EEOC is rolling out a new system that will notify an employer of a pending charge and allow an employer to respond to the charge through an online portal.
This new system is catching a lot of employers by surprise, and has resulted in many questions. Fisher & Phillips has developed a list of Frequently Asked Questions to aid employers in understanding this new pilot program.
What is this new system?
The EEOC is piloting a new electronic system involving an online portal called ACT Digital. If a new Charge of Discrimination is filed against you, the EEOC will email you notice of the new Charge and invite you to download a copy through the portal.
Phase I of the project only allows employers a channel of communication with the EEOC about the Charge. Charging Parties are not yet allowed electronic access. In this first phase, upon consenting to certain terms and conditions, you are able to:
The EEOC has indicated that employers will also be able to use ACT Digital to communicate with the EEOC regarding extensions, inquiries, and other Charge-related issues. It seems this option may already be operational in some EEOC offices.
Where is the EEOC implementing ACT Digital?
The EEOC is rolling out ACT Digital in waves. The first wave began in early May 2015 and included EEOC offices in San Francisco and Charlotte. Earlier this summer, the EEOC released the program in a second wave of offices, which included Denver, Detroit, Indianapolis, and Phoenix. The EEOC’s goal is to implement ACT Digital in all of its 53 offices by October 2015.
How will we first receive notice?
The EEOC will send an email containing a Charge notification to an employer’s representative. The EEOC might obtain this email address from the Charging Party, or may obtain it from past email communications with those businesses already in the EEOC’s system.
Note that this could result in a manager or supervisor receiving notice of a Charge outside his or her own department or area. We are still checking to see if the EEOC will allow employers to proactively designate an email address where all notices to the company should be sent.
Must employers use this system?
This is the most common question we’ve received so far. The short answer is no – for now. Employers are currently not required to use ACT Digital during the pilot period of implementation. Note that if you do respond to the initial email, you may be creating an obligation to use the system going forward, thereby limiting your position with regard to how the Charge is handled.
However, the EEOC is transitioning to an entirely electronic format and, as a practical matter, all employers will likely be required to use this electronic system in the future.
What if the notification email is blocked by a
firewall or spam folder?
The EEOC’s notification procedure includes some “fail-safes” to ensure you do not miss notifications of pending Charges. For example, the EEOC may send a hard copy of the Charge if the online portal is not accessed by the employer within approximately 10 days after the notice email is sent.
Can the Charge be viewed by the public?
No, with one exception. Each Charge has a unique portal access that you will use for the life of the case. Therefore, only people with access through the unique portal address will be able to access ACT Digital to view the Charge and your Position Statement. At this time, even the Charging Party does not have access to the online portal.
The one exception – which has always been the case – is that the public may request Charge files under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA). The EEOC has stated that it will continue to follow its current protocols and federal regulations in responding to FOIA requests (which typically do not allow for access to the Charge while the matter is pending).
Similarly, the unique portals will close after a period of time. We do not know for sure, but it is believed the portals will be deactivated 90 to 100 days after the EEOC closes the file. Because the portals expire, you should download and retain all necessary files and documents related to the Charge if they use the electronic system.
Will state human affairs commissions use ACT
At this time, the EEOC has not indicated whether state human affairs commissions will be utilizing the ACT Digital system.
What will Phase II look like?
The EEOC has released very little information about Phase II and any speculation as to what is in the pipeline is just that – speculation. With that caveat, there are a few likely next moves.
We expect the EEOC will open the portal to Charging Parties so they may file and monitor their Charges online. It is unknown, however, whether the portals will be kept separate or combined. In the future, the EEOC may also maintain a database of the employer’s prior Charges, as opposed to deactivating the portal.
What should we do immediately?
Because you could receive notice of a new Charge tomorrow, you should instruct all of your supervisors and managers today to immediately contact the HR department or in-house counsel if they get an email from the EEOC. Just as in the past you instructed them to forward on any hard copy EEOC Charge received in the mail, the same rule should apply for electronic notices.
You should take it one step further in this digital age: counsel your managers not only to forward on EEOC emails to proper company channels without responding, but also to refrain from downloading the Charge or even clicking anywhere on the email.
Phase I of the ACT Digital rollout should not drastically affect how you respond to EEOC Charges. In fact, it might make communication with the EEOC easier. As additional phases are rolled out, however, this could change. Stay tuned for more updates.
Do you want to learn more?
Fisher & Phillips LLP is hosting a free, 20-minute webinar on this subject on Thursday, September 10, 2015, at 12:00pm EST. You can register for “EEOC Goes Electronic: FAQs On EEOC’s New Electronic Pilot Program” by visiting their website (www.laborlawyers.com) and looking under the “Events” tab.
The U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) recently issued proposed new rules clarifying its stance on the interplay between the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and employer wellness programs. Officially called a “notice of proposed rulemaking” or NPRM, the new rules propose changes to the text of the EEOC’s ADA regulations and to the interpretive guidance explaining them.
If adopted, the NPRM will provide employers guidance on how they can use financial incentives or penalties to encourage employees to participate in wellness programs without violating the ADA, even if the programs include disability-related inquiries or medical examinations. This should be welcome news for employers, having spent nearly the past six years in limbo as a result of the EEOC’s virtual radio silence on this question.
A Brief History: How
Did We Get Here?
In 1990, the ADA was enacted to protect individuals with ADA-qualifying disabilities from discrimination in the workplace. Under the ADA, employers may conduct medical examinations and obtain medical histories as part of their wellness programs so long as employee participation in them is voluntary. The EEOC confirmed in 2000 that it considers a wellness program voluntary, and therefore legal, where employees are neither required to participate in it nor penalized for non-participation.
Then, in 2006, regulations were issued that exempted wellness programs from the nondiscrimination requirements of the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA) so long as they met certain requirements. These regulations also authorized employers for the first time to offer financial incentives of up to 20% of the cost of coverage to employees to encourage them to participate in wellness programs.
But between 2006 and 2009 the EEOC waffled on the legality of these financial incentives, stating that “the HIPAA rule is appropriate because the ADA lacks specific standards on financial incentives” in one instance, and that the EEOC was “continuing to examine what level, if any, of financial inducement to participate in a wellness program would be permissible under the ADA” in another.
Shortly thereafter, the 2010 enactment of President Obama’s Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (ACA), which regulates corporate wellness programs, appeared to put this debate to rest. The ACA authorized employers to offer certain types of financial incentives to employees so long as the incentives did not exceed 30% of the cost of coverage to employees.
But in the years following the ACA’s enactment, the EEOC restated that it had not in fact taken any position on the legality of financial incentives. In the wake of this pronouncement, employers were left understandably confused and uncertain. To alleviate these sentiments, several federal agencies banded together and jointly issued regulations that authorized employers to reward employees for participating in wellness programs, including programs that involved medical examinations or questionnaires. These regulations also confirmed the previously set 30%–of-coverage ceiling and even provided for incentives of up to 50%of coverage for programs related to preventing or reducing the use of tobacco products.
After remaining silent about employer wellness programs for nearly five years, in August 2014, the EEOC awoke from its slumber and filed its very first lawsuit targeting wellness programs, EEOC v. Orion Energy Systems, alleging that they violate the ADA. In the following months, it filed similar suits against Flambeau, Inc., and Honeywell International, Inc. In EEOC v. Honeywell International, Inc., the EEOC took probably its most alarming position on the subject to date, asserting that a wellness program violates the ADA even if it fully complies with the ACA.
What’s In The NPRM?
According to EEOC Chair Jenny Yang, the purpose of the EEOC’s NPRM is to reconcile HIPAA’s authorization of financial incentives to encourage participation in wellness programs with the ADA’s requirement that medical examinations and inquiries that are part of them be voluntary. To that end, the NPRM explains:
Each of these parts of the NPRM is briefly discussed below.
What is an employee
In general, the term “wellness program” refers to a program or activity offered by an employer to encourage its employees to improve their health and to reduce overall health care costs. For instance, one program might encourage employees to engage in healthier lifestyles, such as exercising daily, making healthier diet choices, or quitting smoking. Another might obtain medical information from them by asking them to complete health risk assessments or undergo a screening for risk factors.
The NPRM defines wellness programs as programs that are reasonably designed to promote health or prevent disease. To meet this standard, programs must have a reasonable chance of improving the health of, or preventing disease in, its participating employees. The programs also must not be overly burdensome, a pretext for violating anti-discrimination laws, or highly suspect in the method chosen to promote health or prevent disease.
How is voluntary
The NPRM contains several requirements that must be met in order for participation in wellness programs to be voluntary. Specifically, employers may not:
Additionally, for wellness programs that are part of a group health plan, employers must provide a notice to employees clearly explaining what medical information will be obtained, how it will be used, who will receive it, restrictions on its disclosure, and the protections in place to prevent its improper disclosure.
What incentives may
The NPRM clarifies that the offer of limited incentives is permitted and will not render wellness programs involuntary. Under the NPRM, the maximum allowable incentive employers can offer employees for participation in a wellness program or for achieving certain health results is 30% of the total cost of coverage to employees who participate in it. The total cost of coverage is the amount that the employer and the employee pay, not just the employee’s share of the cost. The maximum allowable penalty employers may impose on employees who do not participate in the wellness program is the same.
The NPRM does not change any of the exceptions to the confidentiality provisions in the EEOC’s existing ADA regulations. It does, however, add a new subsection that explains that employers may only receive information collected by wellness programs in aggregate form that does not disclose, and is not likely to disclose, the identity of the employees participating in it, except as may be necessary to administer the plan.
Additionally, for a wellness program that is part of a group health plan, the health information that identifies an individual is “protected health information” and therefore subject to HIPAA. HIPAA mandates that employers maintain certain safeguards to protect the privacy of such personal health information and limits the uses and disclosure of it.
Keep in mind that the NPRM revisions discussed above only clarify the EEOC’s stance regarding how employers can use financial incentives to encourage their employees to participate in employer wellness programs without violating the ADA. It does not relieve employers of their obligation to ensure that their wellness programs comply with other anti-discrimination laws as well.
Is This The Law?
The NPRM is just a notice that alerts the public that the EEOC intends to revise its ADA regulations and interpretive guidance as they relate to employer wellness programs. It is also an open invitation for comments regarding the proposed revisions. Anyone who would like to comment on the NPRM must do so by June 19, 2015. After that, the EEOC will evaluate all of the comments that it receives and may make revisions to the NPRM in response to them. The EEOC then votes on a final rule, and once it is approved, it will be published in the Federal Register.
Since the NPRM is just a proposed rule, you do not have to comply with it just yet. But our advice is that you bring your wellness program into compliance with the NPRM for a few reasons. For one, it is very unlikely that the EEOC, or a court, would fault you for complying with the NPRM until the final rule is published. Additionally, many of the requirements that are set forth in the NPRM are already required under currently existing law. Thus, while waiting for the EEOC to issue its final rule, in the very least, you should make sure that you do not:
In addition you should provide reasonable accommodations to employees with disabilities to enable them to participate in wellness programs and obtain any incentives offered (e.g., if an employer has a deaf employee and attending a diet and exercise class is part of its wellness program, then the employer should provide a sign language interpreter to enable the deaf employee to participate in the class); and ensure that any medical information is maintained in a confidential manner.
Job seekers are not the only ones who may say something inappropriate or botch a question during a job interview. A recent survey by CareerBuilder found that approximately 20% of hiring managers reported that they have asked an interview question only to find out later that asking the question possibly violated the law.
It is important for both interviewer and interviewee to understand what employers have (and don’t have) a legal right to ask in a job interview. Even though their intention may be harmless, hiring managers could be putting themselves at risk for legal action by asking certain questions, that some could argue are discriminatory.
A number of hiring managers responding to the poll said they didn’t know if it was legal to ask job applicants about arrest records. Attorneys familiar with the issue agreed that asking about applicants’ criminal records can be tricky for hiring managers.
The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) issued guidance in 2012 designed to help employers understand what they can and can’t ask regarding criminal records.
The EEOC guidance states that an “arrest does not establish that criminal conduct has occurred, and a job exclusion based on an arrest, in itself, is not job-related and consistent with business necessity. However, an employer may make an employment decision based on the conduct underlying an arrest if the conduct makes the individual unfit for the position in question.”
Asking job applicants about their criminal records has become something of a hot employment topic as a growing number of states and municipalities have enacted “ban-the-box” laws that prohibit employers from asking on job applications if job seekers have been convicted of a crime.
Ban-the-box laws generally allow employers to conduct background screenings and ask about convictions later in the employment process—such as during job interviews. However, the constantly changing legal landscape on what employers can and can’t ask on applications and during interviews can confuse and frustrate many hiring managers.
Generally, the best policy is to avoid questions about applicants’ age, marital status, political beliefs, disabilities, ethnicity, religion and family. Some questions that can be legal and seem relevant to the job can be problematic by the way the question is posed. For example, the question “Are you a U.S. citizen?” might seem reasonable if a hiring manager is trying to determine if an applicant is eligible to work in the U.S. However, the better and more legally prudent question is: “Are you eligible to work in the United States?” Asking about a person’s citizenship status could reveal information about ethnic and national origin that could expose employers to complaints of bias.