Employees and employers with questions about their rights and responsibilities at work during the COVID-19 pandemic may now get some clarity thanks to a technical assistance FAQ document issued by the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. The updated and expanded document, posted May 28, addresses questions arising under federal equal employment opportunity (EEO) laws. The EEOC also posted a resource for job applicants and employees on how federal employment discrimination laws protect workers during the pandemic.
“I think these updates will help answer a lot of questions from a big-picture perspective,” says Tony Smith, ISRI’s vice president of safety. Since the document only addresses COVID-19 questions from the perspective of EEO laws, employers and employees should be aware of other federal, state, and local laws that may come into play.
According to the EEOC, federal EEO laws do not prevent employers from requiring all employees physically entering the workplace to be vaccinated for COVID-19, “as long as employers comply with the reasonable accommodation provisions of the ADA and Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and other EEO considerations.” The EEOC advises employers to remember that a mandatory vaccination policy may negatively impact individuals or demographic groups that “face greater barriers to receiving a COVID-19 vaccination than others.” Some barriers may include being unable to get time off for an appointment, unreliable access to the internet to find nearby vaccine locations, or if employees speak no or limited English and find it difficult making an appointment for a vaccine over the phone. Employees must account for disability and religious exemptions, because employees may be entitled to reasonable accommodations depending on individual circumstances.
Accommodations can include wearing a mask, working a modified shift, or following social distancing practices. Employees seeking exemption because of pregnancy “may be entitled (under Title VII) to adjustments to keep working, if the employer makes modifications or exceptions for other employees.”
The guidance explains that EEO laws do not prevent employers from offering incentives to employees for receiving vaccinations, “as long as the incentives are not coercive.” However, the EEOC does not spell out what is considered coercive. Employers can offer incentives to employees to provide records of their vaccinations as long as the information remains confidential. Employers may provide educational information about the COVID-19 vaccines to employees and their families to encourage vaccinations.
“The EEOC will give businesses a greater opportunity to get their workforce back to work,” Smith notes.