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Defined: ADA Compliance and How it Relates to COVID-19

Defined: ADA Compliance and How it Relates to COVID-19

With vaccinations becoming more available across the United States in the coming weeks, workplaces might be gearing up to return to the office soon. With this in mind, employers need to make sure their employees are prepared to return, whether or not they’ll require team-wide vaccinations, and how the ADA relates to COVID-19 and vaccines to ensure compliance. What is the ADA and what do employers need to know about ADA guidelines related to COVID-19?


Defined: What is the Americans with Disabilities Act?

The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) is a law that protects individuals with disabilities from discrimination in public places, transportation, jobs, schools, and businesses open to the public. The legislation became law in 1990 and is organized into five sections, called titles, as it relates to different areas:

  1. Title I: Employment
  2. Title II: State and Local Government
  3. Title III: Public Accommodations
  4. Title IV: Telecommunications
  5. Title V: Miscellaneous Provisions

The ADA defines a disability as “a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activities, a record of such an impairment, or being regarded as having such an impairment.”


How Does ADA Relate to the Workplace?

The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) oversees the enforcement of the ADA. According to the EEOC, the ADA “forbids discrimination when it comes to any aspect of employment, including hiring, firing, pay, job assignments, promotions, layoff, training, fringe benefits, and any other term or condition of employment.” For example, the law strictly prohibits employers from asking job candidates disability-related questions or requiring a medical examination during the interviewing process. 

The ADA requires employers to provide reasonable accommodation to a qualified person with a disability, unless it will cause an “undue hardship.” The employment provisions of the ADA apply to organizations that have 15 or more employees on payroll, which includes full time and part time employees. If an organization has several sites that are all owned, operated, and managed by that organization, then it must count all employees at these sites.

What Should Employers Know about ADA Compliance and COVID-19?

Employers must balance keeping their teams healthy and safe while also complying with the ADA. Here are some considerations:

  1. Classification of the Vaccine: The vaccination is not classified as a medical examination for the purposes of ADA. According to the EEOC, “If a vaccine is administered to an employee by an employer for protection against contracting COVID-19, the employer is not seeking information about an individual’s impairments or current health status and, therefore, it is not a medical examination.”
  2. Exceptions for Employer-Mandated Vaccines under ADA: Employers can require vaccinations, but are subject to legally-protected exceptions under ADA. The ADA allows employers to maintain the standard that “an individual shall not pose a direct threat to the health or safety of individuals in the workplace.” Therefore, if an employee cannot receive the vaccination due to disability-related reasons, then a reasonable accommodation should be made, like working remotely.
  3. Employers Requiring Proof of Vaccination: If employers want to ask if an employee has been vaccinated and/or require proof of vaccination, they can. According to the EEOC guidelines regarding COVID-19 vaccination, asking for proof that an employee has received the COVID-19 vaccine isn’t likely to elicit disability-related information. However, according to the same guidelines, “subsequent employer 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 they be ‘job-related and consistent with business necessity.’” Employers should be careful when requesting proof of vaccination and let employees know to leave out any other medical information when providing documentation of their vaccination. 
  4. Face Masks and Reasonable Accomodations: The EEOC states that employers “may require employees to wear protective gear (for example, masks and gloves),” as well as observe other infection control practices. While employers are allowed to have mask-wearing policies in place, there are some exceptions, including employees with reasonable accommodations under the ADA. Employers should also work to provide reasonable accomodations for employees with disabilities, whether it’s allowing them to work remotely past the office return date or provide modifications such as the following, listed by the EEOC: non-latex gloves and  modified face masks for interpreters and individuals who communicate with an employee who uses lip reading.
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