Tuesday, June 23, 2020

Coronavirus Update 6–23–2020: Must you accommodate an employee with a high-risk family member?

One of the questions I have received most from clients during this pandemic comes in some variation of the following: "An employee [does not want to come into work / wants to work from home / wants a leave of absence] because s/he lives with someone who is at high risk for coronavirus complications. What do we do?"

In other words, must you accommodate an employee for the employee's close family member's disability?

According to the EEOC, the answer is, "No."

Is an employee entitled to an accommodation under the ADA in order to avoid exposing a family member who is at higher risk of severe illness from COVID-19 due to an underlying medical condition?

No. Although the ADA prohibits discrimination based on association with an individual with a disability, that protection is limited to disparate treatment or harassment. The ADA does not require that an employer accommodate an employee without a disability based on the disability-related needs of a family member or other person with whom she is associated.

For example, an employee without a disability is not entitled under the ADA to telework as an accommodation in order to protect a family member with a disability from potential COVID-19 exposure.

According to me, however, the answer is, "It depends" (on how you've historically treated similar requests by similarly situated employees).

The ADA not only protects employees with disabilities, but it also protects employees associated with individuals with disabilities. There is, however, one critical difference between these two types of protections. The former imposes on employers an obligation to offer reasonable accommodations, while the latter does not. This difference, however, does not mean that employers in all cases can deny accommodations to employees associated with individuals with disabilities. 

If an employer has a history of accommodating employees similarly situated to an employee requesting an accommodation for an employee associated with someone at risk for coronavirus complications, the employer would be open to claim of disparate treatment by denying the employee's accommodation request. Thus, an employer must scrutinize its decision to deny an accommodation request for an employee's family member against similar requests by other similarly situated employees to avoid a claim of disparate treatment.

Of course, the ADA is a floor and not a ceiling. An employer is always free to accommodate any employee's request for any reason. As the EEOC points out, "[A]n employer is free to provide such flexibilities if it chooses to do so." Further, during the pandemic, the DOL "encourages employers and employees to collaborate to achieve flexibility and meet mutual needs." 

Moreover, there are myriad business reasons why an employer might choose to grant an accommodation in this case.

  1. It's the ethically or morally correct thing to do.
  2. It will help you to retain a quality employee.
  3. Granting the accommodation will create goodwill, strengthening the employee's loyalty to your company.
  4. You will avoid the potential for bad press or negative social media if you deny the request, or worse, fire an employee seeking an accommodation under these circumstances.

For these reasons, I generally favor granting the accommodation. Unless there is a legitimate and overriding business reason to deny an accommodation request to an employee who, during the COVID-19 pandemic, seeks remote work or a leave of absence because he or she does not want to endanger a high-risk family member, grant the request. It's the right thing to do, and, depending on the circumstances, it might also be the legal thing to do.