Featured Article

The changing face of employment law during a global pandemic

A lawyer says government guidance is evolving as COVID-19 spreads

Comment

Image Credits: taseffski (opens in a new window) / Getty Images

Prompted by Jeff Bezos’s plans to test all Amazon employees for the virus that causes COVID-19, we wondered whether employers can mandate employee testing, regardless of symptoms. The issue pits public safety against personal privacy, but limited testing availability has rendered the question somewhat moot.

But as the World Health Organization and U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have noted, asymptomatic COVID-19 carriers can spread the virus without realizing they’re infected. To learn more about workers’ rights in this arena, we spoke to Tricia Bozyk Sherno, counsel at Debevoise & Plimpton, who focuses on employment and general commercial litigation.

The answer, for now, is not entirely straightforward, though updates from the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission could make the situation clearer going forward as more tests are made available and state governments begin pushing to reopen businesses.

Sherno offered a fair amount of insight into the EEOC’s updated guidance and made some predictions about how things may look for both employers and workers going forward.

TechCrunch: Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, what sorts of laws governed an employer’s ability to test employees for infectious diseases?

Tricia Bozyk Sherno: Covered employers (employers with 15 or more employees) must comply with the requirements of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), which limits an employer’s ability to make disability-related inquiries or require medical examinations. (Note that certain states may also have similar statutes in place.) Generally, disability-related inquiries and medical examinations are prohibited by the ADA except in limited circumstances. A “medical examination” is a procedure or test that seeks information about an individual’s physical or mental impairments or health — so infectious disease testing would fall into this category.A medical inquiry or exam is permitted for current employees only if the employer has a reasonable belief that a particular employee will provide a “direct threat” due to a medical condition. For new employees, the ADA permits employers to conduct medical examinations after a conditional offer of employment is made, but before an individual begins working, provided that all employees in the same job category must be subject to the same examination requirement.

The primary “medical examination” considered by the existing EEOC guidance is temperature measurements. Available guidance does not yet address COVID-19 testing. The EEOC’s guidance on the subject of testing will likely depend on CDC guidance and directives. The EEOC states on its web site: “The EEO laws, including the ADA and Rehabilitation Act, continue to apply during the time of the COVID-19 pandemic, but they do not interfere with or prevent employers from following the guidelines and suggestions made by the CDC or state/local public health authorities about steps employers should take regarding COVID-19.”

How have these changed or been relaxed? Who has the authority to make these adjustments?

Existing law has not changed, but the guidance continues to evolve. The pre-pandemic standards regarding medical inquiries and medical examinations currently do not apply because the pandemic has created a clear “direct threat.”

To give a bit of history and context, in 2009, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) released guidance for employers regarding compliance with the ADA during a pandemic. At the outset of the pandemic, the EEOC was using the 2009 guidance, but it subsequently issued additional guidance directly related to COVID-19. For instance, on March 17, 2020, the EEOC updated its guidance to allow employers to take employee temperatures, and doing so is treated as a medical examination. The EEOC changed the guidance once the CDC and state/local health authorities have acknowledged community spread of COVID-19 and issued attendant precautions. On Friday, April 17, the EEOC updated its guidance again to provide as follows:

The ADA permits employers to make disability-related inquiries and conduct medical exams if job-related and consistent with business necessity. Inquiries and reliable medical exams meet this standard if it is necessary to exclude employees with a medical condition that would pose a direct threat to health or safety.

Direct threat is to be determined based on the best available objective medical evidence. The guidance from CDC or other public health authorities is such evidence. Therefore, employers will be acting consistent with the ADA as long as any screening implemented is consistent with advice from the CDC and public health authorities for that type of workplace at that time.

For example, this may include continuing to take temperatures and asking questions about symptoms (or require self-reporting) of all those entering the workplace. Similarly, the CDC recently posted information on the return of certain types of critical workers.

If and when testing becomes more widely available, I would expect that we will see further guidance from the EEOC, the CDC and state authorities.

Note that the data that employers collect from these inquiries must be maintained by the employer as a confidential medical record in compliance with the ADA. This generally means that the records must be kept in separate and secure files. If a company does business in the State of California (e.g. it has one or more locations, employees, customers, suppliers, etc. in the state), and the business is subject to the California Consumer Privacy Act (CCPA), then the employer must provide employees a CCPA-compliant notice prior to or at the same time as collection of this information.

Does an employer’s ability to conduct mandatory tests change if an employee is asymptomatic?

See above answer regarding a “direct threat.” Again, we might see further guidance or even new laws if and when testing becomes more widely available.

Are employers allowed to send home employees who test positive? Are they legally required to do so?

An employee who tests positive for COVID-19 should be sent home immediately until he is permitted to return to work based on federal and state guidance. Employers should follow the CDC’s Public Health Recommendations for Community-Related Exposure. Employers are not permitted to share the identity of the infected employee for risk of violating the ADA or other applicable privacy laws. Employers who do not follow the guidance are at risk of liability, including the possibility that an employee can sue the employer based on a negligence theory.

Are employees who test positive protected from being fired for a positive test? 

Yes, the ADA prohibits discrimination against individuals with a disability and requires employers to provide reasonable accommodations for such individuals. Local and state laws may also provide additional protections for impacted employees.

Are there any employment safeguards in place for employees who test positive? Or are these entirely at the discretion of the employer?

Certain states and the federal government have enacted sick leave for certain employees who test positive and who cannot work.

Do you anticipate that adjustments to the law will return to their pre-COVID state, or might we be seeing a precedent? 

The EEOC updated guidance is designed to address standards during a pandemic when there is a direct threat on health and safety. Once the pandemic passes and there is no longer a direct threat, I would expect that the current pandemic guidance will no longer be applicable. However, I also expect that the pandemic will have a long-term impact on workplace policies and future government action at both state and federal levels.

More TechCrunch

Companies are always looking for an edge, and searching for ways to encourage their employees to innovate. One way to do that is by running an internal hackathon around a…

Why companies are turning to internal hackathons

Featured Article

I’m rooting for Melinda French Gates to fix tech’s broken ‘brilliant jerk’ culture

Women in tech still face a shocking level of mistreatment at work. Melinda French Gates is one of the few working to change that.

5 hours ago
I’m rooting for Melinda French Gates to fix tech’s  broken ‘brilliant jerk’ culture

Blue Origin has successfully completed its NS-25 mission, resuming crewed flights for the first time in nearly two years. The mission brought six tourist crew members to the edge of…

Blue Origin successfully launches its first crewed mission since 2022

Creative Artists Agency (CAA), one of the top entertainment and sports talent agencies, is hoping to be at the forefront of AI protection services for celebrities in Hollywood. With many…

Hollywood agency CAA aims to help stars manage their own AI likenesses

Expedia says Rathi Murthy and Sreenivas Rachamadugu, respectively its CTO and senior vice president of core services product & engineering, are no longer employed at the travel booking company. In…

Expedia says two execs dismissed after ‘violation of company policy’

Welcome back to TechCrunch’s Week in Review. This week had two major events from OpenAI and Google. OpenAI’s spring update event saw the reveal of its new model, GPT-4o, which…

OpenAI and Google lay out their competing AI visions

When Jeffrey Wang posted to X asking if anyone wanted to go in on an order of fancy-but-affordable office nap pods, he didn’t expect the post to go viral.

With AI startups booming, nap pods and Silicon Valley hustle culture are back

OpenAI’s Superalignment team, responsible for developing ways to govern and steer “superintelligent” AI systems, was promised 20% of the company’s compute resources, according to a person from that team. But…

OpenAI created a team to control ‘superintelligent’ AI — then let it wither, source says

A new crop of early-stage startups — along with some recent VC investments — illustrates a niche emerging in the autonomous vehicle technology sector. Unlike the companies bringing robotaxis to…

VCs and the military are fueling self-driving startups that don’t need roads

When the founders of Sagetap, Sahil Khanna and Kevin Hughes, started working at early-stage enterprise software startups, they were surprised to find that the companies they worked at were trying…

Deal Dive: Sagetap looks to bring enterprise software sales into the 21st century

Keeping up with an industry as fast-moving as AI is a tall order. So until an AI can do it for you, here’s a handy roundup of recent stories in the world…

This Week in AI: OpenAI moves away from safety

After Apple loosened its App Store guidelines to permit game emulators, the retro game emulator Delta — an app 10 years in the making — hit the top of the…

Adobe comes after indie game emulator Delta for copying its logo

Meta is once again taking on its competitors by developing a feature that borrows concepts from others — in this case, BeReal and Snapchat. The company is developing a feature…

Meta’s latest experiment borrows from BeReal’s and Snapchat’s core ideas

Welcome to Startups Weekly! We’ve been drowning in AI news this week, with Google’s I/O setting the pace. And Elon Musk rages against the machine.

Startups Weekly: It’s the dawning of the age of AI — plus,  Musk is raging against the machine

IndieBio’s Bay Area incubator is about to debut its 15th cohort of biotech startups. We took special note of a few, which were making some major, bordering on ludicrous, claims…

IndieBio’s SF incubator lineup is making some wild biotech promises

YouTube TV has announced that its multiview feature for watching four streams at once is now available on Android phones and tablets. The Android launch comes two months after YouTube…

YouTube TV’s ‘multiview’ feature is now available on Android phones and tablets

Featured Article

Two Santa Cruz students uncover security bug that could let millions do their laundry for free

CSC ServiceWorks provides laundry machines to thousands of residential homes and universities, but the company ignored requests to fix a security bug.

2 days ago
Two Santa Cruz students uncover security bug that could let millions do their laundry for free

TechCrunch Disrupt 2024 is just around the corner, and the buzz is palpable. But what if we told you there’s a chance for you to not just attend, but also…

Harness the TechCrunch Effect: Host a Side Event at Disrupt 2024

Decks are all about telling a compelling story and Goodcarbon does a good job on that front. But there’s important information missing too.

Pitch Deck Teardown: Goodcarbon’s $5.5M seed deck

Slack is making it difficult for its customers if they want the company to stop using its data for model training.

Slack under attack over sneaky AI training policy

A Texas-based company that provides health insurance and benefit plans disclosed a data breach affecting almost 2.5 million people, some of whom had their Social Security number stolen. WebTPA said…

Healthcare company WebTPA discloses breach affecting 2.5 million people

Featured Article

Microsoft dodges UK antitrust scrutiny over its Mistral AI stake

Microsoft won’t be facing antitrust scrutiny in the U.K. over its recent investment into French AI startup Mistral AI.

2 days ago
Microsoft dodges UK antitrust scrutiny over its Mistral AI stake

Ember has partnered with HSBC in the U.K. so that the bank’s business customers can access Ember’s services from their online accounts.

Embedded finance is still trendy as accounting automation startup Ember partners with HSBC UK

Kudos uses AI to figure out consumer spending habits so it can then provide more personalized financial advice, like maximizing rewards and utilizing credit effectively.

Kudos lands $10M for an AI smart wallet that picks the best credit card for purchases

The EU’s warning comes after Microsoft failed to respond to a legally binding request for information that focused on its generative AI tools.

EU warns Microsoft it could be fined billions over missing GenAI risk info

The prospects for troubled banking-as-a-service startup Synapse have gone from bad to worse this week after a United States Trustee filed an emergency motion on Wednesday.  The trustee is asking…

A US Trustee wants troubled fintech Synapse to be liquidated via Chapter 7 bankruptcy, cites ‘gross mismanagement’

U.K.-based Seraphim Space is spinning up its 13th accelerator program, with nine participating companies working on a range of tech from propulsion to in-space manufacturing and space situational awareness. The…

Seraphim’s latest space accelerator welcomes nine companies

OpenAI has reached a deal with Reddit to use the social news site’s data for training AI models. In a blog post on OpenAI’s press relations site, the company said…

OpenAI inks deal to train AI on Reddit data

X users will now be able to discover posts from new Communities that are trending directly from an Explore tab within the section.

X pushes more users to Communities

For Mark Zuckerberg’s 40th birthday, his wife got him a photoshoot. Zuckerberg gives the camera a sly smile as he sits amid a carefully crafted re-creation of his childhood bedroom.…

Mark Zuckerberg’s makeover: Midlife crisis or carefully crafted rebrand?