Responding to the evolution of the COVID-19 pandemic, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) has concluded that we are past the emergency stage when it was always considered appropriate for employers to require screening tests of employees for COVID-19. Updated guidance provides that, going forward, employers will need to treat COVID-19 testing like other medical examinations, under the standards of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). Most significantly, this requires that any mandated test be “job-related and consistent with business necessity.”
When COVID Testing Is a “Business Necessity”
The EEOC explained that “business necessity” is met in various circumstances:
- To comply with government requirements or guidance – If guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the Food and Drug Administration, or state or local public health authorities recommends COVID-19 testing, then employers’ compliance with those guidelines will be considered a “business necessity.”
- Based on likelihood of infection and transmission – This requires employers to weigh the relevance and impact of a range of factors, including: the level of community transmission, the vaccination status of employees, the accuracy and speed of processing various types of COVID tests, the degree of breakthrough infections among employees who are current on their vaccinations, the ease of transmissibility of the current variant, the possible severity of illness from the current variant, the types of contacts employees may have with others in the course of their work, and the potential impact on operations if an infected employee enters the workplace. The EEOC’s guidance does not elaborate on the weight to be accorded to any specific factor, or how many factors need to be present to reach the level of “business necessity,” but it does advise employers to check the latest CDC guidance to determine whether screening testing is appropriate based on the listed factors.
- If an individual is exhibiting symptoms in the workplace – On an individualized basis, an employer may require further screening or COVID-19 testing if the employee at work is exhibiting symptoms or an employer otherwise has a reasonable belief based on objective evidence that the individual has COVID-19, and testing would be consistent with recommendations by the CDC or other public health authorities.
The EEOC’s guidance permits employers to require COVID-19 viral screening when one of the above circumstances apply. However, the guidance is emphatic that employers cannot require employees to submit an antibody test (as distinguished from a viral screening test) before reentering the workplace.
Screening Questions Are Still Permitted
Under the updated guidance, other types of less-intrusive screening for COVID-19 remains permissible. Employers can ask employees who are physically entering the workplace if they have COVID-19 or associated symptoms, and whether they have been tested for COVID-19. Employers also can ask employees who work on-site and report feeling ill or who call in sick questions about their symptoms to the extent those symptoms relate to screening for COVID-19.
Those who respond that they are infected or exhibiting symptoms may still be excluded from the workplace, but employers cannot entirely prohibit them from working if remote work is feasible. Similarly, employees who refuse to respond to the employer’s screening questions may be excluded from the workplace.
Screening and Evaluating Job Applicants
Employers may additionally screen job applicants for symptoms of COVID-19 after making a conditional job offer, provided that screening is similarly administered to all employees in the same type of job who are entering the workplace. At the pre-offer stage, screening of job applicants before they come in for an interview is only permissible if the employer screens all individuals, including visitors and contractors, before permitting entry to the worksite.
Given the relatively short period of time required for isolation or quarantine for those who test positive for COVID-19, the EEOC’s updated guidance limits the circumstances in which an employer can withdraw a job offer for an applicant who has tested positive for COVID-19. The employer must be able to show that the job requires an immediate start date, the CDC guidance recommends the person not be in proximity to others, and the job requires that the individual be in proximity to others (it cannot be done remotely).
By Tracey I. Levy