EEOC Posts New Guidance on Visual Disabilities under the ADA

The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission has issued new guidance for employers to provide reasonable accommodations for visually impaired workers who request it.

About 18.4% of all American adults have at least some difficulty with their vision, even when wearing corrective lenses, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The new guidance addresses what employers who have a vision-impaired job applicant or worker can and can’t do under the Americans with Disabilities Act and what to do if they request, or if you want to offer them, specific accommodations to help them perform their jobs better and more safely (or help them complete the application process).

Under the ADA, if a worker with a disability asks for accommodation so they can better perform their job, their employer must enter into an interactive process with them to discuss ways that accommodation would be possible. You do not have to provide accommodation if doing so would be an “undue hardship.”

Here are the main points of the EEOC guidance:

Reasonable accommodation

The guidance lays out a number of accommodations that employers can provide for workers or job applicants with visual impairments, including:

  • Guide dogs,
  • Assistive technology, including:
    • Screen readers (or text-to-speech software). These are software applications that can convert written text on a computer screen into spoken words or a Braille display. These tools can allow individuals to quickly review written text.
    • Optical character-recognition technology that can create documents in screen-readable electronic form from printed ones, including an optical scanner (desktop, handheld or wearable).
    • Systems with audible, tactile or vibrating feedback, such as proximity detectors, which can alert individuals if they are too close to an object or another person.
    • Website modifications for accessibility. This entails taking steps to ensure that job applicants and employees can access and timely complete job applications, online tests or other screening tools.
  • Documents in Braille or large print.
  • Ambient adjustments (such as brighter office lights); and sighted assistance or services (such as a qualified reader).

Asking about vision impairment

According to the new guidance, applicants are not required to disclose they have any type of vision impairment or disability unless they are seeking a reasonable accommodation to assist with some aspect of the application process, such as a larger font or Braille on the written application.

Employers cannot generally ask questions about obvious vision impairment. However, if you “reasonably believe” the applicant will need an accommodation to perform the job, you may ask if one is needed, and if so, what type.

For example, if a job applicant uses a white cane when entering the room for a job interview, you can ask if they would need a reasonable accommodation in the workplace.

Once someone is hired or after they’ve received an offer, you may ask certain questions such as:

  • How long the applicant has had the vision impairment.
  • What, if any, vision the applicant has.
  • The applicant’s specific visual limitations and what reasonable accommodations may be needed to perform the job.

The takeaway

The EEOC guidance is expansive, and this article focuses on the main parts of it. Among the other areas it covers are:

  • How an employer should handle safety concerns about applicants and employees with visual disabilities.
  • How an employer can ensure that no employee is harassed because of a visual disability.
  • The importance of keeping medical records of workers with a vision disability confidential.
  • How to avoid discriminating against individuals who are vision-impaired.

Finally, considering that nearly one in five U.S. adults has some form of visual impairment, this guidance aims to help employers find a solution for reasonable accommodation. Many accommodations can be implemented with little cost to a business.

If you have questions about the new guidance, please call us.

Long-Haul COVID Can Be Covered Under ADA

The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission has issued guidance stating that employees suffering from “long COVID-19” may be protected under workplace disability discrimination statutes.

The guidance states that someone suffering from impairments resulting from long-haul COVID-19 symptoms can be considered “disabled” under the Americans with Disabilities Act and entitled to the same treatment as other disabled workers. But not in every case.

The EEOC emphasized that long-haul COVID symptoms can vary greatly from person to person and that eligibility would have to be determined on a case-by-case basis.

Employers should read the guidance, posted on the EEOC’s website on Dec. 14, to ensure they stay on the right side of the law if they are confronted with a worker who is battling COVID-19 symptoms for more than a few weeks and they ask for special accommodation under the ADA.

According to the guidance, a person infected with COVID-19 who is asymptomatic “or who has mild symptoms similar to those of the common cold or flu that resolve in a matter of weeks — with no other consequences — will not have an actual disability within the meaning of the ADA.”

But for those who have COVID-19 symptoms lasting more than a few weeks, and depending on their specific symptoms, a worker may have a “disability” if the illness is affecting them in any of the following ways:

Physical or mental impairment — The EEOC states that COVID-19 is a physiological condition affecting one or more body systems, which would be considered a disability under the ADA.

Substantially limiting a major life activity — “Major life activities” include both major bodily functions, such as respiratory, lung or heart function, and major activities, such as walking or concentrating. COVID-19 has been known to cause these issues. An impairment need only substantially limit one major bodily function or other major life activity to be substantially limiting.

Examples of COVID-19 cases that may be considered a disability under the ADA include:

  • An employee who experiences ongoing but intermittent multiple-day headaches, dizziness, brain fog and difficulty remembering or concentrating, which their doctor attributes to the coronavirus.
  • Someone who received supplemental oxygen for breathing difficulties during initial stages of treatment and continues to have shortness of breath, associated fatigue and other virus-related effects that last for several months.
  • Someone with heart palpitations, chest pain, shortness of breath and related effects due to the virus that last for several months.

What to do

As a result of this guidance, an employee experiencing long-haul COVID with symptoms that could be considered a disability may ask for reasonable accommodation for work. To determine if the employee is eligible, the employer and the employee must enter into an interactive process.

The employer can ask the worker to provide backup documentation about their disability or need for reasonable accommodation, such as notes from doctors outlining restrictions. The employer can also request that the employee sign a limited release allowing the employer to contact the employee’s health care provider directly.

If the worker doesn’t cooperate in providing the information, the employer can deny the accommodation request.

10 Potential Causes of Employee COVID-19 Lawsuits

The novel coronavirus that broke out in the winter has caused immeasurable suffering, both physical and economic.

For employers struggling to stay in business, this is a fraught time where mistakes in managing their workforces could lead to employee lawsuits. Here are 10 potential trouble spots to watch for.

Workplace safety – Businesses that still have employees working on-site run the risk that a single infected worker may send the virus ripping through the entire workforce.

While workers’ compensation laws may prevent employees from suing, their family members who become ill or suffer through a worker’s illness face no such constraints.

Sick time and paid leave – Congress enacted the Families First Coronavirus Response Act in March, guaranteeing full-time employees of small businesses 80 hours of sick leave (part-timers get a prorated amount.)

State and local laws may entitle workers to additional leave. Mistakes in administering these benefits could prompt lawsuits.

Workplace discrimination – Because the coronavirus originated in China, there have been reports of Asian-Americans being targets of racist actions. Employers must take care to avoid the appearance of making workplace decisions based even partly on employees’ race. 

Americans with Disabilities Act – The ADA prohibits discrimination against disabled individuals and requires employers to make reasonable accommodations for these workers.

Employees who become ill from COVID-19 (the illness caused by the virus) may suffer after-effects that include trouble breathing, speaking and working at their former pace. Employers must accommodate these workers to the extent that is practical.

Wage and hour violations – Non-exempt employees working remotely may be working more than their regular hours, missing rest and meal breaks, and using their own equipment.

Employers must keep careful records, reimburse employees for their use of personal equipment where warranted, and remind employees to take mandatory breaks.

Battered retirement plans – Stock markets have cratered since the beginning of the year, taking retirement account balances down with them.

Questions may be asked about whether fund managers did enough to limit the damage. Employees who are not satisfied with the answers may go to court. 

Health information privacy – Employee health information privacy is protected by law. Employers must secure the records of infected employees from unauthorized access by individuals within and outside the company.

Union contracts – Collective bargaining agreements may contain provisions that go beyond federal requirements for breaks, paid leave, layoff notices, and workplace safety.

Employers must keep their CBAs in mind and work with their unions to avoid contract violations.

Disparate impact from layoffs – If layoffs are necessary, employers must take a thoughtful approach when deciding which employees to part company with.

An appearance of singling out older workers or other protected classes under discrimination laws could invite lawsuits.

WARN Act – The Workers Adjustment and Retraining Notification Act requires some employers to provide at least 60 days’ notice before layoffs. Many businesses’ revenues fell off the cliff so quickly that they were unable to provide that much notice.

A final thought

The pandemic is a crisis that few businesses foresaw. The effects, including the litigation, may haunt them for a long time to come.