As the nation continues to recover from the pandemic, many employers have abandoned a conventional perspective on where, when, and how work is performed and have adopted flexible policies and practices to meet business objectives. While this can benefit all workers, employers might need to make modifications or provide flexibility beyond these operational adjustments to accommodate workers with disabilities when needed as a reasonable accommodation.
A reasonable accommodation is a modification or adjustment to a job, the work environment, or the way things usually are done that enables an individual with a disability to perform essential job duties. These kinds of modifications are implemented under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) when an individual’s disability-related limitations impact their ability to perform job duties. Like many of the adjustments that were made by employers to keep people working in response to the COVID-19 pandemic (e.g., telework), reasonable accommodations can enable qualified workers with disabilities to stay on-the-job or return to the workplace.
JAN receives inquiries about accommodation solutions to enable workers with disabilities to avoid exposure to COVID-19, to safely return to the work environment, and to work at home. Work environments, types of jobs, and risks of exposure vary greatly. As employers return employees to the workplace, they should follow the evolving COVID-19 guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and from state and local public health authorities. The CDC offers worker safety and support guidance for various industries, jobs, and environments. This information is useful for exploring accommodation solutions for workers with disabilities as it offers infection control strategies specific to a range of industries. These strategies might enable workers with disabilities to return to the workplace when the risk of exposure to COVID-19 is a work-related barrier.
JAN offers the following general strategies for accommodating employees with disabilities to return to the workplace, but it is necessary to individually analyze each accommodation situation to provide customized reasonable accommodation solutions. For further information, please contact JAN to explore situations and solutions.
General Solutions for Limiting the Risk of Exposure to COVID-19
- Post information from the CDC regarding ways to protect against the spread of COVID-19 in the workplace. The CDC offers communication resources that can be used to remind employees how to protect themselves from COVID-19.
- Require employees to stay home if they are sick or exhibiting symptoms of illness and apply attendance and leave policies that are flexible.
- Request or allow employees to wear a mask, face covering, and/or face shield to limit the risk of exposure to COVID-19. A face shield alone may not be an adequate substitute for a high-quality mask (e.g., N95).
- Provide other types of personal protective equipment (PPE) (e.g., gloves, gowns, etc.), when needed to safely perform job duties.
- Clean and disinfect public spaces and high-touch surfaces frequently. Provide cleaning and disinfecting products and require workers to wipe-down high-touch surfaces and shared workstations after each use.
- Limit the need to touch communal surfaces; offer automatic door openers, hands-free/foot pull door openers, touchless tools, touchless faucets, touchless waste receptacles, etc.
- Post signs reminding employees to wash their hands or use hand sanitizer when soap and water cannot be used.
- Work with building maintenance to provide effective ventilation for reducing the airborne concentration of COVID-19 and the risk of transmission.
Solutions to Address Airborne Transmission of COVID-19
- Improve ventilation, increase air filtration, and/or disinfect the air. COVID-19 is primarily transmitted through the air. These solutions can directly reduce the number of virus-containing particles in indoor air (JAMA Network, 2022).
- Make improvements to indoor air quality at the building level by upgrading HVAC systems or installing air cleaners or on a room-by-room basis, such as opening a window, running a fan, installing germicidal ultraviolet light fixtures, or adding a portable air cleaner (White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, 2022).
- Use air cleaners and filters to mitigate the spread of COVID-19. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) resource Air Cleaners, HVAC Filters, and Coronavirus (COVID-19) includes specific guidance on choosing portable air cleaners.
- Follow recommendations provided by the American Society of Heating, Refrigerating and Air-Conditioning Engineers (ASHRAE) Epidemic Task Force for reducing airborne infectious aerosol exposure.
- Use the EPA’s Clean Air in Buildings Challenge guiding principles and best practices to improve indoor air quality and protect public health, which can include:
- Creating an action plan for clean indoor air
- Optimizing fresh air ventilation
- Enhancing air filtration and cleaning
Solutions to Address Physical Distancing Needs
- Establish physical distancing policies and practices and use physical/social distancing signage to remind employees to stay at least six feet apart, when possible.
- Mark floors and public spaces with textured tape, highly visible tape, flow arrows, etc., to create single direction paths of travel and limited/no access areas.
- Stagger or space-out workstations to increase distance between workers and allow workers who have a private workspace to close the door.
- Install a protective panel/shield, curtain, or other physical barrier (e.g., table) between workstations to separate employees and customers where physical distancing is not possible.
- Limit the number of people permitted in communal spaces (e.g., meeting and break rooms).
- Modify schedules to limit the density of people in the workplace (e.g., stagger or rotate shifts and days on and off, allow breaks, allow alternating telework days, etc.) and/or allow alternative and flexible work hours to limit interaction with others.
- Modify a policy concerning where and when work is performed to allow telework, flexible work arrangements, alternative work location, etc.
- Modify a work schedule or allow telework to address COVID-19-related limitations in commuting to and from work (e.g., risk of exposure during commute or limited access to transportation).
- Restructure job duties to eliminate or reduce the frequency of the need to perform tasks requiring a mask and/or face-to-face contact with others.
Solutions to Address Communication Needs
- Allow communication among employees, and/or with customers/clients, etc., using remote methods (e.g., phone, text, real time chat, remote video, email, etc.).
- Conduct group meetings and events using remote and virtual formats (e.g., conference call or virtual meeting platform); limit the number of people in attendance for face-to-face meetings and training; hold face-to-face meetings and training in open, well-ventilated spaces, in conjunction with physical distancing and masks; or conduct group gatherings in outside spaces where people can be physically distanced.
- Use an accessible virtual meeting platform for group meetings and collaboration.
- Modify training methods to include remote, online, limited face-to-face, hybrid, and flexible formats.
- When masks are worn in the workplace, consider the communication needs of workers who read lips. It might be necessary for coworkers to use a clear mask or face shield, to video chat from a different room without a mask, or to use other methods of communicating using text (e.g., texting, portable text communication device).
If the changes laid out above cannot sufficiently limit the risk of exposure to COVID-19 in the workplace, and if allowing employees to work at home creates an undue hardship for the employer, consider providing access to leave under applicable federal, state, and local requirements and employer leave policies.
Reasonable accommodation strategies can enable workers with disabilities to continue working at home and/or return to the workplace and can also benefit workers without disabilities who have concerns about virus exposure. To learn more about reasonable accommodations and the ADA, contact JAN.