Many employees with disabilities are encountering a need for new accommodations during the COVID-19 pandemic.  For example, employees may now have greater health risks and require more protection.  Employees with mental health conditions may need accommodations to address symptoms triggered by pandemic-related stress.  In addition, employees relying on lip reading may need accommodations to communicate while mouths are masked and those relying on public transportation may need new ways to work while they no longer have access to safe transportation.

Consequently, many employees now want more information about requesting and negotiating accommodations related to the pandemic.  Below are questions and answers based on guidance from the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), the federal agency that enforces the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA).  Other laws may apply so if you need legal advice, check with an attorney or contact your state protection and advocacy office for more help.

1.    If I have a medical condition that is causing me problems during the pandemic, how do I know whether I have a disability and whether I’m entitled to accommodations at work?

Under the ADA, you are entitled to accommodations if you meet the definition of disability, are qualified for the job, and work for an employer that has at least 15 employees.  There isn’t a set list of medical conditions that meet the definition of disability, but the definition is intended to be interpreted broadly.  Please see the resource below that fully explains the definition of a disability.  If you’re not sure whether you have a disability, you can ask your employer for an accommodation and see if it is provided.

For more information about the ADA in general, see Your Employment Rights as an Individual with a Disability.

For information about the definition of disability, see How to Determine Whether a Person Has a Disability under the Americans with Disabilities Act Amendments Act (ADAAA).

2.    Can I ask my employer for an accommodation related to the pandemic if I didn’t previously disclose my disability or need an accommodation?

Yes. Under the ADA, employees do not have to request accommodations at a certain time.  Employers have a duty to provide reasonable accommodations whenever requested by an employee with a disability.

For more information, see Enforcement Guidance on Reasonable Accommodation and Undue Hardship under the ADA, questions 4 and 32.  

3.    Can I get an accommodation if I only need it temporarily until the pandemic is over?

Yes. If you are a qualified individual with a disability as defined under the ADA, your employer must consider providing accommodations for any limitations you have related to your disability, even if temporary.

4.    How do I disclose my disability and ask for an accommodation?

There is no one right way to disclose a disability or to request an accommodation, but JAN has provided suggestions in the following publications:

5.    What type of information can my employer request when I ask for an accommodation?

If your disability and need for an accommodation are not obvious, your employer can ask you to provide medical documentation that shows you have a disability and need an accommodation.  Your employer can also ask questions to help clarify why you need an accommodation and explore alternative accommodations, if necessary.  But your employer, in response to a request for reasonable accommodation, cannot ask for documentation that is unrelated to determining the existence of your disability and the necessity for an accommodation.  This means that in most situations an employer cannot request a person's complete medical records because they are likely to contain information unrelated to the disability at issue and the need for accommodation.

For more information, see Medical Inquiry in Response to an Accommodation Request.

If you have trouble getting documentation during the pandemic, you should let your employer know and ask for more time.

6.    Does my employer have to allow me to continue teleworking after calling employees back to work?

It depends on the specific situation.  If you need to telework because of your disability and can perform the essential functions of your job at home, then your employer must consider your request.  If there is no disability-related limitation that requires teleworking, then the employer does not have to provide telework as an accommodation.  Employers always have the option of exploring other possible accommodations.  Consequently, your employer might want to talk to you about other reasonable accommodations that would enable you to safely work.  If your employer wants to discuss these other options, you should participate in the conversation.    Employers can deny accommodations requests if they create an undue hardship.  This means, for example, that it’s too difficult or expensive for the employer to provide.  Importantly, if you can’t perform your job from home, then your employer doesn’t have to allow you to telework.  

However, many employers are willing to allow employees with disabilities to continue teleworking during the pandemic so it might be worth asking your employer.  Also, if you can do part of your job from home, it might be possible to at least work at home some of the time.

7.    What should I do if my employer offers an alternative accommodation, but it won’t enable me to work safely?

Under the ADA, if an employer offers an effective accommodation, the accommodation process ends.  The employer providing the accommodation has the ultimate discretion to choose between effective accommodations.  If your employer offers an ineffective option, you need to immediately let the employer know.  JAN has a publication and sample letter to help employees in this situation: How to Inform an Employer That an Accommodation is Not Effective and a Sample Letter.

8.    If I had COVID-19 and continue to have ongoing limitations, am I covered under the ADA?

It’s not clear yet whether having COVID-19 or its after effects will meet the ADA definition of disability. If you are left with limitations after recovering from COVID-19 and they are creating work-related problems, you might consider asking your employer for accommodations.

9.    What can I do if my employer won’t provide the accommodations I need?

Your options vary depending on your situation, but here are some possibilities:

Try to find out why your accommodation was denied.  This might help you decide what to do next.  For example, if your employer denied your request because your medical information did not show that you have a disability, you can provide additional information.  Or, if your employer decided that the accommodation you requested would pose an undue hardship, you can suggest other options.

If you do not think your employer had a valid reason to deny your request, or the employer will not tell you why the request was denied, you can appeal the decision by going up the chain of command, filing a grievance with your union if you have one, or filing a complaint with the EEOC or your state enforcing agency.

10.    Where can I get more information about the ADA and accommodations during the pandemic?

JAN has a page dedicated to information about the pandemic and you can contact us to discuss your specific situation if you need accommodation ideas.