As we previously posted, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) CDC recently issued guidance on reopening the workplace. In its latest update on June 11, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) updated its COVID-19 Frequently Asked Questions (the Guidance) to provide further guidance on returning employees to the workplace. Notably, the Guidance covers (1) the return of high-risk workers to the workplace, (2) how to properly handle COVID-19-related accommodations requests, and (3) how to appropriately respond to pandemic-related harassment. As we discussed in our last post, employers should be wary of toeing the line on the issues highlighted below, as they may become prevalent in the wave of litigation expected to arise in the wake of the pandemic.
Employers may not involuntarily exclude older or pregnant workers from the workplace
In its updated Guidance, the EEOC cautions that the Age Discrimination in Employment Act (ADEA) – which prohibits discrimination in the workplace against individuals aged 40 and older – does not permit an employer to involuntarily exclude an employee from the workplace based solely on their age, “even if the employer acted for benevolent reasons such as protecting the employee due to a higher risk of severe illness from COVID-19.” The Guidance specifically pertains to employees aged 65 years and older, who are considered by the CDC to be at a higher risk of serious illness due to COVID-19. Moreover, the EEOC has stated that employers may still provide flexible working arrangements for workers aged 65 and older, and that doing so will not be viewed as treating younger workers (ages 40 to 64) less favorably.
Additionally, under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act (Title VII), employers are prohibited from involuntarily excluding from the workplace, furloughing, or placing on leave, pregnant employees, even if the intent behind the decision is to protect the employee’s health and safety.