On April 29, 2024 – for the first time in more than twenty years – the EEOC issued its long-awaited updated Enforcement Guidance on Harassment in the Workplace. The updated guidance, which supersedes the EEOC’s decades-old guidance from the 1980’s and 1990’s, now addresses subjects arising in the modern workplace, including the rise of remote work, the #MeToo movement, and the U.S. Supreme Court’s  decision in Bostock v. Clayton County, 590 U.S. 644 (2020), in which the Court held that Title VII of the Civil Rights Act protects workers from discrimination based on their sexual orientation and gender identity. A few key updates that employers should be aware of include the following:  

Conduct in virtual environments

With the increase in virtual and remote work, the Guidance explains that conduct within a virtual work environment can constitute a hostile work environment. Stated differently, the existence of harassment and a hostile work environment is not limited exclusively to a physical workplace. To illustrate its point, the Guidance identified several example scenarios where harassment could exist in a virtual or remote workplace, such as sexist or ableist comments made during a video meeting or typed into a group chat, “racist imagery that is visible in an employee’s workspace while the employee participates in a video meeting,” or “sexual comments made during a video meeting about a bed being near an employee in the video image.”Continue Reading EEOC issues long-awaited enforcement guidance on workplace harassment

On April 15, 2024, the U.S. Equal Opportunity Commission (EEOC) issued its final rule implementing the federal Pregnant Worker’s Fairness Act (PWFA). The PWFA, which went into effect in June 2023,1 requires covered employers to provide reasonable accommodations for employees’ known limitations relating to pregnancy, childbirth, or related medical protections. The PFWA builds on existing pregnancy-related protections and employer obligations under Title VII, the Americans with Disabilities Act, and many state and local laws.Continue Reading EEOC issues final rule on the Pregnant Workers Fairness Act

Employers routinely strive to find innovative ways to recruit, retain, and manage top talent. Proponents of artificial intelligence (AI) advocate that it can be a powerful tool for such purposes given that AI can be used to collect and analyze massive amounts of candidate and employee data in many different ways and in a fraction of the time needed by human analysts. By way of example, AI may be used in the hiring process to analyze qualifications or mine data from resumes and other submissions by candidates. It also may be used to assess an individual’s perceived fitness for a particular job, including their personality, aptitude, cognitive skills, or other perceived qualities, based on their performance during screening tests, video interviews, or other virtual interactions. AI also may be used to monitor and analyze employees’ working patterns or productivity based on measurable output, including even the most fundamental of activities such as keystrokes. Employers might presume that, because this is data-driven, there is no risk of unlawful discrimination or bias.Continue Reading EEOC issues guidance on employer use of AI under the ADA

Mandatory vaccine policies became even more of a scorching hot topic after the Biden Administration announced its Path Out of the Pandemic initiative (which we previously wrote about here). Some employees may have a legitimate medical reason for refusing a COVID-19 vaccine (e.g., an allergy to vaccine components). But what about an employee claiming to have a religious objection to taking the vaccine? We have recently seen clients experiencing an influx in requests from employees seeking a religious accommodation to be exempt from the company’s mandatory vaccine policy. Below, we discuss some of the complex legal and practical issues employers should consider when navigating these unchartered waters.

Quick recap of the “religious exemption”

Title VII of the Civil Rights Act (Title VII), and similar state and local anti-discrimination laws, prohibit employment discrimination on the basis of religion. To comply with those laws, employers are generally required to accommodate an employee’s “sincerely held” religious belief, observance or practice. A religious accommodation is an adjustment to the work environment that, once implemented, allows the employee to continue working while also complying with his or her religious beliefs. In guidance issued earlier this year, the EEOC stated “[t]he law protects not only people who belong to traditional, organized religions, such as Buddhism, Christianity, Hinduism, Islam, and Judaism, but also others who have sincerely held religious, ethical or moral beliefs.” Even if the religious assertion seems irrational or is not the actual teaching of a recognized religious group or denomination, the relevant standard under Title VII is the sincerity of the individual’s belief.

Determining what a “sincerely held” religious belief means

Here is where it gets tricky. The EEOC and courts have interpreted “religious belief” very broadly under Title VII. An employee does not have to show they attend a place of worship, are a member of an organized religion, or even believe in a deity. Nor does an employee seeking a religious accommodation need to provide a note from their priest or spiritual advisor verifying that employee’s belief. According to the EEOC, a “religious belief” includes any “moral or ethical beliefs as to what is right and wrong which are sincerely held with the strength of traditional religious views.” In its Compliance Manual, the EEOC warns employers should not be in the business of trying to decide whether a person holds a religious belief for the “proper” reasons. The inquiry should focus on the sincerity of the belief; not the motives or reasons for holding that belief in the first place.Continue Reading Help! We have had a major influx in religious accommodation requests from our mandatory vaccine policy

For more than a year, many American workers have been working from home. Now, as restrictions are lifting across the country, employers are beginning to call employees back to the office. Employers may see an uptick in requests to work remotely, particularly given the popularity of working from home. In responding to such requests, employers must be mindful of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and similar state laws.

Large portions of the American workforce report that they enjoy working from home, and the pandemic has shown telework is possible.

A recent study conducted by Harvard Business School Online reveals that some employees are not interested in returning to the office. The survey showed that 81 percent of respondents either don’t want to go back to the office, or would prefer a hybrid schedule (allowing them to work from home 2-3 days a week) going forward. One in three employees report that they felt that their overall performance and quality of their work had improved in the remote work environment, and the same percentage indicated that they are able to focus more at home than they are in the office.Continue Reading Navigating post-pandemic telework requests

New Jersey has confirmed that employers can mandate their employees be vaccinated for COVID-19. This move aligns New Jersey with federal guidance previously issued by the EEOC. Other states, such as California, have also issued similar guidance and the trend is expected to continue.

Consistent with federal guidance from the EEOC, the New Jersey guidance provides that employers may require employees to be vaccinated to be present on the worksite, however, employers must provide reasonable accommodations for employees who: (i) have a disability, (ii) have been advised not to get the vaccine while pregnant or breastfeeding, or (iii) who will not get the vaccine due to sincerely held religious beliefs. Note, however, that if no reasonable accommodation can be provided, an employer can enforce its policy of excluding unvaccinated employees from the workplace.
Continue Reading New Jersey issues guidance confirming employers can mandate COVID-19 vaccines

On January 7, 2021, the EEOC proposed two rules, under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and the Genetic Information Nondiscrimination Act (GINA), designed to clarify what incentives employers may offer employees and their family members for joining employer-sponsored wellness programs.  In the 2017 case AARP v. EEOC, the then-existing regulations on employer-sponsored wellness programs were revoked.  Since then, employers have lacked guidance on how to structure wellness programs without violating the requirements of both the ADA and GINA that individuals’ disclosures of health information be voluntary.  The EEOC’s new rules seek to balance the competing interests.  However, given the Biden Administration’s recently issued freeze on proposed rules that have not yet been enacted, employers should not act on the EEOC’s proposed rules yet.

Legal framework

Under the ADA, employers cannot require employees to disclose medical information that might enable employers to discriminate against them.  Similarly, under GINA, the disclosure of the health information of a family member of an employee must also be voluntary.  In 2016, the EEOC finalized rules that outlined how employers could incentivize employees and their family members to participate in wellness programs that required the disclosure of health information without violating the ADA or GINA.  Under the 2016 rules, an employer could offer an incentive of up to 30 percent of the total cost of self-coverage without the wellness program running afoul of the ADA and GINA.  However, in AARP v. EEOC, the United States District Court for the District of Columbia held that the EEOC had failed to provide a reasoned explanation for its 30 percent incentive limit, and as a result, the EEOC removed the incentive sections from the ADA and GINA regulations.Continue Reading EEOC proposes new rules on permissible incentives for employer-sponsored wellness programs

Texas employers who have opted out of workers’ compensation coverage may face significantly increased workplace risks in the weeks and months ahead. All employers will face unique challenges due to the risk of workplace exposure to COVID-19. But, the potential liability from COVID-19 workplace illnesses is particularly problematic for Texas employers who have opted out of the workers’ compensation system. Specifically, Texas employers who have opted out of the workers’ compensation system will not have the benefit of workers’ compensation’s preclusive effects. They face the substantial risk that simple negligence will be enough to support employee claims arising from COVID-19 exposure. As a result, it is imperative for opt-out Texas employers to carefully review and update their workplace health and safety practices to maximize mitigation of any risk of workplace transmission of the coronavirus.
Continue Reading Texas employers who do not participate in workers’ compensation face heightened workplace liability risks as employees return from COVID-19 quarantine

On March 27, 2020, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) posted a pre-recorded webinar called “Ask the EEOC” on its website. The purpose of the webinar was to answer COVID-19 workplace questions arising under the federal employment discrimination laws the EEOC enforces.  Prior to recording the webinar, and in an effort to ensure that the information provided was relevant to common COVID-19 workplace concerns, the EEOC welcomed public submission of questions. The EEOC reported that “almost 500” questions were submitted. Reed Smith submitted 21 questions, all of which had subparts, designed to gain insight on practical questions likely to be of interest to our employer client base. In the 42-minute webinar, 22 questions were answered by three EEOC representatives: Carol Miaskoff, Associate Legal Counsel of EEOC; Sharon Rennert, Senior Attorney Advisor for ADA and GINA; and Jeanne Goldberg, Acting Assistant Legal Counsel for ADA and GINA.

For the most part, the ground covered during the webinar is familiar to compliance-minded employers generally aware of their EEO obligations. A few questions posed and answered by the EEOC generated useful practical guidance. But one simply worded and powerful question – Is COVID-19 a disability under the ADA? – prompted a surprising “that is unclear at this time” answer from the EEOC.

For purposes of this summary, we selected the five questions posed and answered by the EEOC that we believe are of most interest to employers. Those five are Questions 2, 4, 8, 16, and 21. For each of the five, we provide below the question as posed by the EEOC, a summary of its answer during the webinar, and our commentary.Continue Reading “Ask the EEOC” whether COVID-19 is a disability: Its answer may surprise you

The sci-fi film Minority Report envisions the year 2054, when the U.S. government uses predictive foreknowledge of “precogs” to apprehend criminals before their crimes are ever committed, thereby reducing future harm. More than 15 years after the popular film was made, the Seventh Circuit’s decision in Shell v. Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railway Company arrives at a similar result. The Shell court held that employers do not violate the ADA when they use current predictors of future disabilities, such as obesity, to reject candidates for employment, thereby reducing future costs. This ground-breaking opinion opens the door for employer use of predictive tools such as genetic testing and AI algorithms to discern which applicants or employees are most likely to develop future (costly) disabilities, and exclude them from the workforce before disabilities arise, and before legally protected status attaches. In other words, the opinion allows employers to exclude someone based on a status of “likely to develop a future disability,” without violating the ADA, because the individual does not currently have the status of “disabled.”
Continue Reading The future is now: Employer use of present-day medical information to predict future disabilities does not violate the ADA