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Treat Employee COVID Requests with Care

covid vaccine

Employees in two different states recently convinced courts to allow lawsuits to proceed against employers who allegedly mishandled their requests for COVID-related workplace accommodations.

In the first case, which was filed in Massachusetts, a 55-year-old project engineer who had high blood pressure and lived with his 81-year-old diabetic mother received consistently positive reviews during his 15 years with his employer. In March 2020, he began working remotely when the governor ordered all non-essential businesses closed at the start of the pandemic. During that time, the plaintiff said he was able to do his job more than adequately.

The employer ordered everyone back to work only 10 days after the governor’s order, unless an employee received approval from HR or management to stay remote. The worker in question submitted the required request and asked for a floating holiday while awaiting approval. Ultimately, the company denied his request despite approving similar requests from two other engineers in his department. He was fired at the end of March for “job abandonment” when the company continued to deny his request despite his vulnerabilities.

When the employee filed disability and age discrimination claims, the employer argued that his blood pressure didn’t constitute a qualifying disability that had to be accommodated under state law.

But a U.S. District Court judge disagreed, finding that high blood pressure could indeed be a disability in the pandemic context because it substantially limited the plaintiff’s ability to work in close proximity to others. His age discrimination claim survived dismissal too, with the judge determining that his age was a factor that rendered him particularly vulnerable to COVID.

Meanwhile, in Alabama, a hospital employee who suffered from physical and mental impairments that placed her at high risk of COVID-related complications asked to be assigned to “non-COVID” floors as an accommodation when the pandemic hit. Though her supervisor initially granted her request, a new job-triaging system apparently resulted in her repeatedly being assigned to departments with COVID patients. When she protested, she received a new work schedule, including a work assignment on a day she didn’t have childcare. When she couldn’t work that day, she was terminated.

She sought to hold the employer accountable in federal court for failing to accommodate her disability. The hospital argued that her request was unreasonable for a hospital worker during a pandemic.

The court refused to dismiss the claim, pointing out that the worker never demanded that she be assigned to departments where there was zero chance of COVID exposure. Instead she asked to be assigned to locations where the risk was lower, for example, floors without known COVID patients.

While pandemic realities make it difficult for employers to balance their staffing needs with concerns for employee safety, these cases demonstrate that courts will expect a legitimate effort to make all possible accommodations. An employment attorney can help counsel you through the process.