COVID-19 and Workers with Disabilities

By Kylie Ora Lobell May 21, 2020
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woman holding surgical mask

​As many businesses start to reopen, they are creating guidelines to keep their employees safe. New protocols include requiring workers to stay six feet apart from each other (and from customers, if appropriate), wear face masks and keep their hands clean at all times.

While some employees may be able to adhere to these conditions, workers with disabilities could be putting their own lives in danger just by going to work. And staying compliant with these new rules may be a hardship they physically can't manage.

"No reasonable employer wants to be responsible for putting an employee directly at risk for contracting COVID-19," said SHRM Foundation Executive Director Wendi Safstrom. "And having knowledge that there are employees who fall into a population that is more susceptible to becoming gravely ill or even dying—including certain individuals with disabilities, older workers, pregnant workers or parents of newborn babies—poses a duty to employers to mitigate such risks."

As they attempt to return their workforce to the new normal, human resource professionals need to be vigilant about accommodating employees with disabilities to help them feel protected and welcome in the workplace. Here are some steps to take.

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Coronavirus and COVID-19

Review OSHA Guidelines

Before reopening, review the OSHA guidelines for COVID-19, which include the most recent findings and guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

"OSHA will be monitoring employer compliance primarily through investigations in the event of a COVID death or hospitalization, or employee complaints," said Frank C. Morris Jr., an attorney at Epstein Becker Green in Washington, D.C.

Additionally, an HR department team member should be assigned to monitor these guidelines for updates and report them back to the team.

"Have someone dedicated to reading and deeply looking into current practices and what needs to change," said Jes Osrow, SHRM-SCP, head of learning and organization development at Quartet Health in New York. "Make sure there [are] dedicated and ongoing responsibilities assigned to a role and that person has access to advise leadership."

Create a Reopening Plan

Once you've completed a review of OSHA guidelines, create a plan for welcoming employees with disabilities back to the office, said Betty S.W. Graumlich, a partner in the labor and employment practice at Reed Smith in Richmond, Va.

"It is important that employers keep all of their employees' needs in mind when creating a reopening plan," she said. "For employees with known disabilities, employers should reach out to ask if they have any additional needs."

Encouraging that direct input is critical.

"We recommend engaging in a conversation to better understand what the employee needs, especially if the employer is unclear on those needs," Safstrom said. "Documentation from their doctor may be necessary to help provide this clarity. These individuals may ask to telework, while others may be amenable to wearing face masks and gloves or working in environments where there is little to no contact with others. There is no one-size-fits-all approach to these situations."

If an employee has a respiratory condition and cannot wear a standard mask, for example, ask if there's a different kind of mask or face covering that's more comfortable, or if a few days to acclimate to wearing a mask would help, said Claire Odom, senior program manager at Workplace Initiative by Understood in New York.

"If neither of these alternatives is a workable solution, consider whether the employee can continue to work remotely, if there is a closed workspace they can use to limit exposure or if there are other solutions the employee has in mind," she said.

Make the Workplace Accessible

If employees with disabilities say they are comfortable coming back into the workplace, then HR must ensure that the new environment is accessible, Odom said. This includes placing sanitation stations and automatic hand sanitizer dispensers within reach and storing disinfectant wipes on lower shelves and in lower cabinets. Expectations need to be communicated through writing and signs, as well as verbally in team meetings.

Flexibility also is key. How the workplace needs to function this summer may change by the fall depending on the spread of the virus, the CDC's recommendations and the requirements of workers with disabilities. That's why policies should always be flexible and frequently reviewed. 

"Employers need to remember their duty to reasonably accommodate is an on-going duty and not a 'one and done' situation," Morris said. "Thus, if an accommodation isn't working or conditions change, the employer must further engage in the interactive process to attempt to find a new reasonable accommodation."

Employers must stay as connected as possible to their employees during this time, Graumlich said. For some employees with disabilities, working from home could exacerbate mental health problems, especially if they're isolated. For other employees, returning to work could create a much greater danger to their physical health or stress level.

"Employers should try to be flexible and creative when dealing with employees with disabilities, but always document each and every accommodation—or offered accommodation—given to the employee in a letter or e-mail," she said.

Ensure Safety for Everyone

As an HR professional, your goal is to make sure everyone in the workplace feels empowered to do the best job possible. If they have a disability and are worried about COVID-19, employees may not be able to properly perform their duties. But if you don't understand what they're experiencing or can't figure out a way to accommodate them, simply ask. 

"Above all, two-way communication is critical to helping employees with disabilities adapt to the new work environment," Odom said. "We have to trust ourselves and our employees to make the right decisions in these difficult and unprecedented times. If you don't know how to best support an employee with a disability, chances are that employee has some creative and practical ideas that will set them up for success."

Additional resources can be found at the SHRM Foundation's Employing Abilities at Work website at https://employingabilities.org/.

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