Ask HR: During COVID-19, How Much Health Information Should Workers Disclose?

By Johnny C. Taylor, Jr., SHRM-SCP August 14, 2020
Ask HR: During COVID-19, How Much Health Information Should Workers Disclose?

SHRM President and CEO Johnny C. Taylor, Jr., is answering HR questions as part of a series for USA Today. The questions are submitted by readers, and Taylor's answers below have been edited for length and clarity.

Do you have an HR or work-related question you'd like him to answer? Submit it here.


Question: Our office allowed us to work from home when the COVID-19 pandemic started but took it back once states started to reopen. They are insisting I provide a doctor's note to continue working remotely. I shared my doctor's note, but they are further asking what my specific underlying conditions are and claiming that the conditions must be listed within the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines. Is this violating HIPAA? – Anonymous

Johnny C. Taylor, Jr: Requiring a doctor's note and information about your health isn't quite a violation of the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA). It's not out of the ordinary for an employer to ask for additional information.

Keep in mind, teleworking has skyrocketed in the past several months, and not all organizations have adjusted. Prior to the pandemic, only around 3 percent of workers were telecommuting on a full-time basis. After the outbreak and the corresponding global shift to remote work, that number popped to more than 64 percent.

An employer may request documentation on medical conditions for a variety of reasons. This could include making sure employees aren't taking unfair advantage of teleworking—especially if it's a new situation for an organization. It could also be out of an abundance of caution. Remember, this is a pandemic, and an organization's top priority is keeping the workforce healthy.

According to Equal Employment Opportunity Commission guidance, if an employee does not want to provide specific information about his or her condition, then the employee can provide general documentation, but employers can require sufficient details to provide an appropriate accommodation fitting the nature of the condition.

Additionally, an individual with an underlying medical condition that may put him or her at high risk of death or serious illness from contracting COVID-19 can be eligible for disability and require a reasonable accommodation, such as working from home. But the employee should be prepared to describe the nature and severity of the condition and the extent to which it limits his or her ability to perform the job.

While you're right in that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention lists only some of the conditions that may put someone at a higher risk for contracting COVID-19, it doesn't mean that your company would be unable to provide an acceptable accommodation.

Ultimately, it's critical to be transparent with your employer about your personal circumstances and express your concerns appropriately. Stay safe and healthy!

SHRM Resource Spotlight
Coronavirus and COVID-19

Q: I've worked at my company for 1.5 years. My boss knows I'm a strong performer and promised to promote me. However, my boss's boss wanted me to report to a different supervisor. I said no, and I didn't get the promotion. But since my boss knows I'm good at what I do, he always asks me to review other people's work. Is this fair?

Taylor: It sounds like you are going above and beyond at your job and demonstrating a strong work ethic. It seems like your colleagues can count on you to take on new tasks and review their work. Accepting responsibilities outside of your job title—especially if you feel inadequately compensated—might not feel fair. But it depends on who you ask.

With unemployment in the U.S. around 10 percent, the labor market is flooded with many talented people in search of opportunity. Those workers without work would likely say, yes, it is fair.

Employees in equivalent roles within a company should expect to be treated similarly. But going above and beyond can set you apart from the group and on a path to future promotions, accolades and rewards. And it's not abnormal for an employer to make full use of an employee's skills without providing immediate recognition, monetary or otherwise.

Unfair isn't illegal. So, what can be done?

When your boss asks for your help, don't say no. You mention that you've been with your company for less than two years, so you likely have not yet established the type of relationship with your boss in which you can say no to new responsibilities. Unless you are circumstantially unable to complete a task, saying no could be perceived as uncooperative, rude or even insubordinate.

Based on what you shared, it is clear they believe you are ready for promotion. To move forward, consider exercising more flexibility, and be open to working for a different manager or department. Without flexibility, you may not move up soon—or at all.

Recognize new opportunities when they arise. Continue to showcase your talent and handle new assignments and responsibilities in stride. Your can-do attitude will be appreciated, and that promotion you were looking for—be it in a title, pay or otherwise—might be just around the corner.



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Asking Vaccination Status

The Department of Health & Human Services has clarified the HIPAA Privacy Rule does not prohibit an employer from requesting an employee’s vaccination status as part of the terms and conditions of employment.

The Department of Health & Human Services has clarified the HIPAA Privacy Rule does not prohibit an employer from requesting an employee’s vaccination status as part of the terms and conditions of employment.



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