Employers whose businesses continue to operate are obviously concerned about the coronavirus spreading through their worksites, so many have started testing their workers. Recent U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission guidance authorized employers to conduct COVID-19 testing and check temperatures of employees. But doing so could expose a business to a number of employee legal actions from invasion of privacy to discrimination and wage and hour charges, say employment law attorneys.
While the EEOC guidance refers to existing Americans with Disabilities Act regulations requiring that any mandatory medical test of employees be “job related and consistent with business necessity,” it left many questions unanswered.
So, if you decide to start testing workers, you will have to navigate a number of issues, such as:
- Which tests are appropriate?
- What are the standards for protecting workers’ privacy?
- Should employees be paid for the time they wait in line to be tested?
- Should you get written consent?
- How will you ensure that the policy is applied consistently?
Employment law experts say there is often a surge in employee lawsuits when new rules or guidance are being issued, and more so with such a sensitive issue as one’s health during a pandemic.
The kinds of claims that employers may see as a result of employee testing include:
- Invasion of privacy
- Failure to protect employees’ personal health information
- Wage and hour actions if waiting for testing takes time.
What you can do
Typically, employers would not be allowed to test a worker’s temperature for a specific disease, but these are unusual times and the threat of infection is too great.
Most lawyers are interpreting the EEOC guidance as meaning that employers may take steps to determine whether employees entering the workplace have COVID-19 because an individual with the coronavirus will pose a direct threat to the health of others. Therefore, an employer may choose to administer COVID-19 testing to employees before they enter the workplace to determine if they have the virus.
To cover your bases, you should plan your testing in detail, including:
- How you will be conducting tests (providing at-home test swab kits, testing upon arrival, or offsite).
- Designate a person who is authorized to conduct tests.
- Document how you will be administering tests.
- Plan for how you will account for false positives or false negatives.
- Decide how often should you be testing.
- Budget for the testing.
- What will you do if a worker tests positive or has a fever (if you are just checking temperatures)?
- Don’t have exceptions to the policy or, if you do, keep them to a minimum. The more exceptions to a policy, the more likely you are to be sued.
- The policy should comply with guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, such as using non-contact thermometers and ensuring social distancing during the process.
The risk of being sued when administering testing is real and you should do everything you can to make sure it’s carried out fairly and consistently. But even if you do everything by the book, you can still be sued.
During bad economic times when people are losing their jobs, employee lawsuits tend to rise and, even if you are eventually found to have acted within the confines of the law, you still have to pay the legal fees.
One type of policy that could step in to protect you is employment practices liability insurance. EPLI will cover awards and legal costs in employee-initiated lawsuits. Each policy is different though, so it’s best to consult with us first.
If you are testing or are considering testing your staff, you may want to consider it.